Satoru Abe

born Honolulu, HI 1926
Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
  • American

Satoru Abe is a modern artist known for his painting and sculpture. Born and raised in Hawaiʻi, he is widely recognized as a leading artistic figure of the islands.

Abe was born in Moʻiliʻili, a district of Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, to parents who were immigrants from Japan. While his interest in art emerged in high school, when he took several classes taught by the painter Shirley Russell, it was his experience studying painting with Maui-based artist Hon Chew Hee at the YMCA that solidified his desire to pursue a career in art. In 1948, Abe spent a summer at the California Academy for Fine Arts in San Francisco, then moved to New York City, where he enrolled in the Art Students League and studied under Louis Bouche, John Caroll, and George Grosz. Returning to Hawaiʻi in 1950, Abe joined a growing circle of modernist artists. Among them was Isami Doi, one of the earliest Hawaiʻi-born artists to achieve an international reputation, who served as a mentor to many younger Hawaiian artists, including Abe. Abe became associated with the artists Tadashi Sato, Bumpei Akaji, Edmund Chung, Tetsuo Ochikubo, Jerry T. Okimoto, and James Park, who exhibited together as the Metcalf Chateau or the Group of Seven.

Abe's interest in sculpture began serendipitously in 1951 when he and Bumpei Akaji were given several pounds of bronze rods and began experimenting with metalworking techniques. His early sculptures were translations of the long and slender “Everyman” figure, a recurrent motif in his paintings. By 1956, Abe returned to New York City and began working at the Sculpture Center, where he found the necessary space and resources to advance his practice thanks to the support of the Center’s founder and director Dorothea Denslow. The Sculpture Center showcased Abe’s work in four solo exhibitions between 1956 and 1965. During this time, several significant motifs emerged in Abe’s art that balance representation with geometric abstraction: the seed, moon, wheel, and tree. Abe has said of his tree forms, “[I think] of them as extensions or transformations of the human form, probably an influence of my Oriental birth and the philosophy of reincarnation. I am still searching for answers to the questions ‘Where was I,’ ‘What is life for,’ [and] ‘Where will I go?’”

In 1970, Abe returned to Hawaiʻi through an artist's residency funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and decided to stay permanently. Abe was named a Living Treasure by the Honpa Honwanji Betsuin in 1984 and ran his gallery space, Satoru’s Art Gallery, between 2006 and 2014. He has been honored with numerous achievement awards, including from the Hawaiʻi Arts Alliance, the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiʻi. In addition to many solo shows, his artistic career has been the subject of two retrospective exhibitions, first at the Contemporary Arts Center in Honolulu in 1982 and then at the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu in 1998. Abe’s public sculptures, many commissioned by the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, can be seen throughout the state.

Authored by Anna Lee, SAAM Curatorial Assistant for Asian American Art, 2023.