Swans Commentary » swans.com December 4, 2006  



Blips #45
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery




"If you are losing your leisure, look out! You may be losing your soul."
—Logan Pearsall Smith Afterthoughts, 1931


(Swans - December 4, 2006)  SINCE THE HOLIDAYS are upon us, I felt that in the spirit of the season I would keep the Blips warm and homey for a change. So, here it comes: Art and simple pleasures.


RUTH ASAWA AT DE YOUNG: On November 18, I drove to San Francisco with the two dogs to greet Nicole Montalette, my aunt à la mode de Bretagne from New York City who was visited us for one night. A good meal and a sound night later (though not as silent as we would have wished due to young Mestor's barking at the environmental noise -- it was the former stray dog's first time in the city), the following morning, Nicole, a 78-year-young adventurer, wanted to go to the de Young Fine Arts Museums that re-opened last fall after being rebuilt from scratch. Due to time constraints, she was pretty lucky. It just happens that de Young is located one block away from our rented apartment on 9th and Fulton (the dogs like the location too -- they have the entire Golden Gate Park a pawstep away). Well, Priam and Mestor were kept in-bound, and the two of us strolled to the magnificent new museum, as I was worried to death that I'd find the place trashed by the two bystanders who, out of revenge for being left behind and feeling short-changed, would pee and more on our landlord's head who happens to live right below us. (Glad to report they behaved magnificently, kept the place intact, and welcomed us back with magnitude and forgiveness, much joy and licking).

Gorgeous new building, courtesy of many famous and highly paid architects and designers. 293,000 square feet built with 5,122 tons of structural steel, 2,500 tons of rebar, 1,500 tons of concrete, 950,000 lbs of copper, 300,000 lbs of glass, 7,200 unique copper panels with 1,500,000 embossings. The façade is an oeuvre of art by itself. The history of the museum has much to do with wealth of the gilded few, as its renewal has to do now.

We walked briskly through the three floors filled with impressive collections of American art from North and South, native art, African art, Oceanian art, much textiles and a great repository of photographs. Then we walked into the gallery that is holding until the end of January 2007 a retrospective of Ruth Asawa's art, named "The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: contours in the air." Chance had it that the moment we began going through the gallery, a very properly dressed lady in black with a fluffy folie bergere light blue feather boa for dressing decor showed up. She was a guide ready to lead the hoi polloi on a free tour of the exhibition. She was, as said, very proper, with an exquisite upper-class accent mixing New England nasal sound, Boston-like, with old English tonality and Nob Hill inflections. She was also an excellent and knowledgeable guide who helped us learn much about and appreciate the art of Ruth Asawa. Frankly, without her, we would have walked through, hummed a few oohs and ahs and missed much of the retrospective. Neither my aunt nor I had ever heard of Asawa. Our guide opened us to a world of fascinating beauty and to the extraordinary life of the artist.

Of Japanese descent, Ruth ("Aiko") Asawa was born in 1926 and grew up on a farm. She quickly displayed her talents in school, winning drawing competitions. In February 1942 her father was arrested by the FBI (she would not see him again until 1948). In April the family was sent to the Santa Anita Race Track where they lived for a few months in two horse stables before being shipped to an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Later, she studied art at the Milwaukee State Teachers College. In 1945, she traveled to Mexico and studied Mexican crafts, before returning to Milwaukee where she fulfilled her course requirement, but was not granted a degree because no school "would hire a Japanese American." "Years later, when the college offered her an honorary doctorate as one of its most distinguished alumni, she asked that instead they award her the Bachelor of Arts she had earned in 1946," writes Jacqueline Hoefer in "A Working Life," in the catalogue of the exhibition co-published by the University of California Press and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, (which is worth purchasing at the museum's store).

In the summer of 1946 she was admitted to the famous Black Mountain College to study under the directions of Josef Albers, Max Wilhelm Dehn, Ilya Bolotwsky, and many more artists, including Buckminster Fuller whose influence was profound. There she met an architectural student, Albert Lanier. They became engaged in 1948 and married a year later. "Buckminster Fuller designed her wedding ring, using a black stone found on the shores of Lake Huron, with a silver setting based on the tetrahedron," writes Hoefer. She adds,

Fuller wrote:









Ruth saw in it the three "As" in Asawa.

Al and Ruth live in Guerneville, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

The exhibition features her drawings, paintings, prints, and her sculptures, as well as a series of photographs by Imogen Cunningham. Asawa's crocheted sculptures made of various types of wire such as brass, copper, and iron, defy the imagination. They are as much about space as they are about lines. "I was interested in..." Asawa says, "the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It's still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere."

Some of her tied wire sculptures can play tricks on one's mind. In the early 1960s, the story goes, a friend gave her a desert plant brought back from Death Valley for her to draw. In order to draw it Asawa first used wire to construct it. A few are hung high on the ceiling of the exhibition's hall. Looking at them first, before the genteel guide began the tour, I would have sworn that they were actual desert plants, dry wood hanging there to show the similarities between the natural brushes and Asawa's own work with wire hung on the walls. But, no, they were sculptures containing from 400 to 1000 wires!

The exhibition contains about 54 sculptures (including her bronze sculptures), which thanks to the careful lighting installation project shadows on the walls at times sharply, bouncing back from one wall to the other, and in other locations blurring the wires into indistinctive shapes and forms. Absolutely spectacular. In addition, 45 works on paper (drawings, paintings, prints, lithographs...) are also exhibited and complemented by Cunningham's photographs.

This is the very first full retrospective of the artist's career. But, it is not a permanent collection. The exhibition will stay at de Young until January 28, 2007. Then, in the spring, it will move to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and in the fall, to the Japan Society in New York.

Do not miss it. It is truly awe-inspiring. We were there on a Tuesday morning. The guide showed up on or about 11:00-11:30. Call 415-750-3600 and ask about her. I do not know her name. A gentle woman, dressed in black, with gray hair, and a light blue feather boa, in her mid- to late-sixties...

Also, on January 7, 2007 from 1:00 to 5:00 pm, there will be a symposium on the historical relevance of the work of Ruth Asawa at the Koret Auditorium in de Young. For more information: 415-750-7634, rbaldocchi@famsf.org. To buy tickets: 1-866-512-6326 or visit museumtix.org.

Here are a few Web sites you may want to check:

History of the de Young Museum

Ruth Asawa's Web site

A good article by Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle Art Critic on the Asawa Retrospective: "An overlooked sculptor's work weaves its way into our times," SF Chronicle, November 18, 2006

Ruth Asawa on Google


THANKSGIVING SWANS WAY: Being awful contrarians, we can't do anything like everybody else. I hear 46 million turkeys were slaughtered for the annual feast. We only had part of one steer. Jan grilled a couple of steaks and served them à la béarnaise. She prepared and sliced real potatoes, fried them the old fashion way in a pan filled with vegetable oil that resulted in true French fries, not "Freedom fries," not yellow arches fries. No, the real ones; the pommes frites you eat in the Latin Quarter with your friends any day of the year, as one can do all over restaurants in France -- restaurants I said, not the yellow arches. She added a bit of Americana to the buffet, broccoli, the likes of which had been banned from the White House under Papa Bush. Sonny, I suppose, had a special end-of-times dinner made with Iraqi and Palestinian finest ingredients (their lives) and celebrated the coming Rapture of his dreams. We had salad, and French brie served with, unfortunately, mushy bread. Jan had a couple of glasses of Piper Sonoma brut champagne -- they don't call it champagne here, the French get ballistic on the use of the word and file lawsuits galore against any transgressor. So, they call it "Méthode Champenoise" (note the use of the hated French language,) but it's pure champagne nonetheless. I had my usual load of the Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky (only on very special occasions will I sip a glass or two of Laphroaig, the best Islay single malt scotch whisky on earth. Thanksgiving is not a special occasion for us to go through the expense.)

Here we were, sitting at the table and listening to good music. Then we turned on our 13-inch Toshiba TV set and checked KQED, our local PBS station (from San Francisco). It was pure chance. They were showing a Garrison Keillor special of the Prairie Home Companion, out there in Minnesota -- the state that sent the crew-cut farmer to the US Senate. For readers unfamiliar with that perennial show, they just need to know that Keillor brings news with mid-western humor "from Lake Wobegon...where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average." A Google satellite-map search will help you find this famous lake!

It was an old show from May 15, 2004, which you can also watch online. That day, the guests included Inga Swearingen and gospel vocalist Jearlyn Steele, Peter Ostroushko, Cindy Cashdollar, Andy Stein, and the hillbilly band BR549, among other guests. Regulars like Tom Keith and Rich Dworsky performed as well. Both Tim Russell and Sue Scott were as hilarious as they always are, and, of course, Garrison Keillor's homey, plain fun humor, led the motley crew.

The food was superb, the booze cozy, the dogs happy. We retired early to our quarter to stay warm and fuzzy. Next morning, we stayed in bed as America was flooding the Malls.




Ç'est la vie...

And so it goes...


· · · · · ·


La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.
Supporting the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a 
difference for Swans.

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Internal Resources

Blips and Tidbits

America the 'beautiful'


About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Election Reflections - Michael DeLang

Peace & Nature: Holiday Reading - Book Review by Gilles d'Aymery

Rewilding - Martin Murie

The Middle Scenario - Milo Clark

A Complex Education For Misery - Philip Greenspan

Lucifer's Lament - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

"The Queen" - Film Review by Charles Marowitz

The Coronation Of Harold Pinter - Charles Marowitz

People - Short Story by Peter Byrne

Bring The Old Christmas Carols Back - George Beres

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/desk045.html
Published December 4, 2006