YU-ICHI is one of the most important Japanese artists of the 20th century and his name is mentioned with the likes of Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Pierre Alechinsky and Henri Michaux. The critic Herbert Read discusses YU-ICHI in his work “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, which also includes one of his paintings. Robert Motherwell even describes him in his notes as one of the few great artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Although YU-ICHI's contribution to the documenta II in Kassel in 1959 and participation in exhibitions held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden in 1963, and the Galerie Zwirner in Cologne in 1965 certainly boosted his popularity, he eschewed taking part in exhibitions on a regular basis, preferring instead to devote his energies to the artistic, creative process. His extremely self-critical attitude and assessment of his works and his practice of destroying everything he found to be “inferior” meant that his entire estate was able to be published in a three-volume catalogue of his work.

YU-ICHI conveys his artistic energy through logographic “kanji” characters, which he uses as a metaphor for communicating his artistic message, his internal state. His focus is not on the aesthetics of the characters, but rather on the unfettered development of his inner power as directly expressed by the writing. He overcomes traditional calligraphy in favor of radical expressiveness. He gained international recognition as an artist early on, as evidenced by his participation in important exhibitions: Kassel; National Museum of Modern Art, Tôkyô and Kyôto; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Galerie Zwirner, Cologne.
Japan Art Galerie has held the exclusive rights for the exhibition and sale of YU-ICHI's estate to the European area since 1993.

Japan Art - Galerie Friedrich Müller


“The form itself, even if it is entirely abstract, has its inner sound.”
Wassily Kandinsky 1912

A rare magic emanates from the abstract China ink works by Inoue Yûichi. As we stand before them, it doesn’t take long before a dialogue ensues. Our eyes follow the traces of the paintbrush, captivated by its movement. Each of these huge paper pieces on the wall is based on a Chinese symbol, and they all resonate within the viewer, breaking through the barrier of mutually alien cultures and conveying significance.

Each Chinese symbol has its own specific meaning. It is not a letter that can only be manifested in a sound. It is a symbol of meaning. Where it is written, something is always being named: a being, an object or perhaps a thought. With its form, developed over several thousand years, it already inherently has a tangible presence, even in its printed form.

To Western observers, for whom the Far Eastern script is largely alien, Inoue Yûichi appeared to be an “Abstract Expressionist”, and artists like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages soon came to respect him as one of their own.

In Yûichi’s hands the written symbol gained a thoroughly magical power. He thus overcame the boundaries set by being steeped in his own Asian culture. He tore up the template to which those in the West were accustomed, whereby the Japanese culture was presented as exotic and exemplified by a non-committal smile. His art is a trace of life.

When Yûichi concentrated on a theme, he gradually assimilated it in such a way that it truly took possession of him. Thus the artist became, to a certain extent, the mountain (Yama), the bird (Tori), the wind (Kaze). And the symbol appeared on the paper even before he could really become aware of it. With both hands he picked up the heavy, dripping brush from the bucket in which he had prepared the ink and slapped it down so that it splashed across the paper on which he stood with bare feet and moved with the trace of the emerging symbol. And then there he was, the mountain. Or the wind. And perhaps the bird, where he was supposed to have connected with it previously.

Occasionally his brushstrokes became light and floating, as with the creation of his symbol for dream (Yume), for which he first made the brush flit lightly across the paper from above, only to lower it in the end to produce the full coloration. In its transparently ephemeral contouring, his “dream” is reminiscent of the symbol for cloud (Kumo). And like a cloud, the symbol hovers above the paper.

Thus for Yûichi, the “art of writing” (Sho) was never a simply calligraphic reproduction of the relevant symbol. It was always an expression, passionately presented by Japan’s most important calligraphic artist of the twentieth century.

Peter-Cornell Richter, 2014

Traces of Ink - Traces of Life
YU-ICHI's Art of Writing

Early in 1952, four men met on the verandah of the temple Ryôanji in Kyôto. Their names were Eguchi Sôgen, Inoue Yûichi, Morita Shiryû and Sekiya Yoshimichi.

They sat there next to each other on the wooden floor warmed by the morning sun and gazed at the garden. The stone garden of Ryôanji is a symbol of creation arranged semiotically. The silent rhythm of the five, apparently accidentally arranged groups of rocks and the motionless lines and waves of the whitesandy gravel drawn carefully with a broad rake, are like continents and seas, like matter and void. The garden is a mirror of becoming and passing away, a recollection of the order and movement of the universe. There is scarcely a place better suited to find a new orientation in life and art. Especially when one identifies the two with one another.

Why new orientation? What had happened? Decades of nationalist fervor had led Japan's spiritual life into lifelessness. Freedom of the spirit and creative power were not called for. The arts degenerated in a traditionalist mania for imitation of their own past. Only the defeat of the sclerotic self-importance and the end of the military regime allowed the fine stirrings of a free spiritual life to blossom. And when finally, in the course of time, the horror over the terrible wounds of the war began to recede somewhat, these blossoms then unfolded in all areas of artistic life. People of like mind came together and resolved, in a joint effort, to uncover the roots of their tradition and to purify them of all dogmatic pestilence. And so they found a new, and at the same time old, proven foundation capable of bearing weight on which music and calligraphy, poetry and painting could develop anew and then finally also assert themselves internationally.

When the four friends entered a dialogue in 1952 in Kyôto with the garden of Ryôanji, they liberated the Japanese art of writing from the insubstantial, purely decoratively oriented ideal of past decades. They gave it back its soul. And together they set out in search of the primal ground of life, for the essence of its phenomena, for the rhythm. For the rhythm that moves the living trace of ink. For the rhythm which the old masters of Japanese calligraphy had tried to live: Kûkai (774-835) and Musô Sôseki (1275-1351), Ikkyû (1394-1481) and Hakuin (1685-1768), Ryôkan (1757-1831) and their mentor and teacher, Ueda Sôkyû (1899-1968). Their artistic work marks since that day in 1952 their steps on this path. They are not steps of depiction. They are rather the signs of all that they have felt and also suffered on the path of their search. Each in his own way. And all four of them were people with very different natures.

One of them was YU-ICHI (1916-85). His traces of ink, which he often brushed and beat and splashed with enormous brushes on large strips of paper that covered the floor of his studio, are the immediate traces of life of one possessed. His entire life became calligraphy. And there was a continual transformation. He became a tiger and dragon, he became “cheerful laughing” and a bird. He became brush and ink, paper and sign. Morita Shiryû, the speaker for the group of friends which formed on that day into the artists' group boku-jin-kai (ink-people-society), once expressed it in the following way: “Works of the art of writing (sho) are traces which are left behind by the movements of the living, experiencing soul.” The artist himself thus becomes a sign, and this sign becomes visible for us by feeling its rhythm. The artist's life and the written sign, the calligraphic character, together form what we can recognize and experience on the paper as“art of writing”.

The Chinese character (Japanese: kanji), once arisen as a pictorial symbol, in the course of many centuries largely lost its original pictorial character. It has become a sign of meaning. Through constant practice with the ink brush, it gradually becomes familiar, and after years of precise reproduction of all the forms of its possibilities of appearance in printing or as a 'flowing', handwritten sign, it may happen that, under the guidance of an experienced teacher, one finds that masterliness which enables a shimmering of the soul to assume shape in the written sign. Once that has happened, it is no longer at all important for the viewers to recognize the original form of the kanji. The sole thing that is important for them is to feel the rhythmic sound which speaks to them from the image. Thus, even we Europeans have a chance of admitting into ourselves these image-signs which for us at first seem to be completely abstract.

Even though they often recall action painting or art informel, work of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hartung, Marc Tobey, Pierre Soulages or Morris Graves (who, apart from Pollock, were all influenced by the outward image of east Asian calligraphy), they are not painting per se, but rather writing that has become an image. They always have a very concrete content, a content which ruled the artist already as a word-sign when he still had the blank paper lying before him. They are the meaning of this signifier which drove him to act. They are the meaning which has arisen out of the encounter between the personality and the idea of the kanji.

The movement of YU-ICHI, the movement of his body or his hand, followed his inner dynamic which he lived through at the moment of complete fusion with the subject matter. And then he wrote his life out of himself. YU-ICHI and sign and image, they always became one, often a unity born of pain and cries. Again and again, we encounter YU-ICHI as a bird (tori). As a bird he enlivens private and public art collections around the world. These images are not portrayals of those beings or of their sign, tori. They are traces of life. They are flutterings of the wing and bird song; they are the line of flight and nest; they are bird-life and bird-death. They are the traces which show the movements of the soul of YU-ICHI when he was a bird. They are traces which only a bird could draw. And from the white, empty surface of the enormous pieces of paper, these traces arise as a spiritual form. Therein lies one of the secrets of this living, east Asian art. About nine hundred years ago, the poet Su Dongpo wrote about his friend, the painter Wen Yuke, “As soon as Yuke paints bamboo he has forgotten his own self. He has transformed himself into bamboo”.

When YU-ICHI transformed himself, this happened in a completely different way. Not only by forgetting his own self, not only by gliding over unnoticeably into the identity of a bird-being or a dragon. When YU-ICHI transformed himself and was without protection in the moment of this inner change, something in him broke loose. It was violent, eruptive and like a demon. And from a wildly passionate movement arose on the paper which he had spread out on the floor the sign. Written by YU-ICHI and a power driving him on which once, in the early morning of 10 March 1945, had become part of his being.

On that day he had been found unconscious among more than a thousand burned corpses. People had flown into the Yokogawa school where he was a teacher. On that terrible day in Tôkyô, more than one hundred thousand civilians had lost their lives in the phosphorus fire of the incendiary bombs from an air attack. This all-consuming fire continued to burn in him.

Inextinguishable, throughout his entire life. And whenever he painted, there was there the memory of the immediate proximity of death, and he threw his entire self into the image as if it were his last. His entire self, which at this moment was the experience of death and at the same time the substance of a written sign.

Thirty-three years after the morning of the air attack, YU-ICHI wrote, following a Buddhist tradition, the threnody for those people among whose corpses he had survived as one of very few, “Ah Yokogawa kokumin gakkô!” (Oh! Yokogawa primary school!). As he struck the written sign onto the paper, the sheet became an immediate impression of the painful wound in his memory. With graphite chalk he tore the white to shreds. He drove himself on with words that were pressed out from between his teeth in whose staccato rhythm the writing ran over the paper and expanded into a cry. And so he wrote into this paper the score of that terrible day. The lament for the dead ends with the words,“How could I ever tear the desperate cries of the children and adults out of my memory?” He was not able to. YU-ICHI wrote, as Morita Shiryû would say, the trace of his soul which had once been injured forever.

Early in 1952, four friends met in the garden of Ryôanji in Kyôto. One of them was the young teacher, YU-ICHI. At that time he took up the still rhythm of the garden into himself and made the primal power of the cosmos contained in it, with its beauty and its horrors, into his artistic language. From then on he transformed himself into birds, into dragons and into tigers, into death and into life. He succeeded so perfectly in this transformation that every one of his written art works gave back a piece of his life to the creation. YU-ICHI died in 1985 at the age of 69.

Peter-Cornell Richter, 2005

YU-ICHI and his life

YU-ICHI was born in downtown Tokyo in 1916. He was first trained as a painter, but began to learn Sho at the age of twenty-five. A few comments on his master may be helpful. He chose as his master Sôkyû from whom he learned the classical calligraphy. Sôkyû had learned his Sho under the instruction of Tenrai who had delved into the classical calligraphy of China at the beginning of the 1900‘s and analysed the various factors at work in the process of writing with a brush. He demonstrated the importance of the effects of the line produced only by a sufficiently long, soft brush. This, he asserted, was the basis on which to learn Sho as an artistic expression of the self. Of his fellow art students Sôkyû, under this master, showed the keenest interest in art.

YU-ICHI had devoted himself to learning of classical Sho for about seven years when his master suggested that he should now try Sho as he conceived it instead of the imitation of classical calligraphy for an exhibition. He was completely at a loss as to what to write and how to write it, but submitted the pieces he made. To his disappointment, however, they were all rejected. Suddenly he was struck by the idea of submitting a work he took from the Buddhist scriptures, which he had made in memory of his father’s one hundredth day after death. He took it from the wall of a family Buddhist altar on which it had been affixed, and took it to his master to have him comment on it. Since his master praised it highly, he submitted it to an exhibition and there it gained a wonderful reputation. It was then that he realized that creativity consisted in the artist's emancipated mind.

This realization, however, did not enable him to produce works in such a way that they directly reflected his personal experience. The difficulty he had to face was that he was not able to see the very thing that he wanted to express, blocked by the techniques that he developed through training and the patterns of his knowledge. It was because of this that he made frantic efforts to find the core of his artistic expression with the use of enamel, freed from any sort of art concept, knowledge of calligraphy, and even the consciousness that he was creating something.

The diary YU-ICHI wrote at that time shows that he was deeply engaged in his paintings, even to such an excessive extent as might strike a man of common sense as silly. The following is an excerpt of his diary
“April 15, 1955, Will get down to enamel painting tomorrow. Forget about everything. I’ve got to deny everything! I've got to discard everything, even characters! To hell with it! Tear the paper off and destroy it with a line of enamel. ... May 3, While painting, close your eyes and concentrate your attention on the movement of the brush. Never mind anything and just keep painting. Don’t let the form restrict your movement in any way. Your whole body and spirit must be directed by the brush. Try to be totally brave and arrogant in the movement! Painting is nothing but an activity where you deny and destroy everything! ... June 8, Just awful! Every big painting so far is no good. The sweat drips into my eyes and blocks my eyesight! My feet got sticky and messy with enamel. Only paper and enamel go away - wasted! Spreading the paper on the chaotic floor, kept painting with my feet sticky, and hands ofdripping enamel... Get totally absorbed in the act of scratching with the brush! The result of the painting is the thing that least matters to me. Suddenly I found I had scattered enamel all over the room. It was my fault. Well, I can't help it. Forget about what the landlord will say! ... Lines should be neither horizontal nor vertical, neither straight nor crooked. They have to be nothing - above anything else. Nothing I can see... My eyes are filled with sweat. What a mess! No way to get rid of it. Damn it!”

After this desperate effort with enamel, he began to concentrate on writing a single Chinese character. He deliberately avoided as much as possible those characters that were closely associated with some definite signification and those that were used as a means of communication. He might have thought thatthe desire on the part of the audience to decipher the character to understand its literal meaning was only detrimental to the appreciation of the characters freely expressed in the given space. Having submitted himself to the experience of Action Painting, YU-ICHI conquered the dimensional problem, and perfected a style which allowed him to write a character which he had personally experienced in the process of writing it. When at work, YU-ICHI first spread a huge sheet of paper on the floor of a large room, and then got a bucketful of ink. He walked about on the paper as he liked, while writing characters. Those characters he found interesting were cut as separate pieces. This is why his works sometimes contain black dots or circles, or pole-like lines in addition to the character itself. But how intriguing to see them just as alive and full of vigor as the character itself! He wrote the same character over and over again on several hundred sheets of paper in order to carry the natural body rhythm to its utter limits.

He made no selection during the first stage of his work which consisted of writing over and over again until he was completely exhausted, physically and mentally. Then came the task of selection. YU-ICHI insisted that this was the most difficult stage. He pinned the sheets three at a time on a wall, studying them several days, then threw them to the ground, one after the other. The piece chosen was the last sheet or sometimes the last two or three sheets that he could not decide between. He decided the format of the work by cutting the sheet to the size he wanted. The initial pictorial space was therefore controlled by the .action' demanded by the brushstroke. He burned everything that he had rejected. That is why YU- ICHI’s exhibited works are few but are the result of an immense labour, the last trace of which has been eradicated.

It was about 1970 that YU-ICHI's single character works began to demonstrate the level of his attainment, where he had complete control over the brush and was able to let it move in accordance with the vital energy of his inner self. In other words, he was able to let his inner life show forth in a tenselystructured way, and yet bound neither by the concept underlying the character or its form. Even the ink seems to have asserted a peculiar strength. Thus he established the expression of a “drawing” which showed a perfect balance within the defined spatiality of a tableau. His style became more and more vivid and fresh, resembling to a certain degree delightful scribbling. Here we can see YU-ICHI's écriture fully developed in the form of calligraphy.

YU-ICHI's works are the reflection of the very state of mind in which he created them; they are intended neither as parables nor allegories. This is why the audience is impressed with his pieces even when the characters written are unrecognizable. His whole self is expressed without modification in terms of his emancipated inner life, without becoming trapped in characters, balance, or the concepts of characters. We might regard it as a new way of expressing the world of will, which has been constructed in each age by those who have lived with characters. In this sense, YU-ICHI has to be distinguished fro both action painters in the United States and tachists in Europe.

Nobody else has written single characters on such a scale. Traditional calligraphers did not consider YU-ICHI’s work as calligraphy at all. YU- ICHI’s work represents a complete breakthrough, a way of painting by using characters to express forcefully the fascination of pictorial space. In 1958, YU-ICHI was selected to represent Japan at the exhibition entitled „Fifty Years of Modern Art“ organized in Brussels in commemoration of the World Fair. His work was exhibited among the works of the Abstract Expressionists. From this time on, YU-ICHI was to be regarded as one of the artists who had placed Tokyo onto the international art scene. National culture reconsidered after free access to an international culture is something quite distinct from the chauvinistic cultivation of national folklore. In the dawn of the Twenty-first Century, the work of YU-ICHI is part of the search for a new humanism. A sensibility which has blossomed in the most tumultuous city in the world, an international cultural cauldron, has brought into being a style of writing out of a spirit that is now dedicated to the dialogue between East and West.

Masaomi Unagami, 1993