Interview with Tamara H. Schenkenberg by David Ebony
Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) is a unique figure in contemporary art. Her abstract sculptures, created with a novel, looped wire technique that resembles basket-weaving, are often misunderstood. For some, they embody the clash between craft and “fine art,” remaining uncertain as to precisely what side her work would appear on once those battle lines have been drawn. A recent museum survey, “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work,” and the accompanying book, with essays by Helen Molesworth, Aruna D’Souza, and the exhibition’s organizer, Pulitzer Arts Foundation curator Tamara H. Schenkenberg goes a long way in clarifying the situation of her work within an art-historical framework while illuminating many fascinating biographical details of this complex and enigmatic artist. The exhibition, the first Asawa survey east of California, appeared at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis [Sept. 14, 2018-Feb. 16, 2019], and did not travel.
Born in Norwalk, California, of Japanese immigrant farmers, Asawa, along with the rest of her family, was placed in an internment camp during World War II. Later in the 1940s, she attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied art with Josef Albers, then head of the painting department. Albers stressed the importance of refining manual skills in art-making, rather than pursuing individual expression, which he believed would follow in the act of creating. His assignments or exercises were often labor-intensive. Visits to Mexico prompted an early interest in local basket weaving, which had a profound effect on her art both in matters of technique and in form. Asawa focused on a looped wire technique, which would become her signature technique—obsessively, if not exclusively—in the years to come.
In 1949, Asawa married the architect Albert Lanier, whom she’d met at Black Mountain College. They married in California, where interracial marriages were legal (Lanier was Caucasian American). The couple settled in the Bay Area of San Francisco, where they raised six children, and where Asawa remained until her death at age eighty-seven. Her children often assisted her in art-making; aside from the renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham, and a few of the artists she had met at Black Mountain College, including Ray Johnson, she was never part of an artist group, and she worked in relative isolation.
In a recent telephone conversation, I spoke with curator Tamara H. Schenkenberg about Asawa, the exhibition and book, and the life of this fascinating and hitherto little-known art-world figure.
David Ebony I’ve seen a number of Ruth Asawa sculptures in group shows over the years, and a gallery solo show or two. The work is always striking, but I always thought that it brings up so many difficult issues, especially regarding craft versus “fine art.” How did you discover her work, and what inspired you to organize this exhibition?
Tamara H. Schenkenberg Ruth Asawa was unknown to me until about three or four years ago. I first encountered her work in the Black Mountain College exhibition organized by the ICA Boston which traveled around the country. If I remember correctly, there was only a single sculpture in that show, but it really impressed be because it dazzled the eye and made me think intensely about the space it occupied since it was about transparency yet at the same time it was very “present” in the gallery. I started to learn more about the artist, about her life and art. I understood that she left behind an extraordinary body of work, with which there is still very little critical engagement. So it seemed to be a wonderful opportunity to expand our understanding of the work and the artist.
I was interested in Asawa as an art-historian, and also as a mother. Motherhood was such an important part of who she was and how she foregrounded her identity: an artist and a mother in a single breath. She was also a passionate community member and leader. So that was the starting point. I also came to learn that there are two categories of people out there—if I can be so bold to make a generalization. There are people in California who knew her works very well. And then there’s the rest of us to whom she is still a largely unknown figure. That was an interesting challenge for me, just to understand her position and the many contributions that she made. My goal for this show was to think of Asawa as a maker, and consider more deeply her technical innovations, and also to develop more language around her technique and her sculptures so that in the future we can better understand and more critically engage with her art.
Ebony She studied at Black Mountain College, and Josef Albers had such an important influence on her early on. How did that manifest itself in her art?
Schenkenberg Albers was influential in a number of ways, but for the purposes of this show and the book, I was mostly interested in thinking of Asawa as a maker, and learning about the exercises that Albers would assign to his students, which many found to be very tedious. They were exercises that emphasized the work of the hand, they were about hand-eye coordination, repetitive exercises to refine motor skills. It was an esthetic of hard work that was predicated on the skill of the hand that stuck with Asawa. There was also the importance of the community setting of Black Mountain College, not only with the students, but with the faculty as well. It was an environment that aspired to be non-hierarchical.
Ebony I was surprised to see the watercolor by her Black Mountain College classmate Ray Johnson in the book [Asawa Summer 1946, 1946], illustrated in Aruna D’Souza’s essay. I wondered if she had modeled for that because, although the watercolor is basically abstract, the image of a nude figure appears in the background.
Schenkenberg Yes, there is a nude figure present, but somewhat occluded. I don’t know the answer. I would be surprised if she did model for it. She and Johnson were good friends then, and became lifelong friends. I was surprised to see it, too, but it speaks to this large network that she was a part of at the time.
Ebony Ray Johnson, who I got to know a bit soon after I moved to New York in the late 1970s, was so much interested in networking, and the artists and art-world characters on the scene. By contrast, Asawa was rather isolated, as discussed in your essay and others in the book. She seemed not to have been involved in any artists’ community after she left Black Mountain College. Why was that the case? And is that part of the reason why she is not better known?
Schenkenberg There were a number of obstacles to Asawa becoming a household name in the art world. One was certainly geography, after she moved to the West Coast. Another one is her gender, and her ethnicity. Also, it was the matter of her process, her craft-based method. Her work was routinely rejected from “fine art” exhibitions because people struggled to understand it as sculpture.
But I’m not sure about your assessment that she was so isolated. There were different kinds of communities that she was a part of, and that she contributed to. She was not part of the West Coast art community per se, or part of a movement, an artists’ cooperative or a clearly defined circle of artists. But she was involved with developing art programs in local schools, and in other kinds of community activities.
Ebony The problem of the relationship of her work to craft is so interesting. She was very much inspired by Mexican basket weavers. How would you say the work crosses over to the realm of “fine art”?
Schenkenberg What’s fascinating for me is that early on she adopted this craft-based technique, which is often described as crocheting or weaving. In fact, her technique is closest to knitting, although knitting is also problematic because you need needles to knit. She was working with wire; wire can hold its shape, and you don’t need needles for the kind of looping process she used. What she does is take this very humble material—industrial wire—and manipulates it to replicate the open-work baskets she saw in Mexico. But by 1949, she’s turned it into freestanding sculpture, which is both two-dimensional line but also three-dimensional form. It’s no longer sculpture that sits on a flat surface, but it’s suspended from the ceiling. It’s self-enclosed, but open at the same time. It has volume, but is also about lightness. I think she’s redefining the prevailing notions of sculpture at the time. That may be a reason why there was such a resistance, or a lack of understanding of what she had accomplished. Also, there wasn’t really the language in place to properly describe her work. I think we still struggle with that today.
Ebony On the other hand, her work does seem to connect with other avant-garde sculptors of the time, especially women artists who were her contemporaries. I’m thinking of Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Gego, Lygia Clark, and even Kusama to some extent, in relation to the obsessive aspects of Asawa’s work. And there’s somehow a correspondence with Lynda Benglis’s sculpture.
Schenkenberg In terms of work that is process-based, yes. I think there are definitely some interesting sensibilities in play, and it is wonderful to think about Asawa in dialogue with the other artists you mention. But, as we mentioned, she wasn’t really in direct contact with that kind of community or artistic milieu. She was, though, a part of a community, and, for many years, that community was her own family. There are some fantastic photographs from the period by Imogen Cunningham, which show her in that realm, at home and with her children.
Asawa was also active in the Bay Area working on a number of public sculptures. And in 1968 she cofounded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, in San Francisco, where professional artists would work with parents to advocate public arts education. Asawa makes us rethink the role of the artist, and the influence they have in society. When I first started the project, I asked her family, “What books did she surround herself with? Who did she talk to? What exhibitions did she see?” But that was not a line of inquiry that yielded a lot of results for me.
Ebony I wanted to ask about her friendship with Imogen Cunningham. How did that come about? Some of the photo portraits of Asawa are more famous than her sculptures.
Schenkenberg I’m not sure how they met, but Imogen was many years her senior. Imogen had been married, had three children, and divorced. She would often try to dissuade Asawa from having more children because she wanted her to focus more on her work. Asawa apparently didn’t listen because she ended up raising six children. But they seem to have had a very warm friendship. It led to the series of photographs that, as her family has mentioned, were sometimes staged and sometimes impromptu. You may have seen those where Asawa is looking very glamorous, with lots of makeup and her sculptures draped over her body, or around her body. But then there are more candid shots, just showing the artist at work in the domestic environment.
Ebony Earlier, you mentioned her public sculptures. That was one revelation for me in reading your essay in the book. The public sculptures were figurative, and they don’t seem to fit in with the rest of her work.
Schenkenberg Yes, and some of them are quite sentimental. The best-known one, Andrea (1968), a fountain at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, depicts mermaids and their children, surrounded by lily pads and little turtles. Another public work is a kind of panoramic view of San Francisco. It’s difficult to reconcile these with Asawa’s abstract sculptures we know, coming out of the Black Mountain College tradition—so different from the romanticized iconography she used in the public sculptures.
I struggled with that problem, too. Where and how do those fit in? The location of Andrea helps, though, because you are on the oceanfront, and so the mermaids make sense in terms of the setting. Also, she cared a lot about children, and many local children make trips to that site. Plus, the commission allowed her to gain experience in the foundry, and led her to cast in bronze some of her own looped wire sculptures. She therefore developed a whole new body of abstract works. In the end, the public sculptures don’t seem like such an anomaly, just a part of a larger practice.
Ebony There is great emphasis in the book on considering Asawa as a feminist. An interesting observation by Helen Molesworth, countering a certain critical assessment—or dismissal—of Asawa during her lifetime as a “San Francisco housewife,” is that the likenesses within groups of sculptures could be associated with siblings, thinking about the relationships of her six children.
Schenkenberg Helen wanted to negotiate the biographical and the formal in her essay.She reads the work in that way, such as some of the undulating forms representing embryos, and how groups of works may also speak to each other and have those kinds of relationships as well. She says something more provocative about how Asawa offers a very different model of who and what an artist is. In a very striking way, she opens the essay by discussing that iconic image of Jackson Pollock flinging paint on a canvas on the floor, which is how we imagine the heroic, postwar artist. She juxtaposes that with a Cunningham photo of Asawa equally immersed in her work, but at home surrounded by children. She poses the question of how do we think of artists in our society, and can we consider other models for what an artist is?
Ebony What, for you, is the most important reason why young people, young artists, or anyone interested in art, should pay attention to Ruth Asawa’s work?
Schenkenberg That’s a big question, but an important one. To me, she feels like an artist of this moment in time because her role as an artist was so expansive. She was as interested in object-making as she was in new notions of community. I think that comes from the principles that Black Mountain College was founded upon, and it was very much about how to be a good citizen; the role of the artist, and an artist’s value within the community is paramount. It was about feeling responsible for something that is greater than yourself, while maintaining your own individual practice. That’s why her work seems so pertinent now. It’s not just engaging visually, emotionally and psychologically. There’s also something very profound in the way she situated herself within the Bay Area, the city of San Francisco, to make a difference.
Tamara H. Schenkenberg is curator at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.
David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America magazine, and the author of numerous artist monographs. He lives and works in New York City.