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George Miyasaki: Circles (1958 – 1964)

George Miyasaki at CACC

George Miyasaki (b. 1935 – d. 2013) was a Hawaiian-born artist of Japanese descent who made major contributions to the Bay area art scene as an artist and educator. His legacy is only finally getting its due, most recently with the installation of his painting Big Medicine (1982) in the permanent collection galleries of the SF MOMA and an inclusion in Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Like so many minority artists, his works were often held to a different set of standards by his critics, audience and peers, who often tried to deduce biographic or ethnically-specific narratives in his art. Miyasaki was known for being very reticent about speaking of his work, though his close friends remember him always saying that “if it doesn’t make your heart go ‘pity pat,’ maybe it’s not worth doing.”

Miyasaki came to the Bay Area to study at the California College of the Arts under Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Olivera. Both of these artists had an important influence in his work throughout his career. Though Miyasaki found his own distinctive voice early on, he was also greatly inspired by the gestural abstraction of the New York School of Abstraction. Miyasaki counts as an important voice within the Abstract Expressionist movement, though as an Asian-American artist, his contributions have been overlooked until now. He also experimented with emerging Pop Art aesthetics, and the hard-edged abstractions that ensued after this shift in interest became a large part of his practice.

Though Miyasaki’s distinct style was developed at an early age, the abstraction visible in Untitled #2 McAuley Series (1958) was influenced by his teacher Richard Diebenkorn. His interest in texture and his keen eye for nature inspired these compositions. Here a circle depicts a sun rising over a gestural landscape that is organized in grids.

George Miyasaki
Berkeley #52
1955, Oil on Canvas, 58 5/8 x 53 7/8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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The symbol of the circle emerged as an important iconography in Miyasaki’s work during a transitional period of his career, in which he broke free of the gestural abstraction that had come to define his work in favor of more experimental compositions. Via his treatment of the circle motif and his choice of titling in his early 1960’s work, it is easy to see how Miyasaki played with the symbol’s simultaneous connotations with themes of universality and specificity.

Miyasaki looked to various art movements for inspiration, including a Dadaist philosophy for spontaneity and improvisation that subverts traditional conceptions of intentionality in the fine arts. In Red-48, Miyasaki imports a strong surrealist imagery replete with miscellaneous numbers, painted-over details and references to previous paintings. Indeed, the circles featured in this work are echoes from past work. The cut-out of a magenta circle on the top right of the composition is a reference to the bright shape of Circle-64 (1963), while the rimmed circle pasted on the bottom left seems directly copied from The Sky Above, the Earth Below (1964).

In its composition and polychrome choice of color, The Sky Above, the Earth Below (1964) is reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s rectangular color field paintings. By unevenly splitting the composition of his lithograph into two rectangles and echoing a circular shape in both sections of the print, Miyasaki toys with the vibrant visual tension that colors can emanate when juxtaposed and manipulated together. The searing depth Miyasaki achieves in the top rectangle and the comparably shallow aspect of the red-on-purple stain in the bottom half of the composition surely echo the remarkable mastery of color Rothko achieved in his own works.

In celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, Miyasaki’s use of the circle becomes an appropriate symbol of the idea of art and identity. The circles in his work both interpellate and unify Miyasaki’s multiple identities as an artist, a native of Hawai’i, an academic and an Asian-American. It points to Miyasaki as an artist in flux, whose work could not be defined by a single movement nor a single clear-cut narrative thread. Though as an individual, he is a powerful figure in terms of representation for Asian Americans in the art world, the strength and importance of his work are—and were designed to be—universal.