Get excited for your visit by watching this quick overview about the exhibition with Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Hosted on November 8 as a talk for SAM Members, we’re excited to share this recording of the overview with everyone and offer some context on the important contributions of Imogen Cunningham to photography as an art form over the course of her seven-decade career.
And remember, every First Thursday is free at Seattle Art Museum. Find out more about discounted admission opportunities!
Brangien Davis of Crosscut notices that Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, the monumental sculpture that perches in the Olympic Sculpture Park, has its own protective covering these days. She spoke with SAM Chief Conservator Nick Dorman about the conservation and repainting of the steel sculpture, thanks to a grant from Bank of America. Look for “the big reveal” sometime around Labor Day.
“Her subject, Devan, stares openly at the viewer, seemingly aware of our gaze on his body, our intrusion on his space, our sussing out of his mental state…Devan projects an openness, a sort of straightforward vulnerability that makes this painting compelling.”
The American Alliance of Museums is out with another survey on the impacts of COVID-19; Valentina Di Liscia of Hyperallergic outlines the major findings, including that 12,000 institutions may close permanently.
“I have stood in a gallery hung with Asawa’s wire sculptures, where the movement of my own body has caused them to sway, the shadows of the woven wire dancing against the floor. For a moment, I was quietly transported elsewhere — to the deep sea, to a forest or maybe to someplace altogether unearthly.”
Photographer Imogen Cunningham was not naturally inclined to stay home. Throughout her long and prolific career she travelled and exhibited widely, was celebrated for her portraits ranging from the rich-and-famous to the anonymous citizens of San Francisco, and even became a minor celebrity late in her life, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and easily identified walking her hometown’s streets with her iconic black cape and peace sign pin.
For a brief period in between all of this activity, Cunningham was more-or-less bound to her home. In 1917, she moved with her 18-month-old son from Seattle to San Francisco to join her husband; less than one month later, she gave birth to twins. As the mother of three young children, her life was suddenly largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the family’s Oakland home. But Cunningham did not allow these circumstances to impede her work—her ambition and drive would, simply, not allow for it. Instead, she turned inward to subjects within her home—or more accurately, created subjects within her home—by cultivating a garden in her backyard.
In a 1959 interview, Cunningham recalled: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.” And later, with her characteristic sharp wit: “I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.” True enough about the circumstances, but these direct statements belie the care and attention with which Cunningham shot her celebrated botanical works, such as Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925).
Tightly framing her composition, Cunningham makes the subject of this work not the plant as a whole, but rather the innermost folds and stamen of the blooming magnolia flower. The luscious gradients of white in the petals, the play of shadows on the stamen, and the sharpness with which these details are captured serves to abstract the blossom, allowing us as viewers to see this familiar subject in a new way. This technique was at the heart of a new form of modernist photography, and Cunningham’s experimentations in her own garden were at the forefront of this aesthetic shift. It would not be until 1932 when a group of artists—including Cunningham, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others—would formalize this style of photography under a collective they dubbed Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting that captures the kind of sharpness we see in Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels.
Years later in 1957, after her children had grown and she’d long-since left the garden to experiment with other techniques and subjects, Cunningham returned to her earlier themes by capturing another artist and mother, at home and at work, in her portrait of Ruth Asawa with four of her children. The scene must have been familiar to Cunningham, and it was no mistake that she framed Asawa’s biomorphic, hanging sculpture at the center of the composition: at the heart of it all, she seems to suggest, is the work that drives us.
When SAM reopens its doors, you will be able to find Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920-2020.And November 2021 will bring together nearly 200 of Cunningham’s photographs, along with sculpture by Asawa, in the exhibition Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective.Until then, as we all stay home, may their work inspire you to continue the work that drives you, whatever that may be.
– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art
If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAMand also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.
 Imogen Cunningham and Edna Tartaul Daniel, Imogen Cunningham: Portraits, Ideas, and Design (Berkeley: University of California Regional Cultural History Project, 1961), 26.  Imogen Cunningham, in Brooks Johnson, ed., Photography Speaks: 150 Photographer On Their Art (New York: Aperture, 2005), 120.
Are you ready for
DRAMA? SAM’s trailer for
the major fall exhibition is here in all its glory. Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum
opens October 17; both Seattle
Met and Seattle
Magazine recommend it.
forever. It’s been here since before my grandparents were born and will be here
for longer than my grandchildren. This bubble with outlast my life as a symbol
of how my own life is fleeting. Amongst all that oil paint!”
Reggie Ugwu of the New
York Times reports on last
week’s unveiling in Times Square of Kehinde Wiley’s bronze sculpture
Rumors of War, of a man and “the horse he rode in on, from a previous
century, perhaps, or was it a future one?”
she explains matter-of-factly. “He did not conform to any of the canonical
ideas about painting, about depictions, about points of view—he just misbehaved
and we’re all better for it.”
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
A key element in Imogen Cunningham’s photography practice was interaction with fellow artists. This began during her years in Edward Curtis’s Seattle portrait studio, and endured through her many decades of work.
After leaving Seattle, Cunningham lived and worked in San Francisco, where she forged a close friendship with American sculptor Ruth Asawa. Asawa’s woven, hanging sculptures figure prominently in Cunningham’s photographs from the 1950s, recurring motifs that are now associated nearly as closely with Cunningham as they are with Asawa.