Miyoko Ito, “Untitled” (1970), oil on canvas, 48 x 46 inches (all images courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

More than 30 years after her death, Miyoko Ito is having her self-named debut show at the spacious Matthew Marks Gallery (February 24–April 15, 2023). That the show is at a blue-chip art-world establishment signals the merger of artistic achievement and financial viability, and brings long-deserved attention to a body of work that has been under-recognized in New York and should be better known in Chicago, where the artist lived. As much as the gallery has done to make Ito’s work widely visible, I believe that it should have done more, starting with the catalogue (with a chronology) accompanying the exhibition, as no essay provides context for her work. 

From March 17 to April 30, 2006, the small Adam Baumgold gallery on the Upper East Side hosted a show of Ito’s work. In my review, I wrote: 

While the paintings of Miyoko Ito (1918–1983) have been included in most survey exhibitions and books about Chicago art from 1945 to 1995, she still remains under known in Chicago, and all but invisible in New York. The last time she had a solo show here was 1978. The reasons for Ito’s lack of recognition are complex, but they would include the fact that she […] was neither a pure abstractionist nor did she work flatly, which meant she went against the grain.

The fact that Ito hit her stride when she was in her early 30s meant, as she noted in the catalogue, “To be called an old lady painter, passé at age thirty or thirty-one, is very hard to take.” 

The New York art world’s insistence on objectivity (or an anti-subjective position) made it nearly impossible for its critics and big gallerists to recognize some of the biographical sources of Ito’s resistance to flatness, monochrome, pure opticality, and the grid — pillars of Minimalism. 

Miyoko Ito, “Sea Chest” (1972), oil on canvas, 47 x 45 inches

Nor does the press release suggest how cultural difference may have played a role in Ito’s aesthetic formation. While the current show’s press release states that “In 1942, a month before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she and her husband were sent to Tanforan, an internment camp south of San Francisco under an Executive Order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt,” it never describes her experience there. Instead, it goes on to say, “The following year, Ito was allowed to leave the camp to attend a graduate program at Smith College in Northampton, MA. She moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute in 1944, where she lived until her death in 1983.”

The press release suggests that Ito came into her own in White cultural spaces, but a closer look at her chronology indicates that this is not the case. One statement, quoted in the “chronology” section of the catalogue, seems key. When she was five, her mother brought her and her sister back to Japan so they could receive a traditional education, including lessons in art and calligraphy. During this time, she suffered what she described as a “childhood nervous breakdown,” explaining, “It was both very painful and enjoyable. Those five years are the roots of what I am right now.” Another fact that gets ignored in the press release is her relationship with other Japanese artists working in the United States. While Ito and her husband were in the internment camp, she taught “art classes to her fellow Tanforan inmates through a program initiated at the camp by artist and Berkeley professor Chiura Obata.” 

With approval from the camp’s administration, Obata, a contemporary master of woodcut and sumi ink painting, opened an art school less than a month after he and his family were sent to Tanforan. He assembled a group of 16 instructors, including Miné Okubo (1912–2001), who had studied with Fernand Léger in Paris and assisted Diego Rivera on his Treasure Island mural in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The professional achievements of the instructors suggest that the first supportive art world community in which Ito thrived was entirely Japanese, and existed completely separately from the rest of the segregated US. 

Miyoko Ito, “Untitled” (1970), oil on canvas, 46 x 42 inches

Ito’s transition from watercolor and lithography to oil painting was not easy. In 1950, she said in an interview with Dennis Barrie, “When I say that it took me five years to really digest the process of oil painting, nobody believes me. But it’s true.”

Ito’s art practice was informed by living in Japan, by her roots in ink painting and watercolor, and by her association with a group of accomplished Japanese artists when she was a young adult; these forces helped her pursue a different trajectory in which assimilation was impossible. While the Chicago art world embraced her (as conveyed by her friendship with the artist and curator Don Baum, who gave her a solo show at the Hyde Park Art Center, and artists such as Ray Yoshida, Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, and Gladys Nilsson), New York — where she had work in the 1975 Whitney Biennial — never took a shine to her. In 2018, Miyoko Ito: Heart of Hearts, which originated at the Berkeley Art Museum, traveled to Art Space with little fanfare, partly because the New York art world in general had not yet recognized the existence of Asian American women artists, with the exception of Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama, and Ruth Asawa.

The exhibition presents 16 oil paintings done between 1948 and ’83, and three lithographs from 1949–50. They chart Ito’s development from a painter working with flat shapes that fit together, as in the Cubism-inflected “Easel and Table” (1948) to a painting done the year she died, “First Veronda” (1983), which I believe is still in the collection of Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, and is the only painting from that decade in the show.

The exhibition’s strongest paintings are the 10 dated between 1970 and ’77, when she was finally able to paint full time after spending years as single, stay-at-home mother who survived breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. As the show evidences, it’s in the 1970s that Ito went beyond creating a body of work that resembled no one else’s, and evoked abstract views full of longing and mystery. She achieved this through her attention to composition, spatial relationships, gradient color, subtle tonal shifts, and a palette of vermillions, browns, turquoise blues and greens, and yellows that have their roots in Asian art and furniture, and are not seen as much in Euro-American art. Ito melded her inspirations — Cubism, Paul Klee, and surrealism filtered through the Chicago Imagists — to her awareness of luminosity and tonality, which came from studying watercolor and ink painting, and to her personal experience. 

Miyoko Ito, “Heart of Hearts, Basking” (1973), oil on canvas, 44 x 31 7/8 inches

In “Heart of Hearts, Basking” (1973), a rectangle is set within a recessed space just below the painting’s top edge, framed by abutting bands with rounded tops. The vertical painting is divided horizontally. Curving flat shapes dominate the lower half, while the upper half is a spatially complex arrangement of small shapes and tilting planes. The gradient color adds another twist to the visual experience. It is hard to imagine that this view is based on something experienced or remembered. Is the recessed rectangle a portal of some kind? What is the multicolored vertical linear form floating in the middle? Around the painting’s edges are tacks that have not been driven all the way into the stretcher, firmly affixing the canvas to its support. It’s as if Ito has not decided whether the painting needs further work. That state of being both finished and unfinished haunts the exhibition. 

For “Sea Chest” (1973), the title might allude to the fact that Ito and her family sailed from San Francisco to Japan and back in the 1920s. Is the arched form in the upper left a window looking onto a calm turquoise-blue sea or a mirror? It seems to be resting on a chest divided into six rectangles. What can be read into the lines descending from a circle? Is this a nod to Ito’s mastery of kanji, Japanese writing using Chinese ideograms? In the compositions that include a rectangle or arched plane, we glimpse something we cannot comprehend. A sense of longing and mystery, isolation and solitude fill the painting. The fact that Ito has yet to have a comprehensive monograph is inexcusable. 

Miyoko Ito continues at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

One reply on “Miyoko Ito’s Mysteries and Longings”

  1. She is the best thing Chicago has produced, and deserves much more attention than she’s gotten. Thanks for this thoughtful review. There are many seductive elements to her work and finding some integration has always been a challenge for me. Perhaps one of those artists whose work involves a stasis of unintegrated elements?

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