Thursday, January 12, 2017

1926-2013: Ruth Asawa

Ruth Asawa with her work in 1954
Ruth Asawa was one of the great sculptors of the 20th century because of the innovative and engaging forms she created she created in wire. Her work is so unprecedented in sculpture that it took a long time for the art world to realize that she was in the advance guard of form-making, but nowadays the market for her work is steadily rising.

Ruth was also a great woman who kept a racially mixed marriage together, raised a large family, engaged in civic life, and promoted art education.

She is of special interest to residents of the Bay Area because she made her home in Noe Valley in San Francisco, and was a prominent figure there for five decades. She died only a few years ago.

Background: Ruth was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, one of seven children. Her father operated a truck farm until World War II when he was detained by the FBI. Her family then lived in a Relocation Center in Arkansas, where Ruth graduated from high school.

Training: Ruth attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. She completed three years but was unable to earn her degree after being barred from a required student-teacher program because of her ethnicity.

She enrolled instead at North Carolina’s experimental art school, Black Mountain College, a magnet for budding artists and renowned teachers, and studied there from 1946-1949.

Albert Lanier
Private life: While Ruth was at Black Mountain, she met an architecture student named Albert Lanier; she was 23 and he was 22. The pair decided to marry, against the wishes of their parents. They made their home in San Francisco because it had a vibrant arts community, and they hoped the liberal city would be hospitable to an interracial couple.

In the 1950s, while they were getting their careers started,  Ruth and Albert had six children. Albert became a noted architect and designed many homes in Noe Valley and other neighborhoods in the city.  He also created the architectural designs for Ruth's public art projects and shared her community activism.

When Albert died in 2008, he and Ruth had been married 59 years.

Ruth with her children, 1958
Photo by Imogen Cunningham

Ruth and Albert

Career: Ruth started her career and her family in the 1950s. Her first great innovation was to employ wire in abstract sculpture. Wire was sometimes employed by Mexican basket-makers for produce baskets, and Ruth had been impressed by this. Wire was humble and cheap, and like the traditional basket-makers, she could work on baskets while her children played around her. Ruth elevated the humble basket by making it a closed globular form, and hanging the globes in vertical strings. They engage the eye because there are forms within forms; the viewer can't resist tracing the lines and shapes. And the shadows created by the baskets are magical. By the end of the 1950s, Ruth's baskets were beginning to attract attention.

In 1962, Ruth innovated with wire again. Instead of making closed, inward-looking forms, she tied the wire to create radiating forms that reach out like petals or leaves. Instead of hanging, these forms are placed flat against the wall, where they also make magical shadows.

In 1968, Ruth began creating a number of fountains for public commissions in San Francisco. Much to everyone's surprise, her first sculpture was representational, depicting two mermaids afloat, one of them nursing a baby. The Mermaid fountain is located in Ghirardelli Square on the water front.

In 1973, she created a fountain for the Hyatt Hotel on Union Square that became a San Francisco landmark. The fountain is basically a cylinder covered with low relief figures representing typical San Francisco scenes. Her method of construction was unique because it was a community activity. Ruth gave a group of children and other budding artists a type of dough that could be molded like clay and then "fired" in an ordinary oven. They used the dough to depict scenes. The finished work was translated into bronze. Albert provided the architectural design.

This sculpture entered the news in 2013 because Apple proposed a new store next to the hotel that eliminated the fountain. The public outcry was such that Apple redesigned its store, and renovated the fountain and the surrounding plaza.

Ruth was also interested in origami, the Japanese art of creating figures by folding paper, and from 1976-1986, she created fountains that are bronze renderings of origami structures.

In the 1990s, Ruth created relief murals for public places. The Federal Building in San Jose has a bas-relief bronze mural depicting the Japanese internment camps.

In addition to being an artist, Ruth was an advocate for art education. She taught art to elementary school kids herself, supported various programs in art education, and she and Albert founded a public arts high school. She also served in state and national organizations for art education, and she was a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In anticipation of the new de Young Museum, Ruth was invited to create a permanent installation for the base of the tower. She selected and gave 15 of her most significant hanging-basket sculptures, which have been prominently displayed since the building opened in 2005.

Our photos of Ruth's Sculptures

Untitled (S. 270),  c. 1954
brass and iron wire
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Untitled (S.114, Hanging, Six-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form
with One Suspended and Two Tied Spheres),
ca. 1958
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2016

Untitled (S.046abcd), c. 1960
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Display at de Young Museum, undated and untitled
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2008

Untitled, c. 1970
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Façade of Oakland Museum of Art
Untitled (tied wire), 1974
Jan's photo

Façade of Oakland Museum of Art
Untitled (tied wire), 1974
Jan's photo / 2010

Internet grabs

Untitled (S.039), 1959
monel wire

Untitled (S.049), c. 1962
naturally oxidized copper wire

Eight-Branched Bronze Wire Form, 1966

Andrea, 1968
Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco
Cast bronze

Hyatt on Union Square Fountain, 1973
San Francisco
Origami Fountains, 1976
 #1 of 5, Buchanan Street in Japantown

Aurora, 1986 
Bayside Plaza, San Francisco
stainless steel / 13 ft diameter

Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture, 1994
Federal Building, San Jose, CA
Cast bronze