Artist to Know: Miyoko Ito

Liz Catalano
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Paintings from Chicago Artist Come to Auction with Hindman

For many years, Miyoko Ito was virtually unknown outside of Chicago. She painted abstract works with traces of Surrealism and Cubism during the 1960s and 70s. At the time, New York was embracing Pop Art, and many of Ito’s contemporaries in Chicago had banded together under the protection of the Hyde Park Art Center. Ito stood slightly apart from these other movements, instead creating her own visual language with asymmetry and evocative forms.

Four examples of her paintings will be available in Hindman’s upcoming Post War and Contemporary Art auction, which will be held live on May 21st. Discover Miyoko Ito before the sale begins.

Miyoko Ito, Island in the Sun, 1978. Image from the Paris Review.
Miyoko Ito, Island in the Sun, 1978. Image from the Paris Review.

The daughter of a Japanese immigrant, Ito was born in Berkeley, California, in 1918. At the age of five, her family moved to Yokohama, Japan. Just one day later, the Great Kanto Earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan. With a death toll of almost 150,000, it was the worst natural disaster in Japan to that point. This event was pivotal in Ito’s life, a moment she later linked to her history of nervous breakdowns and mental health issues. She found solace in the art classes of her Japanese primary school.

“Every time I have a problem, I go deeper and deeper into painting,” she later explained in an interview. “I have no place to take myself except painting.”

Ito returned to the United States after just a few years of living in Japan. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, during the late 1930s, where she met fellow artists Worth Ryder, John Haley, and Erle Loran. Ito also met her future husband there. It was during her senior year that President Franklin Roosevelt established Japanese internment camps through Executive Order 9066. She was forced to hasten her plans for marriage to stay with her husband while imprisoned. Though she got out of the camp a few months later after enrolling in a post-graduate program in Massachusetts, she would remain silent about her experiences for many years later. “It’s been a straight and narrow path all my life,” she said. “And it has been [for] a long time.”

Miyoko Ito, Irrigation, 1976. Image from Hindman.
Miyoko Ito, Irrigation, 1976. Image from Hindman.

Eventually settling in Chicago after World War II, Ito put off her painting career while raising her children. By the 1960s, however, she was finally able to pursue her work. Her color palette employed soft oranges and reds, which she paired with architectural forms and geometric shapes. The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) would later offer a solo presentation of her work in 2017, commenting on Ito’s bridge between abstraction and recognizable forms: “While references to landscape painting are overt, Ito’s work compellingly suggests a deeper engagement with psychological environments… pictures of a mind endeavoring to understand itself.”

She was soon established in the Chicago art community, often interacting with the Chicago Imagists. However, Ito kept to her own style of Surrealism and abstraction as opposed to their more figurative approach. Her paintings include suggestions of windows and archways, often with a single biomorphic form in the foreground. Though she was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in both Chicago and New York, her influence stayed local for decades. 

In 1978, just five years before her death, Ito’s gallery ran an exhibition of her work in New York. Peter Frank, writing for ARTnews, reported on his discovery of the Chicago artist: “Ito is a master of intense but exquisitely modulated color… This is an optical magic, forbidding almost surrealistically the emergence of recognizable reality.”

More recently, Ito has been rediscovered by the art world. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019, decorated his office with Ito’s Chiffonier to support local art history. Many of her old colleagues and friends have also drawn attention back to her work, prompting a 2018 show in New York’s Artists Space.

Miyoko Ito at the opening of Miyoko Ito: A Review at the University of Chicago, 1980. Image from Artists Space.
Miyoko Ito at the opening of Miyoko Ito: A Review at the University of Chicago, 1980. Image from Artists Space.

Ito has also drawn increased attention at auction. Hindman, a Chicago-based auction house, has offered several of her works over the last few years, fetching prices between $15,000 and $28,000. In December of 2019, two of Ito’s pieces sold in close succession. Her Sea Crest painting held her worldwide auction record when it sold for $143,750. Minutes later, that record was broken by the next lot, titled Sea Changes. It realized $212,500 against a presale estimate of $15,000 – $25,000. The piece saw 40 bids before setting the artist’s current record. 

Hindman’s Senior Specialist of Post War and Contemporary Art, Zack Wirsum, released a statement about the auction’s success: “We are ecstatic to continue to build and pace the market for our hometown heroes… We have every indication that this is much more than a moment.”

Available in the upcoming sale is a 1976 oil painting by Ito, titled Irrigation. This piece was made in softer shades of yellow and orange, accented with stripes of pale blue. Three curved forms crest at the top of the painting, which is divided across the center by a rust-colored line. It was sourced from the Phyllis Kind Gallery and exhibited at the University of Chicago’s review of her work in 1980. This lot has a presale estimate of $40,000 – $60,000, with bids starting at $20,000. Three other works by Ito will be presented as well. 

For more information about the available Ito paintings and to view the full auction details, visit Bidsquare.