Object of the Week: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture

Though this 1957 photograph is by Imogen Cunningham, its subject is Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013). For decades Asawa has been little known beyond the West Coast, and is all too belatedly finding herself rewritten into the history of American art. Rather than concentrate on photographer Cunningham, this post focuses on Asawa, her diaphanous wire sculptures, and her complex identity as a Japanese-American woman artist.

Cunningham’s photograph is a quiet yet evocative image: Asawa sits with her face occluded by the semi-transparent curvature of one of her hanging wire sculptures. She’s surrounded by her four children, ranging from toddler to six years old. Each, including Asawa, is engaged in and absorbed by his or her own activity: reading, playing, observing, drinking, and making. The iconic photograph has often been read in gendered terms, focusing on Asawa’s demonstrated domesticity, femininity, and passivity. Like too many women artists, Asawa has been positioned primarily as a wife and mother—identities that override her identity as an artist, which can and should include these other identities. As curator Helen Molesworth discusses in her recent paper delivered last month at the Smithsonian, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” this image has additional import, positioning art making as a social activity, and Asawa, therefore, as a citizen above all else.

As a child, Asawa would draw and make art while in a World War II internment camp with her Japanese parents. She was not an outside or self-taught artist though, for she attended Black Mountain College and studied for three years and two summers (1946–49) with Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller, among others. For Asawa, “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards. I think that’s the nice thing about what Black Mountain did for its students. It was like they gave you permission to do anything you wanted to do. And then if it didn’t fit they’d make a category for you. But I think Black Mountain helped make something with weaving and with printmaking, and it gave people the freedom to make something of each category.”¹

Black Mountain was a transformative place and time for Asawa, creatively as well as socially: incorporated into Black Mountain’s utopian environment was an attitude that expanded what art can do for society. Therefore, to be an artist is to be a citizen—engaging actively in the world and making choices alongside others.² Though Cunningham’s photograph captures Asawa in her home, surrounded by her four (of six) children, central to the visual narrative is her artwork, which is inextricable from her role as an artist, wife, mother, and citizen.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
¹Ruth Asawa, “Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5,” interview by Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222#transcript.
²Helen Molesworth, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” filmed September 12, 2018 at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., video, 1:07:05, https://americanart.si.edu/videos/clarice-smith-distinguished-lecture-series-scholar-helen-molesworth-154476.
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Muse/News: The Peacock has landed, dudes talking in shops, and the woman who was first

SAM News

The Peacock has landed! The Seattle Times’ Steve Ringman captured colorful shots of the galleries, one of which also appeared on the front page of last Thursday’s print edition. An overview of the exhibition and related events also appeared their Weekend Plus section.

Check out more recommendations for the show in Seattle Met, Seattle Magazine, and ParentMap.

Last week, SAM announced the appointment of Theresa Papanikolas as its new Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. The Seattle Times had the exclusive, featuring an interview with Theresa.

All of SAM was saddened to hear of the passing of Paul Allen last week at the age of 65; SAM director and CEO Kim Rorschach shared her thoughts on the massive cultural legacy he left the city of Seattle with Crosscut.

Local News

We’re gonna need more Windex: Crosscut’s Aileen Imperial follows the Space Needle’s “Lead Glass Keeper” Paul Best on a typical day of keeping (literally) tons of glass clean.

Here’s two reviews of Polaroids: Personal, Private, Painterly, Bellevue Art Museum’s new show of found photos from the collection of Robert E. Jackson, by City Art’s Margo Vansynghel and Seattle Weekly’s Seth Sommerfeld.

Naomi Ishisaka for the Seattle Times interviewing Inua Ellams about his play Barber Shop Chronicles that runs for three nights at the Moore Theatre in November.

“It’s about cross-generational conversations about African masculinity and how that is compromised by the West . . . it’s about dudes talking in shops and it’s about men trying to find a safe space to be vulnerable.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Kate Brown explores a recent study that asks whether Leonardo da Vinci had a condition called exotropia that makes one eye wander off alignment—and whether it contributed positively to his work.

Hyperallergic’s Sarah Rose Sharp with a gentle skewering (ha) of the recent event-within-an-event of Banksy’s shredded print at Sotheby’s.

“If you like to hallucinate but disdain the requisite stimulants…” The New York Times’ Roberta Smith reviews Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, now on view at the Guggenheim.

The idea that a woman got there first, and with such style, is beyond thrilling. Yes, I know art is not a competition; every artist’s ‘there’ is a different place. Abstraction is a pre-existing condition, found in all cultures. But still: af Klint’s ‘there’ seems so radical, so unlike anything else going on at the time. Her paintings definitively explode the notion of modernist abstraction as a male project.”

And Finally

The Royal Ontario Museum goes to pot.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Photo: Nina Dubinsky
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Shawn Brinsfield stands in front of the original Camel scultpures at Seattle Art Museum

Donor Spotlight: Shawn Brinsfield Supports the Asian Art Museum

It’s nice to know that our community also thinks the future of the Seattle Asian Art Museum is going to be cool! More than the critical infrastructure updates to the Art Deco building that won’t be very apparent to visitors, there’s the long history of Asian culture in the Seattle area made visible at the museum. To Shawn Brinsfield, the modest expansion on the back of the Seattle Asian Art Museum is a physical commitment to expanding the understanding and appreciation of Asia. Read why the Asian Art Museum matters to this donor, learn more about the project, and stay up to date on the progress of the renovation and expansion of the Asian Art Museum.

The new Seattle Asian Art Museum is going to be very cool with more space for SAM’s growing collection, better flow and open ‘look-throughs’ to the outside. I take art lessons and sometimes they take us to Volunteer Park to draw; so I look forward to sitting on my chair outside near the trees and drawing the new large glass-walled rear addition of the museum. Ok, full disclosure—I am still just learning to draw; but it will be fun viewing Asian Art Museum visitors fishbowl-like.

The average museum-goer may not appreciate the museum’s new sophisticated climate control environment, which gives the art ‘eternal life.’ Sometimes I think about the centuries of artists who made the works inside the museum. What kind of challenges and human pressures did they have? I wonder how they would react, knowing that their year-after-year sweat and toil and evolution as artists would be preserved by loving and meticulous conservationists today. It’s my understanding that the Asian Art Museum will be an important national center of conserving Asian art. And conserving art is actually a fascinating process. Really!

My mom and her family are of Japanese descent. They were living a full life here in Seattle back in the ‘good old days.’ Grandma Benko Itoi wrote tanka poetry, the family attended art events at the Nippon Kan Theater, they danced in traditional ways at the Bon Odori. Then when World War II broke out they were compelled to destroy most things related to their Japanese culture. So, 75 years later, it’s important to me to support the expansion of Japanese and Asian culture in the Seattle area.

All the art at the Asian Art Museum tells stories of history, ideas, and ways of life. In addition to enjoying the exhibitions on wooden block prints, folding screens, and Chinese scrolls, I have loved going to the Gardner Center’s Saturday University Lecture Series and listening to experts from all over the world. I value this, especially since I help recruit speakers for an Asian art and history group in Florida.

As for the future of the Asian Art Museum, I expect that the Asian Art Museum’s growth will mirror that of Asia’s increasing presence on the world stage. I hope that it continues expanding its collection of South Asian art and continues reaching out to the growing South Asian community here in the Northwest; as well as reaching out to the non-Asian community. My spending time in India on several trips has had a significant impact on my mind and behavior. I include, in my daily life, some practices and rituals which are indigenous to India and South Asia. I have a warm and friendly feeling towards the people and culture of South Asia.

– Shawn Brinsfield

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Object of the Week: A Tango Against Time

The scene is a disturbing one: a woman’s silhouette, engulfed in flames, is set against a backdrop of further destruction—homes, pools, lawn chairs, and other debris are also mired in the far-reaching blaze. Painted by Hollis Sigler in 1983, A Tango Against Time is just one example of the artist’s intensely psychological and often autobiographical style.

Receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later teaching at Columbia College in Chicago, Sigler was no doubt influenced by the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists whose figurative and folk-influenced work impacted her then-developing visual language. Hardly derivative, there is a certain way in which Sigler’s graphic style can be contextualized within the legacy of Imagists like Roger Brown and Philip Hanson.

However, Sigler’s faux-naïve mode of painting was purely her own and, after 1976, had political motivations as well. That is, her shift away from abstract expressionism and photorealism was a way for the artist to “disengage from what she viewed as a male-dominated academic tradition.”[1] Her evolution as an artist was thus inextricable from her feminist views.

In 1985, two years after the completion of A Tango Against Time, Sigler was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her struggle with cancer ended up informing her work for the next decade and a half. During this period her paintings took on pointed responses to the devastating illness and the psychological complexities of fighting what would eventually become a terminal disease for the artist. Much of this later work is formally similar to A Tango Against Time—with proscenium-like staging, vibrant colors, and surrealist undertones—but instead of human subjects, the paintings’ dramas focus on things. The absence of human figures heightens the roles that the various objects play, acting as metaphors for Sigler’s deeply personal narratives.

In this context, the presence of a female subject—soon to disappear from Sigler’s paintings—and the chaos surrounding her in A Tango Against Time takes on additional poignancy, foreshadowing the challenging personal and artistic changes that were to come. See this painting in person at SAM, it’s currently on view in On the Edge.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: A Tango Against Time, 1983, Hollis Sigler, oil on canvas, 47 7/8 × 59 3/4 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.142 © Hollis Sigler. The Young and Self Conscious, 1991, Roger Brown, oil on canvas. St. Anthony Pleasure Park, July 1968, Philip Hanson, etching in black, hand-colored in watercolor, on off-white wove paper. Renewed Hope of Recovery Fill Her Thoughts Every Day, 1998, Hollis Sigler, oil, pastel on paper with painted frame.
[1] Holland Cotter, “Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illness,” The New York Times, April 3, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/03/arts/hollis-sigler-53-painter-whose-theme-was-her-illness.html.
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Muse/News: A Peacock party, a garment reborn, and a muse named Cardi B.

SAM News

Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India opens to the public this Thursday! The Seattle Times highlighted the free community opening celebration, which will include live performances, an art market, music, and art making.

SAM’s Día de los Muertos Community Night Out on Friday, October 26, is featured as one of “6 free Seattle area events to celebrate” the annual holiday.

Seattle Bride Magazine on the “art of love,” highlighting SAM among its recommendations for the best local museums to host a wedding.

Local News

City Arts’ Margo Vansynghel shares the news that Cornish has awarded its 2018 Neddy Artist Awards to Lakshmi Muirhead (painting) and Timea Tihanyi (open media).

Poet Natalie Diaz was awarded a 2018 MacArthur genius grant; The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig wrote about her recent reading at Hugo House, which in part touched on the legacy of Edward S. Curtis.

Tamiko Nimura for Crosscut on Tacoma artist Anida Yoeu Ali, whose sequined “Red Chador” that appeared across the world was recently lost. The artist is mourning the garment as a death—and planning its rebirth.

“Because the work was disrupted she has to come back,” she says, “but in solidarity with other issues that are going on.”

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic’s Zachary Small on the Met’s announcement of next year’s gala exhibition: Camp: Notes on Fashion, a “complete 180-degree turn toward sacrilegious” following last year’s Catholic-themed Heavenly Bodies.

Artnet’s Eileen Kinsella on the long overdue retrospective of Charles White, who inspired notable artists as both an artist and a teacher. Kinsella asks, “why did it take so many so long to learn about him?”

The Studio Museum and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts have announced the gift of over 650 works of art from the collection of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, including works by Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates, and Nick Cave.

“Tia Powell Harris, the chief executive of the school, said, ‘It’s as if we will now have direct access to Peggy’s amazing vision, seeing the world’s possibilities as she did.’”

And Finally

Went from makin’ tuna sandwiches to Mickalene’s muse.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Shiva and Parvati in Conversation; Shiva on His Vimana (Aircraft) with Himalaya, Folio 53 from the Shiva Rahasya, 1827, Jodhpur, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 16 1/2 × 45 5/8 in., Mehrangarh Museum Trust, photo: Neil Greentree.
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Object of the Week: #10

As part of the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative put on by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, we’re contextualizing works in SAM’s collection within today’s political atmosphere. The program is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

For this week’s post, we’re focusing on freedom from fear by looking at Frederic Edwin Church’s A Country Home painted in 1854, just seven years before the American Civil War. The painting illustrates an idyllic landscape, lush with vegetation and a tranquil pond. The mood is calm and serene with the sun casting a warm, comforting glow. Church, a member of the Hudson River School, paints the American landscape as a modern-day Eden. The artist’s view of his time and place is one of optimism, hope, and contentment.

 

As we compare Church’s work to Mark Rothko’s abstraction #10, painted in 1952, the differences couldn’t be greater. Rothko’s work was completed just 98 years after A Country Home, but during this period humanity witnessed two world wars (the second of which perhaps had the greatest impact on the views of artists). How much did their views of America change, as well as the times they lived in? After the horrors of World War II, how could one paint idyllic landscapes? Yet, even though freedom won the War, fear persevered—the ugly side of the human race was exposed. As a result, art turned abstract and humanity collectively wept.

So this brings us to today: even if divisiveness, racism, and hatred are overcome, what lasting effect will these times have on our art and how we view our time and place? If equality, respect, and compassion win politically, will we still be free from fear? Or is it too late and have we already exposed the darker sides of ourselves?

– Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer

Images:
#10, 1952, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 42 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (207.65 x 107.95 x 5.72 cm), Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 91.98, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. A Country Home, 1854, Frederic Edwin Church, oil on canvas, 32 x 51 in. (81.3 x 129.5 cm.), Gift of Anna Robeson Baker Carmichael, 65.80.
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SAM Gallery: 45 Years!

Did you know that SAM Gallery has been around for 45 years?! In 1973 the Seattle Art Museum’s Rental/Sales Gallery was started by a visionary group of docents led by Jackie Macrae. They operated out of a space in the Seattle Center, selling the work of local artists in order to raise money for SAM’s volunteer programs. When the gallery turned out to be successful, a part-time employee was hired in 1989. That person was Barbara Shaiman, a local ceramics artist who also ran Shaiman Contemporary Craft. Shaiman worked for the Seattle Art Museum for 24 years and continues to attend openings, as well as show her own work. In 2000, Jody Bento began to work for Shaiman at SAM and today, Bento continues to oversee the gallery. In the 45 years that SAM Gallery has rented and sold Northwest contemporary art, it has mounted hundreds of shows including thousands of Northwest artists. Check out the current roster of SAM Gallery artists.
To celebrate this milestone, we’re sharing some photos from over the years. Join in the success of the gallery and spend time with some of SAM Gallery’s Northwest artists at the opening for the 45th Anniversary Show on First Thursday, November 1.
Images: Photo: Natali Wiseman. Jody Bento, left, Barbara Shaiman, right, pictured with paintings by Deborah Bell. Photos: Ben Benschneider. Attendees at SAM Gallery opening, 2017. Jody Bento, Associate Director SAM Gallery, pictured in the gallery’s Seattle Tower location. Photo: Jen Au.

 

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Athi-Patra Ruga’s Utopian Vision: In This Imperfect Present Moment

Utopian visionaries are rare these days. If Black Panther moved you to consider what might be possible in the future, there’s an artist who is opening a new portal into the world of possibilities to come and you can see their work at SAM right now as part of In This Imperfect Present Moment. Athi-Patra Ruga introduces characters from a mythical metaverse. You can see what this means in his performances, which are available online. His avatars wear high heels and balloons, ride zebras, walk down dirt roads or city streets, and occasionally swim upside down. He knows how to turn heads and get people to stare at unexpected visions. For this sculpture, he covers a neoclassical bust with beads, flowers, and gems to mock the usual stagnancy of a bronze-cast monument. He has stated that “our statues are an indictment of our poor imagination.” Calling this sculpture The Ever Promised Erection, Ruga says, “The humorous tone of the title points to the fallacy and impotence of the posturing of the nation-state.”

Ruga replaces the failed state with an ideal femme-centric futurist nation called Azania, inspired by rumors of an ideal Africa described in ancient American myths. You can get to know Azania and see their queens and territories by looking at his large-scale tapestries and videos. His tapestry maps record an Ocean of Repentance, where cleansing waters protect and surround islands inhabited by women. It takes a distinctive rigor to create and carry an entire nation in your mind. When meeting Athi-Patra Ruga, you sense him as someone dedicated to keeping his alternative world alive and well. He’s now about to open his first one-person exhibition in London at the Somerset House, and for those who crave utopian universes, Ruga can take you there.

– Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Muse/News: Sculptures in fall, erasure poems, and the wonderful Kerry James Marshall

SAM News

Curbed Seattle highlights the Olympic Sculpture Park as one of “26 best places to visit in Seattle this fall,” calling a visit to the sculpture park “the easiest way to feel artsy in Seattle without needing to spend half a day inside a museum.”

Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India is featured in the Stranger’s “Complete Guide to October 2018 Events in Seattle.” Diwali Ball, SAM’s annual fundraiser, and Night Heat, the 41st edition of our film noir series, also get mentions.

Did you know that SAM’s design team makes awesome videos? Don’t miss this fantastic My Favorite Things video featuring sailor Marc Onetto talking about the accuracy of Louis-Philippe Crépin’s Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska, now on view at SAM.

Local News

Mayumi Tsutakawa for the Seattle Globalist on a documentary film about two women who—75 years apart—chronicled the cultures of Melanesia; one of the two held an exhibition on her work at SAM in 1935.

Here’s Emily Pothast for The Stranger on 10 not-to-be-missed gallery shows in Pioneer Square on view in October.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis has a lovely review of Ballast, the Frye Art Museum’s new exhibition; Quenton Baker’s erasure and invented form poems were inspired by a massive historical research project into a little-known successful 1841 slave revolt.

“On the museum walls, their voices emerge like ghosts from the inky morass: ‘I am a crisis arrived.’ ‘A cargo of alarm.’ ‘Answer me.’”

Inter/National News

Way to go, genius: Three artists, including painter—and SAM Knight Lawrence Prize winner!—Titus Kaphar, were named “genius” grant winners from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Think pink! Hyperallergic’s Dany Chan reviews a new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology exploring the many meanings—from pretty to punk—of the color pink.

I get Google alerts for Kerry James Marshall, and here’s why: this week Hyperallergic shared a wonderful essay he wrote about Bill Traylor, and ARTNews reported his wonderful reaction to Chicago’s sale of one of his murals.

“Considering that only last year Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and Commissioner [of the Department of Cultural Affairs Mark] Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar, you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”

And Finally

Say goodbye to the last good thing on Twitter?

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Olympic Sculpture Park, 2015, photo: Nina Dubinsky.
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