Friday, December 29, 2006

Ruth Asawa, de Young Museum II

Ruth Asawa, de Young Museum II, originally uploaded by heather.

I prevailed on my wife, Edith, to comment on the exhibit. She is wise in such matters.

Decades ago I walked by my first Ruth Asawa sculptures on my way to a job interview. They were there hanging in a dingy architectural office on Mission Street, San Francisco, California. The office belonged to Albert Lanier, her talented architect husband, who subsequently hired me to work for him. I learned well the nuts and bolts of architecture in his office. But as much as anything I remember from those days, I remember her sculptures. I thought were wonderful, even without any emphasis, a thing of beauty.

I asked a co-worker about the sculptures. “Albert’s wife, Ruth Asawa, is a famous sculptor,” he said. “But I don’t much like her work.”

I did. When my husband and I visited their home, her ethereal sculptures hung from the cathedral ceiling of their living room in profusion. (Outnumbered only by her progeny, I might add, which is pretty close to true.)

After I left Albert’s employee, my husband and I lost contact with Albert Lanier and Ruth Asawa. They live in San Francisco and its visual arts world, we in Oakland and the world of the written word. Still I remain enamored of Asawa’s artistic gifts and of the expression of her many talents, especially those talents expressed in woven wire. Asawa has worked with children helping to create San Francisco’s arts program for children and done numerous “art projects” with the community, yet as wonderful as those things are, it is the items, created solely by Asawa that I find most compelling.

This is my reaction to her recent museum retrospective:

As one enters the exhibit through a “Portmanesque” low portal into a voluminous space, Asawa’s geometric organic sculptures dangle from the ceiling above, demanding attention, collectively and individually. Asawa creates a shape, then repeats that shape to create another shape, and another. That is true of both her flat work and sculpture. Something simple is spun into complexity. Early in her career, Asawa’s work was collected by the Rockefellers and others of "taste and means." Then, the American aesthetic changed. Of course, her career may have remained glorious had she gone “East Coast," i.e., gone to New York, had she not been a woman, a wife and mother. Her work might have been more highly regarded if it were not seen as akin to basketry, a craft and not an art – so they say. The arbitrary separation of “high art” and craft” mystifies me. Any artistic creation is from some tradition, or the breaking of a tradition. Differentiating the expression of an artistic gift through “establishment high art” from the “menial” craft object, often an object created for utilitarian use, is arrogant and elitist. “ART” created by human beings is “ART,” whether the art of the gallery or the art of the functional. Perhaps it is harder to create “ART” out of the ordinary. Pottery, glass, objects that I hold in my hand, objects that can be viewed and touched, are for me art objects, objects that can be perceived with more than one sense. Asawa’s art -- there surrounding air, creating space, loop by loop, creating objects thread by thread -- if it’s an air basket so be it. It is a basket of beauty, a basket of imagination, a basket of high art, encompassing, but not. Her sculptures are a kind of ghost sculpture, delicately woven, enveloping space, creating form, designed by a mind able to create something out of nothing. And they play with the idea of something and nothing at the same time.

The sculptures themselves, the tree-like sculptures and the bulging/constricting/bulging sculptures seem to have their origins in the living world, and they reflect not just form of that world, but imply the lack of permanence of that world. Life forms appear and disappear, and Asawa’s forms capture the ethereal nature of life itself.

The de Young’s Asawa exhibit provides a space worthy of the art, somewhat better than her husband’s dingy offices. (Drawing on his newspaper and magazine days, my husband likes to say, “The dingier the office, the better the quality of the work produced there.") Let me also say this. Albert always supported his wife in her art, which not every husband of an artist-wife has the confidence to do.

Postscript: We think some, or perhaps all, of these photos were taken from a recent Asawa exhibit at the Oakland Museum. We do know that when we tried to take photos at the de Young, the guards jumped us.

1 comment:

david silver said...

awesome write up Eydie. and here i thought michael was the writer of the team.

with luck, sarah and i will visit the exhibition soon (and, again with luck, will follow it up with a trip to burma superstar) and when that happens i'll reread your post to better understand what i just saw.