Book Review Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe

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What about an artist’s CV? I spent my childhood working on the family farm. Spent time in a prison camp. Attended an avant-garde art school. Learned to make wire baskets, incorporating the looped wire technique into his sculptures. Married a classmate (wedding ring designed by Buckminster Fuller). Moved to San Francisco. Had six children in nine years. Had solo and group exhibitions in New York but ceased exhibiting there due to shipping difficulties. Had a solo exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Invented a recipe for making baker’s clay from flour, salt and water for his children’s art projects, a mixture that became widely used in schools. Designed fountains, murals and sculptures as public commissions. Co-founded an organization to bring artists-in-residence into San Francisco public schools. Co-founder of the Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP), which collected, recycled and distributed art materials otherwise destined for landfill to artists, schools and community groups. Led a movement to create San Francisco’s first public arts high school (it would later be renamed for her). She organized a major retrospective at the museum and insisted that each of her children and grandchildren bring a work to the exhibition. Lived to see one of his sculptures sell for over a million dollars at auction.

Such is a brief summary of the improbable and grandiose life of Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). Little known to the American artistic public, Asawa’s work is even less known in Europe. On the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of his work in England and Norway, the co-curators of the exhibition, Emma Ridgway and Vibece Salthe, have published a collection of essays on his life, “Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe”.

Asawa was born in Norwalk, California, to Japanese immigrant parents who farmed on leased land, California law prohibiting Asian immigrants from owning farmland. Her artistic talents were recognized by her primary school teachers, but she was first tutored by professional artists in an unlikely setting: the internment camp where Asawa and her family were incarcerated at the start of World War II. world. Japanese American artists at the camp who had worked as animators for Walt Disney gave art lessons to other prisoners.

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The camp may have had another effect on Asawa’s career: internees were put to work creating camouflage netting for the army, by inserting strips of green and brown fabric into mesh. John R. Blakinger, one of the book’s contributors, compares the labor involved in making such nets to constructing Asawa’s hanging basket-like wire sculptures: “In both processes, the hands work quickly, methodically, intuitively, building a latticework that merges form and space, positive and negative, figure and ground.

Released from the camp in 1943, Asawa was allowed to study at Milwaukee State Teachers College for three years, only to be told she could not complete the certification program because no school would accept an original trainee teacher. Japanese. When artist friends told her about a new art school in the hills of North Carolina, Black Mountain College, she enrolled in 1946. With her tremendous work ethic, she fell naturally into its collegiate atmosphere. and community. Asawa later said, “My teachers at Black Mountain College were practicing artists, including Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Buckminster Fuller. They taught me that there is no separation between studying, performing the daily tasks of life and creating your own work. Fuller would become a lifelong friend.

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Asawa fell in love with another college student, an aspiring architect named Albert Lanier, and the couple married in 1949, just a year after the California Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Moving to San Francisco, they began producing countless art projects and six babies, eventually settling in a backpacking house in San Francisco’s Noe Valley.

The book features an interview with four of his children, which gives insight into their family life. Asawa expected the children to help with household chores, gardening, and preparing art supplies, including winding yarn for his sculptures. They would continue to help her later in life, from preparing models for casting to writing grant proposals.

Hanging wire sculptures are Asawa’s most sought-after works today. (One cost more than $5 million in 2020.) It was a fortuitous choice, suited to the time constraints of a mother of young children. A generation earlier, the painter Marguerite Zorach had briefly focused her energies on embroidered works, where the design could be quickly sketched and the image completed, point by point, whenever there were a few quiet minutes to spend with the children. and household chores. Similarly, Asawa’s carvings could be completed in the allotted time, although, as she liked to say, “sleeplessness is nothing more than a fear of wasting time.”

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“Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe” is an inspiring story of a life well lived, with a happy ending. Along with deep dives into art and design, it includes recipes for making potato imprints, baker’s clay and milk carton sculptures, things she has taught countless students. “When you put a seed in the ground, the seed doesn’t say, ‘Well, it’s in eight hours, I’ll stop growing,'” Asawa once said. “That’s why I think every minute we’re grounded, we should be doing something.” An admirable motto, the one by which she really lived.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, NY

By Emma Ridgway, Vibece Salthe, Sigrun Åsebø, John R. Blakinger and Emily Pringle

Thames and Hudson. 192 pages. $40

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