New York

Miyoko Ito, Heart of Hearts, Basking, 1973, oil on canvas, 44 x 31".

Miyoko Ito, Heart of Hearts, Basking, 1973, oil on canvas, 44 x 31".

Miyoko Ito

Miyoko Ito, Heart of Hearts, Basking, 1973, oil on canvas, 44 x 31".

In the painting Heart of Hearts, Basking, 1973, the viewer finds herself in an immensurable yet sensuous concrete space. In the extreme foreground, two molten pools of red paint swell upward, dammed on either side by brown embankments and above by a barrier of stacked elongated cylinders. A sweeping, prohibitive diagonal line girdles the picture, its upper register marked by a rectangular aperture that opens onto contiguous passages of tan and translucent blue that reflexively read as sand, sea, and sky. As this distant, elusive beach materializes, and categorical distinctions of abstraction and figuration tire and give out, both terms disclose their fragility and codependence.

This painting provided both the title and the tone of the first New York institutional exhibition of the work of the artist Miyoko Ito (1918–1983). Until now, she was little known outside her adopted hometown of Chicago. Forgoing both Abstract Expressionism’s cult of the painterly gesture and the mass-culture imagery of Pop, Ito’s work and legacy slipped between the cracks of these two dominant modes of postwar painting. Although she was friendly with, and sometimes exhibited alongside, the Chicago Imagists, her restrained, glacial atmospheres were temperamentally distant from these younger artists’ comic-grotesque figuration. “To be called an old-lady painter, passé, at age thirty, thirty-one, is very hard to take,” the artist recalled in a 1978 interview, “At the same time, I had no choice.”

Born in Berkeley, California, in 1918 to Japanese parents, Ito spent her early childhood in Japan, where she was exposed to a strict traditional education emphasizing calligraphy and painting. She returned to the West Coast as a teenager, studying watercolor at the University of California, Berkeley, in what she would later describe as a “snobbish” modernist style that fused elements of Synthetic Cubism, Cézannian Post-Impressionism, and the color theory of Hans Hofmann. Ito’s studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, when she and her husband were interned at Tanforan Racetrack near San Francisco under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the incarceration of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry.

The thirteen paintings at Artists Space were made long after this disgraceful chapter in American history. The earliest, Kalamazoo, 1959—with its jolly jumble of bio- and zoomorphic forms—demonstrates Ito’s early-career interest in Paul Klee, and in the Surrealist-era works of Picasso. A nine-year caesura separates Ito’s early paintings from the arid, sunset-colored topography of Gorodiva, 1968,where her idiosyncratic interpretation of late Cubism dissolves into an austere landscape of ombré-style gradients and scallop-edged forms. Dunes and runnels in subtly calibrated pink, green, and yellow cascade from a valise-like shape enclosing bands of dusty rose-colored strata. Space, only tentatively suggested in Kalamazoo, is here compartmentalized and multidimensional. Windows, arches, and thresholds open onto abstract vistas and cavities that evoke both sprawling terrains and depthless psychological interiors.

“Every time I have a problem, I go deeper and deeper into painting,” Ito once said. “I have no place to take myself except painting.” Given the dislocation, internment, and belatedness that mark the artist’s biography, it’s significant that Ito understood her medium in explicitly spatial, situated terms—as a “place” to be entered and inhabited, from her palatial, arabesque-crowned Island in the Sun, 1978, to the bleached container of Walls of No Escape, 1980. These cerebral prisons and palaces also mark new destinations in a decentered, vastly expanded and enriched history of modernism, now coming into view. 

Chloe Wyma