Ruth Asawa’s clay masks find a second home in Cantor
The Faces of Ruth Asawa is a long-term installation of hundreds of masks the artist has crafted with friends and family over four decades.
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By Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander and Robin Wander
For decades, hundreds of masks created by sculptor Ruth Asawa of her friends and family hung on the garden wall of the artist’s home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The majority of this collection is now on display at the Cantor Arts Center, on public view for the first time. This important acquisition and installation, titled The Faces of Ruth Asawa, is part of Stanford’s Asian American Art Initiative.
The masks’ journey from San Francisco to Cantor began in 2019, when Asawa’s daughter and son-in-law, Aiko and Laurence Cuneo, came to Cantor to help oversee the installation of one of the abstract wire sculptures of Asawa iron. Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, Cantor’s assistant curator of American art, had chosen the work for rotation in the exhibition The Medium Is the Message: Art Since 1950. During the installation, Aiko asked Alexander if she knew masks.
“Although I had been an admirer of Asawa’s work for a long time,” Alexander said, “I had never heard of these masks or his ceramic work. showed some photos, I was amazed. These masks, molded on the faces of friends and family members, completely expanded my understanding of Asawa practice. It showed me how much commitment community was essential to his world and to his artistic production.
In the months that followed, Alexander continued the conversation about the masks with the estate of Ruth Asawa, who died in 2013. The masks have long been considered ephemera rather than an official part of the artist’s work, which is mainly known for its modernism. abstract wire sculpture. But it was becoming increasingly clear that these objects were major works that contributed to a fuller understanding of Asawa’s life.
Meanwhile, the Cantor was preparing to launch the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI), which has since transformed Stanford into the leading academic and curatorial center for Asian American art. Part of the initiative involves the Cantor seeking to build the preeminent collection of Asian American art in a college art museum. Asawa’s 233 ceramic masks had found their permanent home.
Franz Kunst, treatment archivist in Stanford Libraries’ Department of Special Collections, which houses Asawa’s publicly available digital archive, said: “There is, of course, an awful lot about his mask-making in his papers. , but the archives also demonstrate how far-reaching her creative network was and with how many different people she created Life Masks.
The Cantor acquired Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks) in 2020, and they took a long-term view at the museum on July 6. The installation, curated by Alexander, features Asawa’s masks and three containers made by the artist. son Paul Lanier using clay mixed with Asawa’s ashes; her husband, Albert; and their late son, Adam. Upon Asawa’s death—at his request—Lanier threw away a set of vessels incorporating this material, one for each remaining brother. The three faces included in The Faces of Ruth Asawa were borrowed from the family to further demonstrate Asawa’s intimate connection to clay.
“The Faces of Ruth Asawa is a unique installation,” said Alexander. “If museum visitors know her, they probably know her hanging biomorphic wire sculptures. This installation offers a glimpse into another side of Asawa’s practice and a distinct view of the Bay Area artistic community during the latter half of the 20th century.
The Road to San Francisco
Ruth Asawa was born in Norwalk, California in 1926 and spent the first part of her life on her parents’ farm with her six siblings. During World War II, her family was interned under Executive Order 9066. After graduating from high school in an incarceration camp, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College but was unable to graduate. degree because of his Japanese ancestry. From 1946 to 1949, she attended the historically significant art school Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There she studied with Josef Albers and met her future husband, Albert Lanier. Asawa and Lanier moved to San Francisco, where they would stay for the rest of their lives.
Asawa continued his sculptural practice in San Francisco while advocating for the arts. She served on the San Francisco Arts Commission, helped found the San Francisco School of the Arts (now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts), and was the first artist to serve on the board of Administration of the Fine Arts Museums of San. Francis.
“She was a creative spirit to the highest degree, but not only that, she never forgot the other things that make life worth living: family, community and the preservation of history. “, said Alexander. “I hope this installation effectively captures her spirit and inspires others, as she inspired me.”
The Asian American Art Initiative on display
Based in the Cantor, the Asian American Art Initiative is dedicated to the study of artists and creators of Asian origin. Founded and co-directed by Alexander and Marci Kwon, assistant professor of art and art history, AAAI encompasses a range of activities, including the collection and exhibition of works by Asian American artists and Diaspora Asians; preserve archival documents; supporting undergraduate and graduate education; and cultivating community participation through public programs.
“I can’t imagine a more appropriate artist to kick off our robust season of AAAI exhibitions and activities this fall than Ruth Asawa,” said Veronica Roberts, newly appointed John and Jill Freidenrich Director of Cantor. “She is so deeply admired in the Bay Area as an artist and for the impact she has had as an advocate for arts education. As recognition of his significance spreads across the world, we are honored to help broaden public perception of his legacy.
The Faces of Ruth Asawa is one of three installations and exhibitions tied to the AAAI opening at Cantor this year. At Home/On Stage: Asian American Representation in Photography and Film opens August 31 and East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art opens September 28.