Calligraphist Yu-ichi Inoue Boldly Reinterpreted the Form, Pushing it into the Avant-Garde

Although he wasn’t terribly interested in exhibiting his work, Yu-ichi Inoue hardly escaped public attention. In his notebooks, the great Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell referred to the Japanese calligrapher as one of the “few great artists from the latter half of the 20th century.” 

Indeed, Inoue (1916–1985) wasn’t a garden variety calligrapher. He didn’t sit quietly in a chair, applying careful brushstrokes; he was an avant-garde artist, an “action painter” known for his physical techniques, his forceful beating and splashing of ink onto paper.

Japanese calligraphy often features “kanji,” or Chinese characters, an ancient system the Japanese adopted in the sixth century. Kanji are not letters, but ideographs: As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, each character conveys an idea, not just a sound. Inoue found inspiration in the works of traditional Japanese calligraphers, but he pushed the boundaries of form, selecting a single kanji and making it the center of his composition. Traditional kanji—haha (mother), tai (tranquility), oto (sound), tori (bird), yama (mountain), fune (boat)—took center stage in Inoue’s large-scale, single-character works, several of which are now on display in “Grand Master of Modern Calligraphy,” a retrospective at Onishi Gallery in New York.

In focusing on single kanji and rendering them in large format with strokes, splatters, and dots of paint and ink, Inoue radicalized the form, infusing the traditional script with a fresh sense of urgency and feeling. He was born exactly 100 years ago, yet his bold and majestic works still feel surprisingly modern.


Bridget Gleeson


Yu-ichi Inoue: Grand Master of Modern Calligraphy” is on view at Onishi Gallery, New York, Mar. 24–Apr. 16, 2016.

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