Chiyu Uemae’s Creative Endeavors as the Oldest Witness to Gutai’s Founding and Dissolution

Chiyu Uemae

A project evolving the digitized archive of the book, "GUTAI STILL ALIVE 2015 vol.1". The fourth installment features a spotlight on Chiyu Uemae and his artworks. Art historian and Tama Art University professor Kunio Motoe shares his inspirational insights into Uemae's creative activities, shedding light on the fascinating evolution of his artistic style. As a founding member of Gutai and one of the few who remained until its dissolution, Chiyu Uemae devoted his entire life to his art. Motoe's words offer a captivating exploration of his work.


The Painter as a Laborer

Kunio Motoe
Professor, Tama Art University

Chiyu Uemae was one of the founding members of the Gutai Art Association, founded in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara, who was running an oil manufacturing company in Osaka while being an avant-garde artist. And Uemae was one of the few members who remained in the association until its disbandment in 1972, the year in which Yoshihara died. Uemae was born in 1920 in a poor village in Kyoto Prefecture and grew up in extreme poverty. Therefore he worked as a laborer at the bottom of the ladder since his early age and sometimes went almost blackguardly. Nevertheless, he woke up to art – genuine avant-garde art, no less. I have no idea at all as to what made it possible. We can only suppose that the seed of art was sown deliberately into the unfortunate youth, who attended barely elementary school, perhaps by the grace of God, phenomenally. In fact, what is most impressive about the person and art of Uemae is that he, despite poverty, did not think of selling his paintings for a living at all; instead, while working hard every day, he kept making works only for the sake of himself. He wrote in his diary in 1947: “I have to work in order to make my living. But my life is maintained by painting” (a chronicle of Chiyu Uemae compiled by Hiroyuki Nakatsuka). And the greatest strength of Uemae’s art lies in that, by being connected inseparably with his realities, that is, days of labor, it reaches the stage of T.S. Eliot’s “Objective Correlative,” or a sort of universality far beyond the realm of representation.

In 1953 Uemae called on Yoshihara at his mansion in the city of Ashiya to become a pupil of Yoshihara. Uemae was a typical laborer and self-taught painter. What is remarkable is that he, without being told to do so, used to bring in his works to Yoshihara’s almost every week and undergo unrestrained criticism.

Most of Gutai paintings give the impression that they were done instantaneously with some drive. The almost sole exception is Uemae’s style, which features layers of innumerable dots intensely showing the materiality of paint and is abstract – or rather absolute. But his paintings are no less than “Gutai,” if we think that they are based on his own everyday work at a foundry and represent a part of his action to confirm the “traces of himself.” The reason why he repeatedly paints dots is that he feels by intuition the traces of all living things there; therefore he “first painted dots by rejecting literary elements”
or anything explanatory and representational. In this sense, the dots, which are distinct from one another, are nothing less than direct metaphors or traces of beings. The same could be said concerning his spiritual all-over paintings on which he cut innumerable lines of paint using palette knives, in an act that somehow reminds us of prayer, as well as his objets sewn with his own existence materialized in it. Uemae’s dots and lines are the breaths and heartbeats of a painter who eagerly lives his everyday life; and his unparalleled actual artistic truth lies there. Speaking of Uemae, we cannot forget the praise that Art informel advocate Michel Tapié lavished on him. In the “New Painting/ World Exhibition – Informel and Gutai,” held in April 1958 at the Takashimaya department store in Osaka, Tapié spoke in the highest terms of a painting by Uemae in red all over, of Japanese size No. 100, in front of other Gutai members, and positioned the work, to our surprise, between those of Franz Kline and Jean- Paul Riopelle. Since 1966 Uemae exhibits at Gallery Nippon in Tokyo. According to Shigeo Sasaki, it was Tapié who introduced Uemae to the gallery.

In “Un art autre” (“Art of Another Kind,” 1952), which can be said an Informel manifesto, Tapié emphasized the essential freedom of painting as opposed to sculpture that cannot exist without shape. In fact, unlike sculptors, “Painters, by freely showing off their infinitely amplifying methods, act, in most cases, without shape. [...] They act in the deepest chaos, without shape.” What we should note here is that Uemae’s free creations – for example, a sculpture made of 60-kilogram matchwood and the works since the mid-’70s that took advantage of his skill in sewing obtained during his days of apprenticeship, that
have firmly materialized his existence and action and that have decisively heightened his art – not only materialized Tapié’s ideal but also exceeded it far and away. For I believe that Uemae is a painter who restored order in Tapié’s chaos.

Uemae struggled with his severe realities and turned them into autonomous works of art. And, by doing so, he established himself as an artist. He said in 1998, “My hands, trained to be omnipotent, engrave the images sent from my brains via the nerves on select materials.” What collaboration, fusion of the brain (intellect) and hands (feeling)! For Uemae, the pursuit of the feeling at his fingertips, that is, of his Gutai-like actuality is an art in itself, isn’t it? How could we neglect such an unparalleled artist until now? We have just begun discovering true Uemae.

Read more about the “Gutai Art Association »

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

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