“Fountain Lady”: Ruth Asawa in San Francisco

While visiting family in San Francisco, I visited some of the city’s public artworks by Ruth Asawa—one of the artists featured in NMWA’s exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today. Living in San Francisco for most of her adult life, Asawa worked as an artist, arts educator, and arts advocate. Dubbed the “Fountain Lady,” Asawa created major public artworks in prominent tourist areas.

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Ruth Asawa’s Andrea

Situated in Ghirardelli Square, Andrea (1968) depicts two mermaids surrounded by frogs, turtles, and lily pads. Strikingly different from the abstract wire sculptures for which Asawa is best known, Andrea was Asawa’s first public commission as well as her first major representational work. Asawa believed the whimsical fountain would tap into the dreams of both children and adults wondering what lays beneath the water’s surface. The fountain’s plaque tells the story of how Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect for the square, preferred an abstract work and fought to have Andrea replaced. However, the public united behind Asawa, and the sculpture remained.

The San Francisco Bay and Bay Bridge serve as a dramatic backdrop for another fountain by Asawa, Aurora, located at 188 Embarcadero. Water flows from the top of the wheel-shaped steel sculpture and around its perimeter before splashing into a blue-tiled pool.

Ruth Asawa’s Aurora

Ruth Asawa’s Aurora

Aurora is based on Asawa’s folded paper forms—an important part of her artistic vocabulary. She learned origami as a child and was encouraged by one of her Black Mountain College professors, Josef Albers, to explore the technique further. Throughout her life, she used paper for a range of artistic and educational projects.

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Ruth Asawa’s Redding School, Self-Portrait

Redding School, Self-Portrait (1984), located in Father Alfred E. Boeddeker Park, is a bas relief sculptural wall made of glass fiber-reinforced concrete. The mural depicts a prominent public servant in the city’s history, Franciscan friar Boedekker, surrounded by children, houses, airplanes, and animals.

For this work, Redding Elementary School students made their own sculptures out of baker’s dough for Asawa to assemble into one complete mold.

The project reflects Asawa’s commitment to encouraging children in the arts; in the late 1960s she and her friend Sally Woodbridge developed an innovative program through which children could learn directly from artists. Later, she helped establish a public high school for the arts.

Another work, Origami Fountains, consists of two sculptures. As its title implies, the lotus bloom shape of each sculpture was inspired by origami—particularly appropriate given the work’s location in Japantown. The distinct sculptures are situated on a bed of large flat stones embedded in cement and surrounded by a circular multi-tiered stone bench. When compared to the sleek and modern Aurora, Origami Fountains seems more organic in form and finish.

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Ruth Asawa’s Origami Fountains

Visiting Asawa’s public works gave me a greater awareness of her breadth, talent, and creativity. Given her connection to the city, it isn’t surprising that each work reflects not only her unique artistic vision but also a sensitivity to place, setting, and audience. Asawa created nine public artworks in San Francisco—each worth a visit.

—Ellen Pollak is the foundation and government support officer and national and international committees manager at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Louise Bourgeois: A Legend

Louise Bourgeois with Spider IV in 1996, Photo by Peter Bellamy

Louise Bourgeois’ life spanned nearly the entire twentieth century. A legend in her own time, she became part of the canon of art history, which has not been kind to women. Bourgeois likely did not categorize herself as a “woman artist,” but as a woman with a particular perspective on a very rich and complex life, she pioneered areas of expression where others feared to tread. She explored the interstices of the mind and the sublime landscape of the human form. She influenced the work of many artists, including Eva Hesse and Bruce Naumann, in their use of untraditional materials and desire to express sensual, erotic, and sadistic fantasy. From her latex mantels of breast-like forms to her menacing cage sculptures, Bourgeois’ personal narrative came forth in a stream of consciousness that alluded, among other things, to her philandering father and beleaguered mother. 

I challenge the reader to find a female visual artist before Bourgeois who expressed such blackness, cynicism, and bite in the tradition of Goya and akin to Picasso. On a handkerchief she stitched, “I have been to hell and back and let me tell you it was wonderful,” embracing the archetypal female pastime of embroidery to convey a message that challenges our expectations of the pithy sayings decorative pillows ordinarily display. Can hell be wonderful or is this the artist’s sarcastic wit? Do we imagine that this visit lie at the core of her artistic imagination? And is this a pillow on which you would want to lay your weary head? Like many women artists Bourgeois defied categorization and worked outside of prevailing trends. 

Without a way to categorize Bourgeois, though, the art world struggled to define her. She did not secure fame until very late in life with major, serious retrospectives and scholarly catalogues. (In 1982, at age 70, she became the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; in 1993 she represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale; and in 2007 the Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris organized a major retrospective of her work.) An “artist’s artist” some say and true to that identity, she held salons where artists could visit and subject their work to her critique. Bourgeois was quirky and feisty. She wove feminist iconography to critique male dominance throughout her work and in the end, it was this repeated objective that conferred upon her iconic status. A non-conformist, creative dissenter, Louise was anything but bourgeois.

-Jordana Pomeroy is chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Lynda Benglis

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Lynda Benglis, Eridanus, 1984. Bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire, 58 x 48 x 27 in.

Among NMWA’s new acquisitions this year is a sculpture by the innovative Lynda Benglis (American, b. 1940). Often billed as a feminist artist, Benglis is media oriented, as she works in anything from metal to encaustic to painting to video.

Benglis, a Louisiana native, trained under artists like Ida Kohlmeyer at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (now part of Tulane University). After receiving her bachelor’s in 1964, she moved to New York to study painting and became part of a close clique of artists including Gordon Hart, Barnett Newman, Carl Andre, Jennifer Bartlett, Ron Gorchov, and Marilyn Lenkowsky. It was during this time that she began her experimentation with poured floor paintings, which bridge the media of painting and sculpture.

In the early 1970’s she began a collaborative relationship with sculptor Robert Morris that would lead to her most infamous work – the Artforum advertisements. With the intent of pushing back against the male-dominated art world, she bought a series of self-promoting full-page ads in the magazine, ending with a photo featuring Benglis wearing only sunglasses and a large dildo. Male and female critics alike were very vocal, branding it “exploitative” or dismissing it as “kinky cheesecake.” Fascinatingly, Robert Morris’ ads in the same magazine of himself clad in S&M attire generated only a fraction of the commentary Benglis did, proving the entire point of her exercise: that women were simply not allowed the artistic acceptance that men had. She also produced a number of video works along the same subject lines at this time.

Benglis had been producing wire mesh relief sculptures covered in glittery paint since 1972, but by the early 1980s they had evolved to the elegant forms that Eridanus (titled after a river in Greek mythology) exemplifies so well. She used either plated steel or detailed wire infrastructures coated with layers of nickel, zinc, copper, and chrome to create sculptures that amazingly resemble knotted cloth. Her evolution as an artist and willingness to experiment are apparent in their painstaking construction, which evokes anything from blooming flowers to fancy dresses. She also creates forms that simultaneously resemble human torsos and sheets of metal that appear to have been scrunched in someone’s fist before being tossed onto the wall. Benglis continues to work today, dividing her time between New York and New Mexico.

About the author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publications intern.