Tadashi Sato

born Honolulu, HI 1923-died HI 2005
Honolulu, Hawaii, United States

Tadashi Sato was a painter, muralist, mosaicist, and one of the most active artists to emerge from Hawaiʻi since World War II. Sato took inspiration from nature, calligraphy, and Zen Buddhism to create effervescent, abstract compositions.

Sato was born on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where his mother worked as a pineapple plantation laborer and his father for a large ranch-running family. Although he displayed artistic talent from an early age, he did not pursue a career in the arts until after World War II. Sato served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment and was tasked with translating and duplicating maps based on his knowledge of Japanese language and calligraphy. After the war and through the G.I. Bill, Sato enrolled at the Honolulu School of Arts, where he met painter and visiting faculty member Ralston Crawford. With Crawford’s encouragement and support, Sato moved to New York City in 1948, where he studied with Crawford at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and with Stuart Davis at the New School for Social Research. Many of Sato’s early works reflect the light, shadow, and urban structures he encountered in New York, particularly in its underground subway system.

Sato’s style markedly changed during the 1950s, especially after he spent a summer near the ocean in Nova Scotia. The experience led him to depart from precise, sharp-edged brushwork to painting with soft edges, for example, in depicting rocks submerged underwater. Sato later described these works as “non-objective, bordering on abstraction,” and based on his memories of Maui—“its mountains, ocean, colors, but I make them mine.” Selling his paintings to the actors and collectors Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, and Cornelia Otis Skinner allowed Sato to become a full-time artist. He quit his post as a security guard for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and gained representation by the Willard Gallery, where his exhibitions were reviewed in major press publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Art in America.

By 1960, after a period of living and working between New York, Hawaiʻi, and Japan, Sato settled in Hawaiʻi with his family. Under the mentorship of artist Isami Doi, he joined a growing community of Japanese American and Asian American modernist artists of his generation. He was primarily associated with Satoru Abe, Bumpei Akaji, Tetsuo Ochikubo, Harry Tsuchidana, Jerry Okimoto, Edmund Chung, and James Park, together known as the Metcalf Chateau or the Group of Seven. Sato continued making art until his death from cancer in 2005. There have been two retrospective exhibitions of Sato’s work, one organized by the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi (now the Honolulu Museum of Art) in 2002, and another by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2022.

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