• Miyoko Ito
    oil on canvas
    30 x 38 inches

  • Miyoko Ito
    Untitled (still life with fishbowl)
    11 1/2 x 16 inches

  • Miyoko Ito
    Objects in the Nursery
    12 x 16 inches


b. 1918 – d. 1983

Miyoko Ito produced a singular body of work that hovers between figurative allusion and geometric abstraction. Born in 1918 in Berkeley to Japanese parents, Ito received a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1942. Trained first by watercolorists, Ito early on was influenced by the synthetic Cubism of Braque and Picasso (she had seen Picasso’s first large-scale retrospective while at college in Berkeley), as well as the planar geometry of Hans Hofmann. After a year of graduate study at Smith College in Massachusetts and time in an internment camp for Japanese Americans, Ito arrived in Chicago in 1944, and accepted a graduate scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her shift to oil painting came at the end of the 1940s at Oxbow, a summer art school in Michigan affiliated with SAIC, where she created work that could be described as “abstract impressionism” – a painterly surface of short brush strokes combined with the formal organization of Cubism.

Ito was awarded several prizes in the Art Institute’s annual Chicago & Vicinity shows, and was included in their 61st American Exhibition in 1954, which featured such artists as Willem de Kooning, Joseph Albers, and Alexander Calder. Ito received the 1954 Cahn Prize for a painting by a Chicago artist. While concentrating on raising her two children during the 1950s, Ito sustained friendships with SAIC art historians Kathleen Blackshear and Whitney Halstead, and artists Evely Statsinger, Tom Kapsalis, Vera Berdich, and Ray Yoshida. Surrealism, one of their common interests, began to influence Ito’s paintings. Landscapes and interiors became less recognizable as such. Images of land and water were evoked by intertwining organic forms and tubular bands. These tensions between surface and space and abstraction and representation became hallmarks of Ito’s art.

As overt references to literal objects began to disappear, Ito’s palette began to change from soft, subtle colors to glowing reds and oranges. A single biomorphic shape came to hover in front of horizontal bands that span the width of the canvas. Ito eventually brought back the poetic pastels of her early work, but intermittently used this dramatic palette. She continued to paint suggestions rather than depiction: arched forms for windows or mirrors, curved lines and rounded elements alluding to the body. These paintings of the 1960s and 1970s exemplify the link between Chicago Imagism and abstraction. Other series form the 1970s are characterized by cooler hues, references to furniture, and occasionally, figurative elements. The 1980s brought a return to a more hard-edged abstraction, related in this sense, as well as in their common use of evocative imagery, to the works of Chicagoans William Conger, Richard Loving, and Frank Piatek, who called themselves “Allusive Abstractionist.” The metaphoric, dreamy stillness of Ito’s paintings provokes a meditation on the experience, memory, place, and time.

Though Ito was a mainstay of the Chicago art community, she also exhibited at Zabrinskie Gallery in New York in 1961 and was represented by Phyllis Kind Gallery in both Chicago and New York. In 1971, Don Baum, Ito’s long-time friend, organized a one-person exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center. Her work was included in the 1975 Biennial Exhibition: Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Renaissance Society honored Ito with a major retrospective in 1980. She died three years later at the age of sixty-five.

Biography by Staci Boris, from Art in Chicago 1945 – 1995