In 1987, the American abstract expressionist artist Robert Motherwell sent a letter to the Japanese art critic Masaomi Unagami. In his letter, Motherwell wrote:
“To my mind, [Yuichi Inoue] is unquestionably one of the small handful of great artists of the second half of the twentieth century. I do not know whether his work has been shown outside Japan, but it certainly should be. He was a marvellous painter of what I call, in my mind, “essences” and I can think of no higher ideal in modern art (which has abandoned storytelling)…”
As a key member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell and his peers pursued pure abstraction as a means to express the traditionally inexpressible, seeking to capture grand themes and emotions in the gestural brushstrokes and splatters that characterized their work. Motherwell had immediately recognized the same qualities in Yuichi Inoue’s calligraphy, praising the Japanese artist’s ability to capture the core essences of human narrative and emotion in his energetic paintings executed with ink and paper.
Yuichi Inoue's ichijisho ( ???) – single character inscriptions – form the main body of the artist's work produced after the late 1950s. The character tori, Japanese for "bird," was a favourite subject of Yuichi's, and he created many versions of the work over his career. However, this specific piece stands out for its bold, expressive composition, and the deeply personal inscriptions that document the significance of this painting to the artist. Yuichi was meticulous about discarding unsatisfactory works, throwing out tens of thousands of paintings over the course of his career. This piece represents the final result of 1,000 copies painted over the course of 3 months, differentiating it as the culmination of a lengthy, exacting exercise in aesthetic perfectionism and dedication.
Yuichi’s inscriptions on this work also provide brief glimpses into significant years in Yuichi’s life; 1976, the year this work was completed, was also the year that Yuichi reached retirement age and was finally able to fully dedicate all his time to the art of calligraphy. Yuichi had spent most of his life as a primary school teacher, but this year marked the beginning of an extraordinarily prolific period in the artists’ career. This productivity would only accelerate in 1978, the date of the second inscription, when Yuichi was diagnosed with the liver cirrhosis that would eventually cause his death in 1985. These dated inscriptions thus capture moments from an important period of Yuichi’s life, marking the precious years when he was able to devote himself to his passion. Perhaps Yuichi was already aware of how precious his remaining time was when he completed this masterpiece; the haiku poem that accompanies this painting, by the Edo era poet Matsuo Basho, expresses in simple and elegant terms the weary nostalgia that comes with the autumn, old age, and the disappearance of birds from the sky.
Yuichi Inoue was a true master of the calligraphic arts, who understood that the gestures of a brush could reveal much more than the painted characters themselves. The strong stability of Yuichi’s broad horizontal strokes and the power of his upward splatters imbue Tori with an expressive spontaneous energy. Yuichi treasured the moment when a friend, inspired by this work, introduced him to the Catalan cellist Pau Casals’ famous arrangement of “Song of the Birds”, a Catalan lullaby that had been reinterpreted into a call for peace in protest of Franco’s regime in Spain. The same sense of profound tragedy and anger had inspired Motherwell’s famous series of paintings Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Though Yuichi never attributed political meaning to his works, Tori is nonetheless filled with the same raw emotion and energy as the music of Casals and the paintings of Motherwell. His art took Japanese calligraphy and added new layers of meaning, pushing the expressive potential of a traditional art to new heights.