What you see: Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, by Marilyn Chase. $29.95 (Hardback). Chronicle Books.*
Does it fit in my purse? No. It’s a hardback and it’s just slightly too big to fit.
Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes, especially if you have no idea who Ruth Asawa was.
Ruth Asawa was traditional in many respects, but she was not conventional.
Moreover, she knew she was not conventional. She knew she didn’t really fit anywhere, she accepted that fact early and firmly, and she never let it trouble her.
That fundamental self-acceptance and lack of doubt seems to be key to Asawa’s success as an artist. At least, that’s what I get from Everything She Touched. Ruth Asawa was unique, spectacularly so. She got what she wanted because she knew what she wanted, and she stuck with it even if her wants didn’t match the 20th century white male artist’s definition of success.
What she wanted, even more than she wanted art-world renown, was a large family. Asawa was the middle child of seven, and she was determined to have six children of her own, even though she suffered from ghastly bouts of morning sickness. (Ever the pragmatist, she met her goal by birthing four children and adopting two.)
Asawa’s works–the wire sculptures and public fountains for which she is best known–didn’t take primacy in her mind, either. The book states that when her daughter Aiko asked her what she considered her most important legacy, she responded “the schools”, referencing her decades-long campaign to improve art education for K-12 students in San Francisco, California. (With reluctance, she allowed the art-centric alternative high school she established and championed to bear her name.)
The book, which is the first major biography of the artist, lays out the facts of her life crisply in chronological order. She and her parents and siblings suffered the injustice of internment in camps during World War II because of their Japanese ties, and the U.S. government arrested and held Asawa’s father, Umakichi, apart from them over concerns he might be involved with a Japanese ultranationalist group. (He wasn’t.)
The author, Marilyn Chase, manages the trick of relaying the positive aspects of Ruth Asawa’s camp years without implying the experience was a good thing. She also captures the bitterness Asawa felt upon learning, three years into her studies, that the teachers’ college she attended in Milwaukee, Wisconsin denied her a student-teacher position–which she needed to complete her degree–over fears for her safety as a person of Japanese ancestry.
Running headlong into that racist barrier ultimately led Asawa to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College, an experience that changed her life, and her art, for the better. But, again, the author takes care to avoid suggesting that the college’s act of discrimination, veiled in paternalism, should be forgiven because things turned out fine in the end. Chase lets it stand alone and apart as an incident of rank bigotry, one of many Asawa faced as a Japanese-American woman in the 20th century.
In reading the many pages on Ruth Asawa’s experience at Black Mountain College, I grew annoyed that I didn’t really know her before picking up Everything She Touched. Her classmates included Robert Rauschenberg and Ray Johnson. Merce Cunningham taught her modern dance. She knew R. Buckminster Fuller as “Bucky”, and he designed her wedding ring. (It’s pictured on page 70, and, frankly, I’m jealous of it.)
Asawa also forged a deep, decades-long connection to Josef Albers, who taught at Black Mountain and saw her potential almost immediately.
Albers wasn’t the only one. In the 1950s, Asawa and her art received coverage in Time, Vogue, and other big-deal publications (though the language quoted from the stories shows that critics and editors didn’t know how to regard her; because she took family friend Imogen Cunningham’s advice to make art under her maiden name, the articles invariably describe her as “Miss Asawa”, a term that has the unfortunate effect of erasing the existence of the family that meant so much to her).
Asawa also earned the ripest of plums: representation by a New York City gallery. That relationship, with Peridot Gallery, ended when she literally outgrew the space. Its ceilings were only so high, forcing Asawa to size her hanging wire sculptures to fit its dimensions. Leaving the gallery meant dropping off the New York City radar. Others more desperate for fame and fortune would have reduced their artistic visions to fit inside the white-walled box. Not Asawa. The West Coast resident plowed ahead, raising children and making art on her own terms.
In performing the task of describing her life story, the book overlooks a thing or two. The Japanese concept of gaman, or endurance with dignity, appears early, as does Asawa’s long-held belief that “crying doesn’t help”. As a grown woman and a mother, she transmitted these values to her children, and she took this approach to her art; in the passage about her wedding ring, the book notes that Asawa’s fingers were often bound with masking tape because of cuts and scrapes inflicted by the wires she wove. But the potential downsides of this stoic philosophy–and come on, they had to exist–go unexplored. There’s brief, general discussion of how she made her wire works, but not much beyond that, and no details about the creation of any specific wire work.
Ruth Asawa’s story could have slipped away, but it did not. Long after his death, Josef Albers helped her one last time by indirectly bringing her to the attention of someone who could raise her profile. When Asawa’s family contacted Christie’s about selling a study in green from the Homage to the Square series that he gave her as a gift, Jonathan Laib took the call. He realized Asawa must have meant a great deal to Albers to favor her with such a standout piece.
Laib kept asking questions of the family, and saw the chance to bring Asawa her due. The Albers study sold for $116,500; with Laib’s help, Asawa’s works brought much more.
Laib directed a national spotlight at her starting in 2010, a time when the public was ready and eager to embrace tales of artists who are neither white nor male. Still, Asawa’s rediscovery was not inevitable. The cover of Everything She Touched sums up the conundrum she poses. It’s a color photograph, taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1951, posing Asawa behind, and partly obscured by, one of her hanging wire sculptures.
Ruth Asawa has always been here, hiding in plain sight. Her work and her brilliance persist whether we see her or not. Everything She Touched lets us see her in full.
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