Active Artist Passing the Age of Ninety | Interview with Chiyu Uemae

“CHIYU UEMAE” Whitestone Gallery Ginza

A project evolving the digitized archive of the book, “GUTAI STILL ALIVE 2015 vol.1”. In the fifth installment, Chiyu Uemae takes center stage with a revealing interview about his art and his life's work. As a founding member of Gutai and one of the few who remained with the group until its dissolution in 1972, Uemae shares unique insights into his experiences as an artist, including his meeting with Gutai's central figure, Jiro Yoshihara. Uemae also explores the changes in his artistic style during his tenure with Gutai and reflects on his later years.

“I’m ready to exhibit my work, and gratified if people overseas have the chance to see it.”

―We hear that this year, you have had a great success in "Painting the Void: 1949-1962" (MoCA, Los Angeles) and art fair "Art Platform." How are you impressed about that?
Uemae (hereafter referred to as U): I feel so glad. I'm always ready to exhibit my work, and I still have been working on new works. I'm glad if overseas people will have more chances to see them.

―This spring, your work was greatly featured in "Wind of Karuizawa Japanese Contemporary Art 1950 - 2012" at Karuizawa New Art Museum. Following the sensation, the success in overseas was a busy development for you. What do you think about that?
U: I appreciate it very much that viewers had a chance to see my work, but honestly speaking, I didn't particularly intend to expect this to happen, only devoting myself every day to thinking about how I could put my artistic idea into real artworks.

―So you are very busy making your work.
U: I only would like to make artworks that are fit for me. As you see here, I had been making works with wood chips and a bond, but I can no longer do such a work. All that I can do now is making prints. Previously, I'd go to a print workshop and make prints by myself, but since it takes much time for corrosion and various procedures, I usually ask printers to work based on my instructions -- for more than 20 years, I've collaborated with 2 printers. They each specialize in etching and silkscreen and are familiar with my way of thinking.

―Do you get ideas for works one after another?
U: Yes, even now I can get ideas, because a genre of print art has a room for evolution of expression as a contemporary art. Sometimes I cannot sleep thinking about so many things I want to put into art. Flexible ideas about print making make me try various things.

―For you, being active now, the postwar art movement Gutai happened in the distant past, but in the connection that Gutai has now drawn international attention, you, as a former member of it, also have come into the spotlight. Did the encounter with Gutai mean much to you?
U: Yes. I was much influenced by Gutai Art. In the postwar period, there occurred new tendency of art, and of course, there was a growing consciousness of it in my mind. Firstly, I was selected for the 1st exhibition at Nikikai in 1947. Then, I went to Kyoto from Maizuru to attend to the class of my teacher Jutaro Kuroda. But, going to Kyoto, rather than learning at the class, brought about a great change for me: I saw large works exhibited in a large-scale Jiyubijutsu show at a department store in Kyoto, and I was deeply impressed with them. This experience made me think that I should not stay any longer in Maizuru. I was then a holder of a crane operator's license, so I decided to work and live in Kobe for the first time.

―You mean that you secured job and made perfect preparations to start in earnest your artistic career.
U: Then, I began to exhibit semi-figurative works in Nikikai, but among them, 5 or 6 pieces, including 100-gou sized large ones (160cm X 100 ~ 130cm), were all rejected. Feeling resentful at the result, I was greatly worried about how to challenge something new. It was around that time when I encountered unusual works by Jiro Yoshihara. At first glance, I wondered if they could be art. I thought that his work, displayed at an exhibition organized by a company dealing in pastel crayon, almost made fun of viewers. I had known him by name, but I wondered why such a famous artist made such a completely absurd painting. Nevertheless, I thought I'd like to talk with Yoshihara once, and visited alone his house to see him.

―Was that before the foundation of Gutai?
U: It was in 1952, 2 years before the foundation. Those days, I had been always criticized by teachers as that my work lacked foundation of dessin, so I was afraid that I would be criticized again by Yoshihara. But, actually, his words were not so easy as that. He said from the beginning, "Don't bring me such a rubbish here!"

―Was that a great shock to you?
U: Since I had already known that Yoshihara was an odd person but respected him as an artist, I would visit his house 1 or 2 times a week to show my work, not discouraged by his severe criticism. Then, I gradually became to understand what Yoshihara said, which provided me with a clear direction in my art making.

―Were there any other artists who would come there?
U: Yes. I remember that their works were often inclined to action-based work. Though Yoshihara said my work of that kind got better to some extent, I later realized that such a work was different from something that I intended. So, I started to make work in my own way.

―You mean you made works unlike Kazuo Shirag a's performance art or something.
U: I anyway wished to express something within myself, trying various combinations of dots and colors unique to me, for example.

―I think that among Gutai members, you especially are an artist who has continued to treasure and deepen your own artistic expression. In Nikikai, you changed your style from figuration to semi-figuration, and in Gutai, you made the inclination clearer.
U: Rather, I think it more important that I served my apprenticeship as a dyer of Kyozome (Kyoto-style dyeing) after graduating elementary school and rarely saw a figurative pattern in that period of my career: all that I saw there were a nonfigurative design work rather than abstract art, and I naturally had an interest in the design of that kind, rather than consciously learning design. For example, Kyozome has various patterns such as vertically striped Yagasuri (arrow-shaped pattern). In the course of nature, I became interested in kiji (raw fabric), orimono (textile), and so on. Those days, we even didn't have a word "fiber art" popularly in use now.

―You mean that you naturally learned from the traditional environment before you were conscious of art making.
U: That's right.

―I think that for most of your works, you take much time and great care, but your sewing works, other than tableaus, also occupy very significant position among others. Do you think that they reflect something you naturally learned from the apprenticeship in youth?
U: I'd like to emphasize the importance of sewing work to me. It has a great many variations, and I'm glad that viewers are strongly impressed with them. Also, the methods of production variously change. Although I have a basic concept about sewing work, it often accepts changes through the process of sewing. Basically, I'm conscious that sewing work is different from fiber art, so I always fix it to a frame. It takes much effort to make a
frame and fix the work to it. Mere small distortion of the frame could spoil my whole effort. That's why making sewing work hurt my neck. Last year I went for regular visits to a bonesetter's to receive treatment, which, though, was not effective. Soon, finding that I couldn't raise my arm, I saw a doctor at Kobe University Hospital and claimed that I couldn't raise up my arm due to making sewing work. The doctor said, "It cannot be." My arm is not yet restored. With this and that, I currently have to see a doctor about my arm and have nerve block shots in the neck, but I keep making sewing work while enduring the pain.

―I'm surprised that you work hard under such a severe physical condition.
U: Well, that's because joy fills my heart every time I complete a work however much it might take time. I understand from the start that it takes much time, but that occurs in the course of nature -- I work saying, "That's a little different," "That's no good, not too bad," or anything...After all, these make me try this or that, and time naturally passes.

―I knew that you have devoted much time and effort to make
tableau or sewing work. I wonder if you sometimes get weary of doing so?
U: No. That's why I can keep working now. (laughter)

―I agree with you. Though you are very busy for exhibitions and other things, but please take care of yourself. Thank you very much for your time, today.

(Mothly Gallery, December 2012)

Read more about the “Gutai Art Association »

*Information in this article is at the time of publication.

Subscribe Our Mail Magazine

If you chose to subscribe to our newsletter, you will receive the latest news and exclusive offers by email.









View more


If you chose to subscribe to our newsletter, you will receive the latest news and exclusive offers by email.