There was a strange, sculptural beauty to these scenes […] The blast furnaces had the same quality to them. Their forms made a deep emotional impact on me. Even though I came into contact with them every single day, I soon found myself hypnotized by this new vision of beauty.
From Labour to Light
Blazing with a singular intensity, Uemae Chiyu's Untitled was created in the same year of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca in 1966. The masterpiece exhibits Uemae’s extraordinary aesthetic of ishu or chumitsu – Japanese phrases that describe the condition of thick or dense crowding – and feature rich, dynamically surging red hues comprising compact layers of varying colours. The result of a laborious process of meticulous accretion, involving Uemae piling up layers of paint in short dense strokes, the work reveals a persistence of time and dedicated activity imbued with an incandescent presence reminiscent of pointillism or Vincent van Gogh’s paintings from his final years. At the International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai exhibition in 1958, a similar red monochrome painting by Uemae was hung between works by Yves Klein and Jean-Paul Riopelle and later purchased by prominent British collector Anthony Denney; on another occasion, influential French critic Michel Tapié showered praise on Uemae’s pointillist paintings – a testament to their pioneering innovation and historical significance.
A founding member of Gutai, Uemae quietly forged his unique aesthetic of accumulation earlier than most international contemporary artists now associated with the style, including Kusama Yayoi, Mark Tobey, Zoltan Kemeny and Erro, etc. Uemae’s chumitsu works, now receiving renewed international attention, display a particularly distinctive sensibility – one that is profoundly introspective, labour-intensive and ascetic, displaying a strong visceral materiality that is both powerful and graceful. Compared with his fellow first-generation Gutai artists who favoured explosive, expressionist and performative action-painting works, Uemae’s quieter, more labour-intensive methods involved patient and painstaking effort. His process is built upon strenuous toil; he describes the effort he exerts into his paintings to be so taxing to the extent he “invests a piece of [his] spirit in them, shortening [his] life so that the work may live”. Critic Kato Yoshio writes: “Compared with the other [Gutai] artists’ impulsive behaviour, [Uemae’s] dense labour-intensive accumulation of particles into hundreds and thousands has an abstemious sensibility […] the core of which could be described as his personal expression of individual freedom” (cited in Kato Yoshio, ‘A Spirit that Rang with the Tumult of an Era: The Life and Work of Chiyu Uemae’, in The World of Chiyu Uemae, Tokyo, 2013).
The extraordinary pulsing aesthetic of the present lot, as with works from Uemae’s entire career, is inspired by his extended years working at a steel casting factory. Uemae writes: “I will never forget the boiling, seething molten iron, and the way that it glowed in the crane before streaming down into the mold […] The entire facility was like an exquisite magical city” (the artist cited in Chiyu Uemae: A Solitary Path, Hong Kong, 2015, p. 76). He recounts being fascinated and hypnotized while watching severed steel fall into a cooling chute, “bursting into cascades of sparks” and turning into “one long strip of glowing light” before disappearing into dark water. He recalls: “These environments and settings, as well as the materials that I encountered at these factories, became the basis for my work” (The World of Chiyu Uemae, Tokyo, 2013). The throbbing energy of such industrial imagery is evoked and recreated in his paintings, demonstrated by the ephemeral strokes applied over and over in his work.
Perhaps more so than any other Gutai artist, therefore, Uemae’s paintings demonstrate a profound understanding of and devotion to material – the one true ode to the Gutai spirit of imparting life and human spirit into matter. Motoe Kunio writes, commenting on Uemae’s art: “Here, then, is a remarkable fusion and synthesis between the brain (intellect) and the hand (sensation). How is it that we managed to overlook an artist of such singular talent and incomparable stature up until now?”. Uemae was one of the few members who remained in the Gutai association until its disbandment in 1972, and throughout his career Uemae continued to explore the limits of medium and matter. His earlier works progressed into oil paintings with a variation of longer brushstrokes; he experimented with sawdust, matchsticks and freestanding sculpture; and in the 1980s Uemae began making works using fabric and thread. The use of non-traditional material can be understood as an enduring interest in constructing captivating material presence; in the 1990s the artist began to work with reproducible media such as silkscreen and woodblock printing.
All this time, Uemae remained true to his pure, almost religious-like engagement with matiere, faithfully living out the Gutai manifesto: “In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other […] When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out. To make the fullest use of matter is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, matter is brought to the height of the spirit”. The sheer visual power of the present lot stands as testament to the pivotal revolution presented by Gutai and Uemae’s experiments during those early years – one that predated future developments in contemporary art. As Kato observes: “[Uemae’s] journey from abstract expressionism to a place resembling minimalism while still in the 1950s speaks to a profound understanding of his moment in history. Uemae’s link to global cultural changes is striking for the ability to channel his present and simultaneously anticipate future developments” (Ibid.).