Feb 13 2015

Japanese-Brazilian Artist Tomie Ohtake Dies at Age 101

by Denise Chu

TOMIE OHTAKE passed away on February 12, 2015, at age 101. In this photo from 2006, she is being awarded the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit. Copyright and courtesy Palácio do Planalto, Brasília. 

Kyoto-born artist Tomie Ohtake passed away on February 12, in São Paulo, at age 101. A maker of gestural paintings, colorful prints and levitating sculptures that reified her own brand of abstraction, Ohtake was an influential figure that helped bridge two very diverse cultures.

Born in Japan in 1913, the journey that led Ohtake to Brazil was happenstance. In 1936, during the onset of World War II, Japan was in a time of great unrest. It was during this year that Ohtake made a trip to São Paulo to visit her brother and as the situation back home grew more turbulent, it became clear that she could not return back to her native country. Ohtake eventually settled down in São Paulo and started a family, but did not begin to paint until the 1950s, when she was in her 30s. Though she first dabbled with figuration, it was her bold, effervescent abstractions infused with color that found enthusiastic audiences in Brazil. Shortly after, in 1957, she was given her first exhibition at the Salão Nacional de Arte Moderna, which was followed by her participation in the São Paulo Biennale in 1961.

In addition to her paintings, Ohtake began to experiment with various printmaking methods during the 1970s. From screen printing to lithography to engraving, her prints retained the primary hues and organic forms of her earlier works on canvas. The subsequent acclaim of Ohtake’s prints led to their display at the Venice Biennale in 1972.

Starting from the late 1980s the artist undertook large-scale sculptural projects, many of which translated into feats of public art that were installed throughout urban São Paulo and other Brazilian metropolises. Bursting with eye-catching colors, her curvilinear sculptures embody a lightness that seems to form an uncanny contrast against their colossal sizes.

Ohtake grew to become one of the most important and beloved contemporary artists in Brazil, a status ratified by the conferral of two awards: the Order of Rio Branco in 1988, for a public sculpture commemorating the 80th anniversary of Japanese immigration to São Paulo, and the Order of Cultural Merit in 2006.

In 2001, Ruy Ohtake, Tomie Ohtake’s son and one of São Paulo’s pre-eminent architects, founded Instituto Tomie Ohtake in honor of his mother. The Instituto is a 7,500-square-meter cultural center comprising galleries that host exhibitions of contemporary art by mostly local artists. Through this venue, and her monumental structures punctuating the cityscape of São Paulo, Tomie Ohtake’s legacy lives on.