“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.


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.


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.


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: Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1967. Mixed media, 10 x 10 x 1 in.

One of the most important 20th century works in NMWA’s collection, Eva Hesse’s Study for Sculpture may not be the most colorful or eye catching, but it has certainly made an impact on the history of feminist art.

During a time of social unrest in society and especially artistic culture, a young Eva Hesse was considered part of the male-dominated Minimalist movement, that focused on repetition, geometry, and lacked the personal touch of the artist’s hand. Hesse segued into post-Minimalism through sculpture, which had ties to emotions, the use of gravity, and established artistic imperfection without the strict boundaries of Minimalism.

Eva Hesse was born in 1936, of Jewish descent, in Hamburg, Germany. Shortly thereafter, her family fled the Nazi regime and later settled in New York City in 1939. Hesse had various forms of artistic training throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, including studying at Yale and Pratt Institute, but did not begin her official artistic career until around 1960. In order to be taken seriously, as a female in a male-dominated New York art scene, Hesse was constantly inventing new artistic ideals. She was a pioneer in the field of post- Minimalism, using materials not yet seen in contemporary sculpture such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. Hesse brought the personal touch back to minimalism with her hands, as most Minimalist pieces removed the handmade quality of artwork and replaced it with machine.  Sadly, Hesse died at the age of 34 from a brain tumor in 1970, putting an end to her short artistic career, but not her legacy in contemporary art. There have been a number of posthumous exhibitions since her death; the most famous being a retrospective at The Jewish Museum in New York City in 2006.

Study for Sculpture is an outstanding example of Hesse’s work as a whole. It contains elements of gravity, shadow, light, and a deep emotional intensity. Hesse used a matte gray acrylic paint on masonite, along with various attached rubber tubes and left the remaining elements of the piece, such as lighting and placement, up to the institution that installed it. This simple idea of chance pays homage to the early 20th century Dadaists, therefore interpretation and interaction is left in the hands of the viewer. Hesse struggled with mental instability, separation, divorce, and suicide within her short lifetime and these elements have clearly given depth and consequence to the piece.

Study for Sculpture is a must see in the NMWA collection and a true example of the fight to stand above a male-dominated 1960s American art world. Take a stand and view Eva Hesse and other important contemporary artists in our third floor galleries!

About the Author- Ali Printz is currently an intern in the LRC at NMWA

Artist Spotlight: Lynda Benglis


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.

"Hunkertime" by Harmony Hammond, on view for 1 year at NMWA!

The Curatorial Department at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is thrilled to unveil the colossal sculpture Hunkertime by New Mexico artist Harmony Hammond.  Spanning over 23 feet in NMWA’s recently opened 3rd floor sculpture gallery, Hunkertime, composed of 9 stocky, ladder-like forms wrapped in thick layers of painted fabric, is a prime example of Hammond’s “wrapped sculptures” of the late 70s and early 80s.  The wrapped structures “hunker” together, leaning on each other in a manner that suggests community and dialogue, which Hammond considers vital to feminist practice.

Harmony Hammond (American, b. 1944), "Hunkertime", 1979-1980; Cloth, wood, acrylic, gesson, latex rubber, rhoplex and metal 83 x 286 in. On loan from Elizabeth A. Sackler.

Harmony Hammond (American, b. 1944), “Hunkertime”, 1979-1980; Cloth, wood, acrylic, gesso, latex rubber, rhoplex and metal 83 x 286 in. On loan from Elizabeth A. Sackler.

A pioneer of the feminist art, Hammond began working in New York in the 1970s when the feminist art movement began to take root. Meeting regularly with a group of women interested in the interconnectedness of gender and art, Hammond began to view artistic medium and processes as vital, meaning-making expressions of gender in art. Hammond and her colleagues discussed how “materials such as fabric and thread, and connective processes referencing the needle arts (stitching, weaving, braiding, knotting, and piecing), previously undervalued and devalued for their associated with women, took on new meanings.” In Hunkertime, the layers of fabric covering the underlying wooden armatures are composed of old rags and clothes collected from her friends. She notes: “It meant that I was literally putting all these women in the work.”

In addition to referencing women’s traditional artistic practices, Hammond’s use of fabric serves as a commentary on the deplorable working conditions of immigrant women employed by the garment industry in Lower Manhattan, where Hammond lived and worked. “Every night the end cuts of bolts of knit fabric were thrown out in dumpsters to be carted away as waste. Using this discarded fabric to ‘make something out of nothing,’ I was able to reference the women working in the sweatshops and myself—a woman and an artist in a capitalist patriarchal culture—with what I called an ‘aesthetic of survival.’”

Hunkertime is generously on loan to NMWA for one year from historian and arts activist Dr. Elizabeth A. Sackler, founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The Sackler Center is the permanent home of “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago, honoring women’s contributions in all fields throughout history. Lectures and panel discussions about feminist art, theory and activism take place in the Center’s Forum, and featured exhibitions are held in its Feminist Art and Herstory galleries.

About the author: Raphael Sikorra is curatorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Behind the Scenes: Elizabeth Turk’s Wing 5

Elizabeth Turk’s sculpture installation Wing 5 (1998) seems to have alighted in the center of the museum’s newly re-installed sculpture gallery. Comprising three large marble wings with softly detailed feathers carved into their surfaces, Wing 5 is a study in contrast—solid material appears weightless, even buoyant. In fact, each piece of marble weighs several hundred pounds. This past August, the museum’s chief preparator, Gregory Angelone, worked with art handler Ben Gage and a large gantry to remove Wing 5 from its crates and place it in the gallery space. The process would have taken less time if I hadn’t gotten involved.

Turk 1

Elizabeth Turk, Wing 5, 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Museum preparators care for art objects and install them for exhibition. They also design exhibition installations, with input from curators. Greg phoned me when he and Ben were ready to place Wing 5’s central wing, which stands vertically on the floor and is the heaviest of the three marble pieces. (The other two wings rest horizontally along the floor and are somewhat easier to maneuver.) I went down to the gallery to find the vertical wing wrapped in quilted pads (to protect its surface) and hanging from the gantry by thick canvas straps and heavy chains. Greg asked if I liked the placement in the center of the gallery.

I certainly wanted to get the positioning of Wing 5 just right. The museum’s sculpture gallery on the third floor is one of the building’s most dramatic spaces, with a 22-foot ceiling height and a large window that looks out over New York Avenue.

Elizabeth Turk’s sculpture, a recent gift to NMWA from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, is also one of the artist’s most poignant works. Each wing is made from marble that was quarried in Colorado and brought to Washington D.C. in the early twentieth century to be used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial. Through this work, Turk sought to express the sense of “forgotten beauty, expectations, and hopes” that she perceived in Western culture at the close of the twentieth century.

I walked around the gantry a few times and squinted at the sculpture repeatedly. I asked Greg and Ben to nudge the gantry a little to the right. “Nudge” is probably not the correct word to describe the effort it took for them to move the gantry with so much weight hanging from it. I told Greg and Ben that I thought we had it in the right spot. They slowly loosened the chains to lower the sculpture to the floor, carefully unhooked the canvas straps, and removed the pads.

I wrinkled my brow (and tried to avoid looking at Greg directly). Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, a massive black rubber wall relief, hangs to the left of Wing 5. Turk’s white marble wing needed to be positioned a little further away from Booker’s imposing work in order to balance the gallery space. The marble wing had more visual weight when it was wrapped in the thick pads, and I had not accounted for that.

Chakaia Booker, "Acid Rain", 2001; Rubber tires and wood

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood

I delivered the bad news to Greg and Ben, who took it in characteristically affable fashion. They expertly re-wrapped and re-strapped the piece and moved it about one foot to the right. I hope you will visit NMWA soon to see Elizabeth Turk’s Wing 5. Surrounded by other superb works from our collection, it is a testament to the artist’s poetic vision and extraordinary technical skills. Its placement is also an expression of NMWA’ s desire to offer guests an exhilarating—and perfectly balanced!—experience each time they visit.

Elizabeth Turk, "Wing 5", 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Elizabeth Turk, Wing 5, 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

—Kathryn Wat, curator of modern and contemporary art

"Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture" and NMWA’s First Artist’s Book

This month, NMWA celebrates the opening of Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture — a new exhibition of artist’s books organized by NMWA’s Krystyna Wasserman, Curator of Book Arts. On view through January 17, 2010, the exhibition features 16 artist’s books in non-traditional media. In Krystyna’s own words:

“Book as sculpture expands the concept of the book, taking it into new territory where it becomes that unattainable ‘object of desire’ to be admired from a distance.  Hard Copy plays a game with the viewers. The works are tactile but they cannot be touched. The pages of books cannot be turned. The exhibition challenges  viewers’ expectations and questions the distinction between book and sculpture.”

Mirella Bentivoglio, "Mirella Cinderella", 1997, Marble, china, and paper; featured in "Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture" at NMWA through January 17, 2010

Mirella Bentivoglio, “Mirella Cinderella”, 1997, Marble, china, and paper, 5 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 8 in.; featured in “Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture” at NMWA through January 17, 2010

While organizing this exhibition, Krystyna had the opportunity to reflect on NMWA’s role in researching, collecting, and exhibiting artist’s books by women.  With over 1,000 artist’s books, NMWA is home to one of the premier collections of artist’s books in the world. Below, Krystyna recalls how  NMWA’s first artist’s book (Caroline, 1985, by Meret Oppenheim) came into the collection.

“I have been fascinated by Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) since my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The fur-lined tea cup was so wonderfully absurd that I felt instantly seduced by the Swiss Dadaist who created this work, officially titled Object.

“In February 1984 I went to Cleveland to attend the conference of ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Society of North America), and present a paper on the development of NMWA’s Library and Research Center.  Between the sessions, I ran to the Cleveland Institute of Art where I discovered an exhibition of artists’ books. Enchanted, I spent most of the afternoon in the galleries and returned to Washington determined to present equally exciting exhibitions of artists’ books in our future library. From the outset, NMWA founder Mrs. Holladay embraced the idea of collecting and exhibiting artists’ books.  An early trip to New York to visit Tony Zwicker, the late dealer and a knowledgeable enthusiast of artist’s books resulted in the acquisition of Meret Oppenheim’s book Caroline, the first artist’s book in NMWA’s collection.

Meret Oppenheim, "Caroline", 1985, Letterpress, colored etchings, embossing, 5 1/2 x 11 in.

Meret Oppenheim, “Caroline”, 1985, Letterpress, colored etchings, embossing, 5 1/2 x 11 in.

“Although quite different from Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea cup that I first encountered in New York, Caroline had all the exquisite qualities of the artist’s unique style. Not everybody knows it, but Oppenheim wrote beautiful lyrical poems in French and in German and was an accomplished printmaker. Caroline includes twenty-three etchings and embossings, and honors the memory of Caroline [Karoline] Von Günderode, the romantic German poet (1780-1806) who took her own life with a dagger at the age of twenty-six because she was unalbe to reconcile her literary ambitions with the upheavals of her emotional life. ‘I have no taste for women’s virtues, for women’s delights. I like only what is wild, great, glorious,’ Von Günderode  wrote in 1801 in one of her published letters. Oppenheim’s poems and abstract etchings in Caroline are not specifically related to the tragic life and death of Von Günderode; rather, they are fleeting impressions of landscapes where surreal encounters occur, where roses consume marzipans and hunters ask deer for a glass of water.

“Caroline was the last work created by Meret Oppenheim. On her 72nd birthday on October 6, 1985, the artist announced to her friends, ‘I will die before the first snow.’ Five weeks later, she died of a heart attack after signing all the 89 copies (including our copy #48) on November 15, the day of the scheduled publication party at the Edition Fanal in Basel.

“The grand opening of NMWA’s Library and Research Center on  September 21, 1987 included our first exhibition of artists’ books, The Book as Art.  Meret Oppenheim’s Caroline was the star of that exhibition.”

About the Author: Krystyna Wasserman is Curator of Book Arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  Since 1987, she has carefully assembeld NMWA’s outstanding collection of artists’ books and has curated numerous exhibitions.