Satoru Abe


Name Satoru Abe
Born June 13 1926
Birth Location Honolulu
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Satoru Abe is an internationally renowned Nisei artist from Hawai'i.

Background

Satoru Abe was born in 1926 in Mō'ili'ili, near Kaheka Street to parents Kuhachi and Toyo Abe and he was one of six children. While attending McKinley High School, he developed an affinity for art. Abe took art classes with artist and teacher Shirley Russell, but was not particularly interested in school otherwise. "At McKinley, I just like to play—so I took art—straight through!" he later recalled. "Painting, drawing, everything. It was fun, I liked doing things with my hands; and no homework." After graduating, he worked for a period of time at Dairyman's where he was an assistant pasteurizer. At that point, Abe recalled, "I realized, is this what I'm going to be for the rest of my life? That's when I decided I'm going to be an artist. I went home and told my parents and they gave me their blessing. They said, 'Well be prepared to be poor.'"[1] Resolved to be an artist, Abe first took painting classes from Hon Chew Hee at the Honolulu YMCA in 1947 while working various jobs at Love's Bakery, Lewers & Cooke, and Dairyman's. In 1948, Abe left Hawai'i and first arrived in California where he studied under the famed printmaker William Hayter at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He picked strawberries and did menial work to make ends meet, then headed to Chicago, and finally New York.

Education and Training

In New York, Abe attended the Art Students League during the day studying painting with artists like Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Louis Bouche, and George Grosz and worked as a dishwasher in the afternoon. At school, he met Ruth Tanji from Wahiawa who was studying fashion design. She had graduated from Leilehua High School in 1942 and had come to New York in 1947 to pursue a career in fashion. After graduating from the Traphagen School of Fashion, Ruth studied with Kuniyoshi. In 1950, they were married and returned to Hawai'i where Ruth gave birth to their daughter Gail. Abe returned to work at Dairyman's, while Ruth worked as a textile designer. He continued to paint and began to exhibit in town. His first solo exhibition, set for the State Library, was canceled due to the presence of some nudes. "I was just out of Art Students League and very idealistic, and I felt that they should show all the paintings or none of them," he recalled. The show ended up at Takeo Gima's frame shop and gallery in Waikīkī, then one of the only venues in town for local artists. The show resulted in sales of some $3,000, nearly a year's salary at that time. In Hawai'i. Abe met other up-and-coming artists at this time including Tadashi Sato, Tetsuo Ochikubo, James Park, Jerry Okimoto, Edmund Chung, Isami Doi, Bumpei Akaji, and Harry Tsuchidana. According to Abe, "we really built a camaraderie because we were considered outcasts by society. It was after the war, and everybody else was so busy trying to make a living. Art was the farthest thing on their minds, even to look at it for free."[2] They began meeting at a studio they set up at Metcalf Street and became known as the "Metcalf Chateau" holding both individual and group shows. In 1952, Abe went to Japan for a year to seek his cultural roots and to explore Buddhism. He was supported in his quest by Ruth, who continued to work as a textile designer at Shaheen's. While in Japan, he absorbed the arts scene, and took part in group shows as well as two solo exhibitions in Tōkyō.

Abe began as a painter, but soon began to explore sculpture as well. Along with Bumpei Akaji, he convinced the owner of a service station to let them use his welding tools to experiment with bronze rods as sculptural material in 1951. Abe's early work in both painting and sculpture bridged representation and abstraction and often invoked the human figure. Early influences included the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whom he had encountered in New York, along with Doi and Kuniyoshi. Abe's works tended to focus on a solitary figure juxtaposed with non-human elements, as in the sculpture Adam (1954), his first commissioned work, and in a number of his "white paintings," that put the figures against a white background.

Career Highlights

In 1956, the Abe family moved to New York so that Satoru could pursue his art career at the center of the art world. The family home was in Littleneck, Long Island, while his professional home became The Sculpture Center on 69th Street. Owned by Dorothea Denslow, the Center included a gallery and open studio with five welding stations. Abe was able to set up shop there and would have four solo shows there over the next fifteen years. He also took part regularly in group shows including one at the Museum of Modern Art. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. Many of his Hawai'i artist friends also found their way to New York and many set up shop in nearby buildings.

In 1968, he was visited by Alfred Preis, the director of the Hawaii State Foundation of Culture and Arts, who encouraged him to return home. In 1970, he received a grant from the National Endowment of Arts to be a resident artist in Wai'anae and to do a sculpture for Nanakuli High School. The family built a home in Makaha and moved back in 1972. Through the 1970s and 1980s, he would receive many commissions for large scale public sculptures throughout the Hawaiian Islands. During his career, he kept on developing his own style of sculpting that utilized non-human organic figures, most notably the tree forms that author Wayne Muramoto described in an article on Abe's career:

His metal and wood sculptures took on organic forms, with shapes that resembled robust leaves, or the multiplying tendrils of tree branches, reaching ever outward. His abstract paintings reflected those shapes, or they took on deep, rich colors and other kinds of markings, reminiscent of cellular activity, growth, multiplicating complexity and uncontainable life.[3]

In the 1960s, he also began to work in wood and to combine wood and metal in some sculptures. He continued to work in both painting and sculpture, and his work in each medium influenced his work in the other. Thus, his sculptural forms often found their way into his paintings, and painterly mark-making appears on the surfaces of many sculptures. Throughout his career, Abe has produced over 5,000 pieces of art, many of them displayed in locations throughout Hawai'i including the Hawai'i Convention Center, Kaiser Permanente, Farrington High School, Aloha Stadium, Honolulu International Airport, and in the collection of the State Foundation of Culture and the Arts. Abe continues to work even as he claims that "mentally, it is getting harder. I got too much junk in my head."[4] In 1988, his solo exhibition was part of the opening of the new Contemporary Museum in Honolulu. In 1998, a fifty-year retrospective of his career took place at the Contemporary Museum. He continues to work out of his house in Kaimukī and for three years operated a gallery called Satoru's Art Gallery in the Pioneer Plaza in downtown Honolulu. He has been honored in shows both locally and nationally, including the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. According to David de la Torre, director of the Art in Public Places Program and the Hawai'i State Art Museum, "[Abe's] artistic contributions to the state and its cultural life should not be underestimated. He deserves our deepest respect and admiration for his ongoing dedication and commitment to enriching our lives with his work."[5]

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Abe, Satoru. "Sketches, 1956-1966," Bamboo Ridge: The Hawai'i Writers Quarterly 54 (Fall 1991): 7-12.

Artists of Hawaii, Volume 1: Nineteen Painters and Sculptors, photographs by Francis Haar, interviews by Prithwish Neogy, with an introduction by Jean Charlot. Honolulu: The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the University Press of Hawaii, 1974.

Artists of Hawaii, part 5: Satoru Abe. Video. Produced by Ed McNulty, directed by Bob Barnett, written and narrated by Devon Guard, content advisor, Stanley Yamamoto. "A production of the Hawaii State Department of Education," n.d. [1984?]

Clarke, Joan, and Diane Dods, eds. Artists/Hawaii. Dana Edmunds, photographer. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Kam, Nadine. "Satoru Abe Closing Shop in Kalihi." Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Apr. 30, 2006.

Morse, Marcia. Legacy: Facets of Island Modernism. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2001.

Satoru Abe: Fifteen Sculptures, 1954-1980. Brochure. Honolulu: Contemporary Arts Center 1982. Text by Mary Mistuda.

Satoru Abe: A Retrospective 1948-1998. Organized by The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Curated by James Jensen and Allison Wong. Honolulu: The Contemporary Museum, 1998.

Stone, Scott C. Living Treasures of Hawai'i: 25th Anniversary of the Selections of Outstanding Persons as Honored by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i. Honolulu: Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i, 2000, 65.

Wechsler, Jeffrey, ed. Asian Traditions Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Footnotes

  1. Rasa Fournier, "Satoru Abe: Godfather of Honolulu’s Art Scene," Midweek, March 13, 2013, 32.
  2. Nadine Kam, "After a Lifetime Creating Art, Abe Talks About His Death," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Aug. 7, 2005, accessed on April 11, 2016 at http://archives.starbulletin.com/2005/08/07/features/story3.html.
  3. Wayne Muramoto, "The Enduring Satoru Abe," Hawai'i Herald, August 5, 2005, 10.
  4. Muramoto, "The Enduring Satoru Abe," 10.
  5. Kam, "After a Lifetime," http://archives.starbulletin.com/2005/08/07/features/story3.html.