Uemae is a unique presence in the Gutai context. The painstaking labour that ultimately gives rise to these abstract works is something that resonates deeply with Japanese culture […] Uemae ranks as one of the very top Japanese abstract painters who has managed to also transcend the implications of the term “Gutai”.
Solemnly resplendent with a singular intensity, the fiery-hued Work epitomizes Uemae Chiyu’s pioneering aesthetic of pointillist accumulation that compellingly asserts its place within the global canon of abstraction. Created in 1964, the Gutai-period painting features a stippled expanse of rich, dynamically surging red hues comprising compact dense strokes of varying colours - the result of laborious and meticulous accretion. Compared with his fellow first-generation Gutai comrades who favoured explosive and performative action-painting works, Uemae’s quieter yet no less intensive methods focused not on volatile action but on the idea of ishu or chumitsu – Japanese phrases that describe the condition of thick or dense crowding. Notably, Uemae accomplished such an aesthetic of accumulation in the 1950s – earlier than or on par with most international artists roughly associated with the style, including Kusama Yayoi, Mark Tobey, Zoltan Kemeny and Erro, etc. At the International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai exhibition in 1958, a red pointillist painting by Uemae similar to the present work 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 was a self-taught painter who developed his artistic pursuits while making a living as a labourer. As Motoe Kunio observes, “the greatest strength of Uemae’s art stems from the fact that it is truly and inextricably linked to the physical toil of his actual life” (Motoe Kunio, in The World of Chiyu Uemae, Tokyo, 2013). Specifically, Uemae’s unique aesthetic of painstakingly built up paint strokes was 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” (Chiyu Uemae: A Solitary Path, Hong Kong, 2015, p. 76). He recounts being fascinated 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. In recreating such visions, Uemae describes the effort involved in 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”. The resulting works reveal 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.
The extraordinary significance of Uemae’s art is finally receiving renewed critical attention in recent years; perhaps more so than any other Gutai artist, Uemae’s art demonstrates 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 writes: “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?” (Ibid.) Uemae was one of the few members who remained in the Gutai association until its disbandment in 1972, and throughout his career he continued to explore the limits of medium and matter. The sheer visual power of the present work 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 critic Kato Yoshio 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.).