Tomie Ohtake

Untitled (from the series Blind Paintings)


Tomie Ohtake 1913–2015
Original title
Sem titulo (da serie Pinturas cegas)
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 850 × 750 mm
frame: 890 × 789 × 60 mm
Presented by Ella Fontanals Cisneros 2016


Untitled 1962 is an oil painting with an abstract composition consisting of a large central spiral where ripples of layered white and blue paint converge, recalling some form of cosmic phenomenon. The thin layers of paint have been meticulously overlaid in order to achieve a complex layering which reveals the artist’s characteristically painstaking and methodical process. Ohtake allowed natural rhythm to infuse her compositions whilst at the same time tempering them. Like all of her works, this painting is left untitled. The Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920–1988) stated of her friend’s work, ‘A painting by Tomie has no title. It is.’ (Lygia Clark quoted in Instituto Tomie Ohtake 2009, p.71.) Though born in Japan, Ohtake moved to Brazil in 1936 and this painting would have been made there.

Untitled belongs to a group of thirty works referred to by the artist as ‘blind paintings’ (pinturas cegas). Made in a state of ‘non-seeing’, they are the result of a ‘blind’ process in which Ohtake continuously adjusted her vision back to the blind spot, the point in the visual field where sight fails. This approach revealed her dual interest in pictorial form and optical vision. Perception and time are pivotal to both the work’s execution and its meaning. Altered vision became a filter through which the artist negotiated the aesthetic act and the process of painting. Ohtake described her working method as follows: ‘I have never painted out of my emotions. I have always painted in a cool manner, always layer over layer over layer. I use many colours, which I apply layer by layer, until I reach my proposed target. My gesture used to be considerably calmer; it invariably struck the canvas, and followed a course that tended towards the cerebral.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.62.) Despite this controlled layering and measured approach towards colour, works like Untitled nonetheless achieve a vigorous rhythmic feel engendered by the central spiralling cluster at the heart of the composition. The ‘blind’ process adopted by the artist prioritised scientific and visual phenomenon ahead of, and determining, the aesthetic act itself. Intuition became a means through which to tame emotion and control vision. The field of observation defining her paintings can be read as a metaphor for the construction of a universal spectrum. Through the vigorous blotches, spirals and twists, a cosmic form is charted, as if the artist were mapping a celestial view. The absence however of any narrative, or for that matter guiding single viewpoint, leaves the viewer to apprehend the canvas through its spiralling movements and ultimately to follow Ohtake’s own intuitive experience of ‘blind seeing’.

Though never explicitly acknowledging the direct influence of Japanese Zen philosophy on her work, Ohtake was privy to its practice and processes. This can be seen, for instance, in the importance she ascribed to the passage of time as embedded in the act of painting. She explained, ‘I have read Daisetz Suzuki [a Japanese writer on Zen Buddhism whose books were influential in spreading awareness of Zen Buddhism beyond Japan]. Zen spirit is real life that is all. It implies that things really happen; one need not make too much effort for things to happen every day, naturally they just happen.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.64.) This insistence on how things ‘just happen’ underscored Ohtake’s understanding of painting first and foremost as a worldly event that relied on a balance between her perceptual experiments and her methodical pictorial strategies.

Further reading
Tomie Ohtake, exhibition catalogue, Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo 2001.
Paulo Herkenhoff (ed.), Pincelada: Pintura e Método – Projeções da Década de 50, exhibition catalogue, Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo 2009.

Flavia Frigeri
May 2016

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