Object of the Week: Street

Located in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States, Seattle is oriented more to the Pacific than to Europe, and many of its artists looked to Asia in shaping the region’s singular form of modernism. Some practiced sumi-e (ink painting) and calligraphy as pathways to abstraction; others discovered in Zen a model of self-knowledge and unmitigated expression; still others traveled to Japan and China and made contact with those cultures directly. Artists of Asian descent experienced, on balance, an inclusive artistic environment, despite facing discrimination within the larger community, most tragically during World War II.

Alongside Kamekichi Tokita, Paul Horiuchi, and Geoge Tsutakawa, Kenjiro Nomura was one of Seattle’s leading Japanese American artists. Together, their stories reflect the historical diversity of the Pacific Northwest and its artists, adding further depth to 20th-century American art. As Issei (first-generation Japanese American), Nomura was raised in a traditional Japanese family and educated in the arts and culture of his parentage. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1907, at the age of eleven. When he was sixteen, his parents returned home, but he stayed on and settled in Seattle to build a successful business and career as an artist.

A self-described “Sunday painter” with little formal training, he specialized in the realist style and vernacular subject matter associated with 1930s American Scene painting. Street, with its formal clarity and unmistakable awareness of place, is typical of his regionalism. Yet, even as he mastered this decidedly Western approach, he also maintained expertise in traditional Japanese painting, whose conventions of color, composition, and line inspired him to approach nature intuitively and on his terms.

Street immortalizes the busy intersection of Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way, the epicenter of Seattle’s thriving Japanese American community during the 1920s and 1930s. Here, Nomura launched Noto Sign Co., a signage manufacturer and popular gathering place for artists, and the headquarters from which he and his business partner, Tokita, established themselves on the local exhibition circuit.

In 1933, Nomura exhibited Street at the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists and with it secured the prestigious Katherine B. Baker Award and a place in the permanent collection of the newly formed museum. When SAM officially opened its doors that same year, it was with a solo exhibition of Nomura’s work. His success, however, was cut short with the Great Depression and resulting forced closure of Noto Sign Co. During World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment and hostility led to his forced internment at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. When he returned to Seattle three years later, it was to continued discrimination and limited opportunities for Japanese Americans. Yet, Nomura continued to paint and participate in Seattle’s mid-20th-century cultural scene, sharing common cause with his fellow Northwest Modernists.

Nomura’s work is on view at SAM in the exhibition Northwest Modernism: Four Japanese Americans, and at the Cascadia Art Museum in the major retrospective, Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey.

– Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Image: Street, ca. 1932, Kenjiro Nomura, Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Gift of West Seattle Art Club, Katherine B. Baker Memorial Purchase Award, 33.225.

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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