Maker to Market: Ruth Asawa Reappraised

As published in The Journal of Modern Craft, Volume 8–Issue 2, November 2015

FIG 1 IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM, RUTH HOLDING A FORM-WITHIN-FORM SCULPTURE, 1952. © IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM TRUST.

FIG 1 IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM, RUTH HOLDING A FORM-WITHIN-FORM SCULPTURE, 1952. © IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM TRUST.

When Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) (Figures 1 and 2) died in August, 2013, the obituaries that appeared in newspapers and magazines across the US characterized her life’s work with a diverse array of descriptors. In the pages of the New York Times, she was an “artist who wove wire.”1 In the Los Angeles Times, a “California sculptor.”2 In an article appearing in the SFGate, she was “overlooked.”3 And according to Art+Auction, she had enjoyed a “late, meteoric rise from obscurity.”4 Reading the story of Asawa’s career from these headlines alone, one might suppose that she was an under-recognized artist using a traditionally feminine technique to create objects from humble material, and that by some fluke, she had been bestowed with a late-life spike in recognition, even celebrity. However, evidence of a flourishing career in the 1950s, which included commissions, solo exhibitions in New York, and an acquisition by the Whitney Museum of American Art, appears to contradict the notion that Asawa toiled for decades in anonymity.

In the latter part of her career, Asawa focused her energies on education and public art projects in San Francisco, teaching hands-on workshops at the museum of art and science in the city, the Exploratorium, and creating sculptures and fountains in an accessible, even sentimental style. During this period she found the demands of a full-time gallery relationship too demanding, and participated less and less in exhibitions of contemporary art. So, rather than simple obscurity, what Asawa may have had by the end of her life instead was the wrong kind of renown, at least in the view of contemporary art circles (then, as now). The 2013 catalog Ruth Asawa: Objects and Apparitions that accompanied the sale of some of her wire sculptures at Christie’s positions Asawa as a sculptor whose aesthetic could be misunderstood owing to its visual and technical similarity to traditional handicraft. What the catalog leaves out, however, is more telling: while the essays address the issue of her gender and the “craft question” head on, they sidestep her public work and teaching career almost entirely. This suggests that, at least in the case of Asawa, there is a more complex reason for her on–off relationship with the marketplace than her use of craft techniques and materials, and that the now-familiar narrative of the “overlooked craft artist” is too reductive an account for the reception of her oeuvre. A shift in the perception of her practice and identity as an artist may account for her recent success on the secondary market for postwar sculpture, where she is now, posthumously, a rising star.

FIG 2 UNTITLED, 1960, COPPER WIRE, 22 × 14 ½ × 8ʹʹ. COURTESY OF MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY, LLC, NEW YORK, NY

FIG 2 UNTITLED, 1960, COPPER WIRE, 22 × 14 ½ × 8ʹʹ. COURTESY OF MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY, LLC, NEW YORK, NY

There are two distinct concerns that shaped Asawa’s reception while she was alive: first, the confluence of her formal style and her gender led to her early typecasting as a craftsperson whose artistic intentions were subsumed by a meditative and repetitive working method. Second, by moving away from the creation of discrete objects for gallery and museum exhibitions towards a focus on public art, Asawa’s output aligned with an aesthetic point of view, well-loved and understood by the general public, but decidedly out of step with contemporary sculpture. Two of her best-known public works are fountains created in a representational style bordering on the sentimental—the aesthetic and conceptual antithesis of her hanging works in wire.

Prices for Asawa’s work have blossomed, starting with her 2006 retrospective (her first at the age of 80) The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, and culminating with a blockbuster exhibition and the private sale of her sculpture at Christie’s in 2013. If critics, curators, and a circle of collectors that included the likes of the Rockefellers and Philip Johnson saw ft to give Asawa’s work kudos as early as the 1950s, the sudden recent spike in sales nearly sixty years later demands a nuanced explanation. The passions of Asawa’s life—her family, her art, and her activism—are explored to greater or lesser extents in both Contours in the Air and the Christie’s catalog, but the way in which she is portrayed as an artist who made sculpture, rather than as a mother and art teacher who “wove wire” (or indeed, crocheted), moves her career and output into a much more highly valued category on the auction block.

In his 2013 article in Art+Auction exploring the surging interest in Asawa’s work, writer Ashton Cooper notes that her first solo exhibition in New York occurred at the Peridot Gallery in 1954, which happens to be the same venue that presented a young Louise Bourgeois’ first solo show in 1949.5 In 1955, Asawa’s work was included in the Whitney Museum’s annual “Survey of New Art,” the exhibition known today as the Whitney Biennial. Asawa was also invited to take part in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial, quickly expanding her growing reputation into the Southern hemisphere. Yet, “despite these early successes,” Cooper writes, “many critics were quick to characterize Asawa’s output as ‘women’s work’ or ‘craft’.”6 It goes without saying, we can only assume that this was a negative characterization.

There is an oft-repeated narrative about women in the postwar period working in materials like fiber, or clay, toiling in the shadows of the major figures in contemporary art movements of their day by dint of their gender and their choice of material and form: women performing women’s work. The argument follows that it is natural for women, and thus intuitive rather than inventive or ingenious, to weave, knit, twist, crochet, or embroider her work into existence. In her classic text from 1984, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozsika Parker would argue that this supposed naturalness is socially constructed. In addition to the long-established traditional hierarchy separating the fne from the decorative arts, the special domestic and care-taking associations with textiles, from bed linens to clothing, have made the practice of fber sculpture a hotly contested area. As Elissa Auther demonstrates in String, Felt, Thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, women artists such as Eva Hesse and Sheila Hicks destabilized this categorization from the mid-twentieth century onward, particularly through their use of monumentally scaled works and off-loom technique.7

In her catalog essay “Critiquing the Critique: Ruth Asawa’s Early Reception” from the 2006 exhibition Contours in the Air at the DeYoung Museum, Emily K. Doman Jennings closely examines the reception of Asawa’s first exhibitions through a close reading of contemporary reviews and articles. Reactions to Asawa’s work were often shaped by a preoccupation with her ethnicity, which seems to have been assigned an importance out of proportion with its real significance to Asawa’s own practice. As cited by Jennings, art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki has termed this point of view “typecasting by nationality,” and it was not uncommon in the 1950s art world.8 Jennings notes that reaction to Asawa’s work in the 1950s demonstrated a fascination with both her gender and her Japanese heritage (not always in tandem) and that these concerns seemed to shape critics’ understanding of what they were looking at.

A 1955 article in Time Magazine entitled “Eastern Yeast” paired Asawa with fellow Japanese-American (and native Californian) Isamu Noguchi. In the review, Asawa is identified as a “housewife and mother of three,” although in the very next sentence, the author notes that she studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. The work of both artists is praised, if essentialized: “Noguchi and Asawa share one quality of Oriental art that Western artists often lack: economy of means.”9 Although Noguchi could be fairly described as having been infuenced by Japanese aesthetics (he lived for a time in Japan), Asawa was raised in the US by vegetable farmers with little formal education of their own, and she was educated herself in American schools. If she was aware of or intrigued by Japanese aesthetics in particular or East Asian art in general, it was more likely that she had been introduced to these topics in the course of her studies with Albers and Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain.10

Japanese aesthetics were a source of fascination in the worlds of American art and design in the years following the Second World War. Yuko Kikuchi has shown that there was a rich (if at times muddled) exchange of ideas between the two countries characterized by what she terms the “Orientalist” reception of the Japanese Mingei movement in the West. Mingei espoused an idealized notion of authenticity in the folk crafts, but like all retrospective movements, it was not a pure specimen unearthed from pre-modern Japan; rather, it was a hybrid of old and new ideas woven together by founder Yanagi Soetsu, who was an avid student of the Western Arts and Crafts movement.11 During the war, the notions of ethnicity and nationality had been dangerously blurred by the decision to intern American citizens of Japanese descent. It is not surprising, then, that in the years that followed, even art world cognoscenti fell into the logic of essentialism with regard to Japanese ethnicity.

More damning from a fine art point of view than the curious attention to her ethnic background was the notion that Asawa’s work was little more than a form of elaborate basket-weaving that truly belonged in the realm of the domestic and the decorative. These perceptions were probably not unrelated, however: if the handicraft of the East was ahistorical, preindustrial and eternal, positioned as simpler and even primitive relative to the art of the West, then “women’s work” can be read as a kind of gendered analog to “Oriental art.” The reviews of Asawa’s 1956 solo exhibition at the Peridot Gallery were generally complimentary of her skill and aesthetic sense, but dismissive of her work with regard to the larger context of contemporary art practice. The review in ArtNews left little room for interpretation: “These are ‘domestic’ sculptures in a feminine handiwork mode.”12 The New York Times review described her work as “beautiful, if primarily only decorative objects in space.”13 The harshest words came from Otis Gage, who reviewed the exhibition for Arts & Architecture: “[T]he repeated, unvarying, interlocking loops of wire give an inevitable look of craftwork that relates these objects uncomfortably to baskets and fish traps and other mechanically made objects.”14 That Gage knew “baskets” and “craftwork” were grounds for categorical dismissal without needing to explain why confirms that the art world of the 1950s was, at least in male-dominated commercial centers like New York City, not quite ready for works that explored the layered meanings of techniques like knitting and crochet, even in non-traditional materials.

If Asawa was stung by these critiques, she did not show it, nor did she make much of an effort to downplay her roles as wife and mother. She had had a tough but remarkably resilient childhood, spending her teenage years in two internment camps, first in California and later in Arkansas, and witnessed her father being arrested after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Supported in part by Quaker charities, she traveled to Mexico with her sister and was inspired by the techniques she observed there of basket-weavers who used inexpensive wire to make their vessels.15 In 1946, with little money and an incomplete teaching degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College (she could not complete the required hours of classroom time because schools would not hire a Japanese-American teacher), she found herself in North Carolina studying with some of the most renowned artists and thinkers of the time. She met her husband Albert Lanier at Black Mountain College, married young, and had her first child at the age of 24. So if she was to be a “mother and housewife” on top of everything else she wanted to do, her remarkable ability to work in unpredictable and challenging circumstances with limited resources would serve her art-making practice well.

The photographer Imogen Cunningham—whose atmospheric portraits of Asawa with her wire sculptures capture the artist in moments of bohemian glamour—advised Ruth to “make sculpture and not babies.”16 But make them she did, eventually having six children between 1950 and 1959. In an image from 1952 (Figure 1), a young Asawa poses with one of her wire sculptures, sporting dark lipstick, her face geometrically framed by long, straight bangs. In another Cunningham portrait from 1958 (Figure 3), Asawa works on a wire sculpture as four of her children play beside her, the smallest of whom is naked and enjoying a bottle as he watches his mother work.

FIG 3 IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM, RUTH AND HER CHILDREN AT HOME, 1957. © IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM TRUST

FIG 3 IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM, RUTH AND HER CHILDREN AT HOME, 1957. © IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM TRUST

As her children became school-aged, Asawa, who remembered how important her own art education had been during her tumultuous childhood, became increasingly involved with art in the public sphere. In 1968, she joined the San Francisco Arts Commission, where she worked doggedly for arts education reform. She also helped establish the Alvarado Arts Workshop, a visiting artist program that brought professionals in the visual and performing arts to dozens of San Francisco public schools.17 This work, along with her studio practice, appears to have been where her heart was, and she increasingly found the demands of active gallery representation too distracting.

One moniker Asawa earned during this period appears in the headline for the obituary that ran in the San Francisco Examiner: “the Fountain Lady.”18 It is perhaps this association more than anything, including her decision to “weave” her early sculptural work, that may have alienated her from the contemporary commercial art world. Not only was Asawa a wife and mother who made work using traditionally feminine techniques, as an arts activist she was committed to working with two populations not especially well-loved in the more elite corridors of the art world: school children and the general public. She served for eight years on the San Francisco Arts Commission, and became a member of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Task Force on the education and training of artists, among numerous other civic appointments.

Asawa began working on commissions for civic projects in the early 1970s, the most famous of which is the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain in San Francisco (Figures. 4–6). She became involved with the fountain project by chance: architect Chuck Bassett of the frm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill happened to see an exhibition at the California Redwood Association that featured sculpture by Asawa as well as work by some of the children who attended the Alvarado Elementary School. Bassett was part of the design team for the new Grand Hyatt San Francisco, and wanted to find an artist to help realize an engaging design for the fountain that was to sit just in front of the hotel’s entrance. The children’s work in the Redwood Association exhibition had been crafted from a substance Ruth called “baker’s clay,” an inedible mixture of four, salt, and water, which could be worked like real ceramic and then “fred” in an ordinary oven. The children’s works depicted scenes from daily life at Alvarado. (A photograph by Rondal Patridge of Asawa’s living room— Figure 7—shows a group of baked dough sculptures on a table in the foreground.) Charmed, Bassett suggested that Asawa work with children from different parts of the city to create a large, low-relief for the fountain’s exterior.19 The cast bronze cylinder that resulted bore the efforts of children and friends of Asawa’s, including leaves fashioned by Ruth’s mother, Haru Asawa.

FIG 4 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973. CAST BRONZE, 13ʹ3ʹʹ DIAMETER × 7ʹ HIGH. PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA.

FIG 4 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973. CAST BRONZE, 13ʹ3ʹʹ DIAMETER × 7ʹ HIGH. PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA.

The fountain resembles a monochromatic, sculptural Breugel painting touched with the relentless energy of Richard Scarry’s Busytown: jolly, stylized, and densely packed with detail. Its greenish patina and rough surface read from afar a bit like a Harry Bertoia sculpture, or an enormous Paul Evans coffee table. It is also very literal: building facades and human fgures are rendered sweetly and accurately. It is not abstract or even impressionistic. It is the sort of public art that passers-by might not especially like, but could not misunderstand if they tried. Asawa’s role in the creation of the fountain (which did come to be well-loved by San Franciscans) seems to align much more strongly with her role as educator and artistically inclined mother. The work itself is not hers per se; rather, it is the result of her art direction and community organizing. When the hotel’s owner, Donald Pritzker, was presented with Asawa’s concept for the fountain, he was generally supportive, but expressed concern that the finished product would look like a giant cookie. “That’s what I want it to look like,” Asawa said.20 During this period in her career, Asawa knew her audience. When she was commissioned to create a fountain sculpture for Ghirardelli Square (Figure 8), her first instinct was to make the central figure a mermaid, because the Square is not far from the ocean.21 Recalling the 1913 bronze statue in Copenhagen, “The Little Mermaid” by Edvard Erikson commemorating Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, Asawa felt that the fountain should be something that appealed to children: Ghirardelli Square had been named after a former chocolate factory.

FIG 5 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973, DETAIL OF SURFACE RELIEF OF “GATE TO CHINATOWN.” PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA

FIG 5 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973, DETAIL OF SURFACE RELIEF OF “GATE TO CHINATOWN.” PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA

FIG 6 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973, DETAIL OF SURFACE RELIEF OF “CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS.” PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA

FIG 6 RUTH ASAWA, HYATT ON UNION SQUARE FOUNTAIN, SAN FRANCISCO, 1973, DETAIL OF SURFACE RELIEF OF “CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS.” PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA

A 1974 photograph of Asawa leading a workshop at the San Francisco Exploratorium (Figure 9) shows her holding a fexible, modular structure made from milk cartons. She wears thick-rimmed glasses, a cozy pullover, and a wide-collared shirt.22 Nearby, children assemble spheres and domes from cartons, using the angles at the top and the squared off bases to create miniature structures. Unseen, but evident, is the invisible hand of Buckminster Fuller. This image of Ruth Asawa, as an inspired educator who was more interested in creating table-top geodesic domes with elementary school children than in, say working with MFA candidates at a top art school or preparing for a New York gallery show, is in keeping with the woman that the San Franciscans came to adore, the “Fountain Lady” who was all but invisible to the contemporary art world.

FIG 7 RONDAL PARTRIDGE, RUTH ASAWA’S LIVING ROOM, 1969. © RONDAL PARTRIDGE ARCHIVE.

FIG 7 RONDAL PARTRIDGE, RUTH ASAWA’S LIVING ROOM, 1969. © RONDAL PARTRIDGE ARCHIVE.

The 2006 exhibition catalog that accompanied Contours in the Air is a complex and thorough account of Asawa’s life and practice, including the community-based works and art education activism, her early reception in the art press, and her time at Black Mountain College. It includes a thoughtful essay, “The Art of Space: Ruth Asawa’s Sculptural Installations” by the exhibition’s curator, Daniell Cornell, which makes the case that Asawa’s works presage installation art in their layered, dimensional relationship with line, light, and space. Photographs from Asawa’s life are plentiful in the catalog, and include the glamorous Cunningham portraits of her youth, along with pictures of Asawa enjoying time with her family, and a bit rounder, in old age.

The Christie’s catalog “Ruth Asawa: Objects and Apparitions,” which has the sheen and polish of an art book, includes no such images. The meat of the catalog is the wire sculptures, and indeed these were the bulk of the works for sale. Although derided in their own time as “fish traps” by Otis Gage, in 2013, they had just the right look for a collector enamored of postwar, biomorphic sculpture, and especially when shown with people for context and scale. The catalog also includes three substantive essays: “Ruth Asawa: Shifting the Terms of Sculpture” by poet and critic John Yau, “Ruth Asawa: Objects and Apparitions,” by Jonathan Laib who organized the Christie’s sale, and “Ruth Asawa and Anni and Josef Albers: Splendid Soulmates,” by Nicholas Fox Weber, Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

FIG 8 RUTH ASAWA, ANDREA MERMAID FOUNTAIN, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE, SAN FRANCISCO, 1969, CAST BRONZE, 16 FT DIAMETER × 5 FT HIGH. PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA.

FIG 8 RUTH ASAWA, ANDREA MERMAID FOUNTAIN, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE, SAN FRANCISCO, 1969, CAST BRONZE, 16 FT DIAMETER × 5 FT HIGH. PHOTO: AIKO CUNEO © RUTH ASAWA.

Reproduced towards the end of Yau’s essay in a double-page spread is a 1953 Clifford Coffin photograph originally appearing in Vogue, which shows a model sporting a New Look-style skirt suit standing next to a similarly curvy wire sculpture by Asawa. Although Laib’s essay describes her public works and includes reproductions of his own photographs of the Alvarado Elementary School’s Playground and Mural Mosaic, these projects are presented as a chapter of Asawa’s life that is connected to but distinct from the subject at hand—her sculptures. Both Yau’s and Weber’s essays include extensive information about Asawa’s early years, as well as moving visual details such as her internment identification card. In Weber’s essay in particular, much is made of her relationship with the Alberses and with Buckminster Fuller; letters to and from each are reproduced in high resolution.

FIG 9 RUTH ASAWA LEADING A WORKSHOP AT THE SAN FRANCISCO EXPLORATORIUM. © EXPLORATORIUM. WWW.EXPLORATORIUM.COM

FIG 9 RUTH ASAWA LEADING A WORKSHOP AT THE SAN FRANCISCO EXPLORATORIUM. © EXPLORATORIUM. WWW.EXPLORATORIUM.COM

Of course, it was a sale, so Asawa’s public work would not logically have been part of the program. However, would a similar downplaying have occurred were the sale comprised of a lot of Calder sculptures, or Claes Oldenbergs? It is a complex convergence of factors, including an art and design zeitgeist, and a reassessment within today’s art world of works made with and of fiber, or using fber-specifc techniques. Between 1955 and 2013, the art world pivoted to embrace artists like Judy Chicago and Lenore Tawney, and younger practitioners like Sabrina Gschwandtner, Sheila Pepe, and Liz Collins, all of whom have had important and well-received exhibitions at world-class institutions. So it seems the current vision of Asawa and her work is likely not a denial of her “fber-ness”; on the contrary, the vogue for mid-twentieth century studio craft aesthetics in recent years has probably worked in her favor. What appears to have been quietly left out of Christie’s presentation is the persona of the “Fountain Lady.” The photographs of the artist in the 2013 catalog are primarily from the 1950s and 1960s. She does not appear to sport glasses, gain weight, or work with small children. She does not stand smiling broadly next to any outdoor, public works. In her educational, public art, and activist work, her “collector” was the anonymous, ordinary person: a passerby, a fifth grader with a penchant for baker’s clay, a crafty neighbor. Unvetted, uncurated, and perhaps rather unglamorous. Not elite or collectible, but collective.

Notes

  1. Douglas Martin, “Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87,” New York Times (August 17, 2013).
  2. Lee Romney, “Ruth Asawa, Artist Known for Intricate Wire Sculptures, Dies at 87,” Los Angeles Times (August 6, 2013).
  3. Kenneth Baker, “California Sculptor Ruth Asawa Dies,” SFGate (August 6, 2013).
  4. Ashton Cooper, “Artist Dossier: Ruth Asawa’s Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity,” Art+Auction (November 2013).
  5. Displays at the Peridot, ACA and Heller,” New York Times (March 14, 1956), p. 36.
  6. Cooper, “Artist Dossier.”
  7. Elissa Auther, String, Felt, Thread: the Heirarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 7.
  8. Emily K. Doman Jennings, “Critiquing the Critique: Ruth Asawa’s Early Reception,” in Daniell Cornell, ed. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air (Berkeley, CA: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2006), p. 130.
  9. “Eastern Yeast,” Time Magazine (February 10, 1955), p. 54.
  10. Jennings, “Critiquing the Critique,” p. 131.
  11. Yuko Kikuchi, “Hybridity and the Oriental Orientalism of ‘Mingei’ Theory,” The Journal of Design History 10(4), Special Issue “Craft, Culture and Identity” (1997), p. 343.
  12. Eleanor C. Munro, “Globe Within a Cup Within a Sphere,” ArtNews 55 (April 1956), p. 26.
  13. “Displays at the Peridot, ACA and Heller,” New York Times (March 14, 1956), p. 36.
  14. Otis Gage, “Sculpturama,” Art & Architecture (February 1955), p. 9.
  15. Personal communication with Addie Lanier, daughter of Ruth Asawa (November 2015).
  16. Jacqueline Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life,” in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa.
  17. Ibid., p. 24.
  18. Janos Gereben, “San Francisco ‘Fountain Lady’ Sculptor Ruth Asawa Dies at 87,” San Francisco Examiner (August 7, 2013).
  19. Sally B. Woodbridge, Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain, Hyatt on Union Square, self-published printed catalog (1973), p. 3.
  20. Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life,” p. 26.
  21. Ibid., p. 24.
  22. Amy Ogata, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 178.