Impressions of Life with Ruth Asawa

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I realized recently that I had committed a travesty of an art-enthusiast crime: while I had lived in Los Angeles for nearly all of my life, it had been far too long since I had visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. With the aid of Los Angeles’ train system, the use of which constitutes an adventure in and of itself, I made it to Pasadena and eventually to the museum, eager to take in the renowned collection and to view the traveling exhibits on display.

While the museum is well-known for its collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Southeast Asian art, what truly stood out for me during my visit to the Norton Simon was a small show, tucked away in a niche-like room off one of the main halls.  Home and Away: The Printed Works of Ruth Asawa, was a small collection of lithographs.  While Asawa is best known for her public fountains and wire sculpture, she was also a fellow at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1965, where she created the works in Home and Away.

The exhibition comprised several sets of lithographs, each addressing a different theme or subject matter. The first set, “Flowers,” comprised twelve works made over a period of two weeks that each illustrate different kinds of flowers, using the

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Ruth Asawa. Flowers V, 1965. Lithograph. © 2014 Estate of Ruth Asawa.

medium to different effect in each print. The images ranged from spare black line work of flowers to soft, colorful ink washes and forms.  Flowers I, the first work in the series, incorporated the word “flower” into its composition, interspersing the letters with the carefully outlined leaves and petals. Flowers III evoked a charcoal drawing, while Flowers V, VI, VII, and VIII are reminiscent of watercolors.

The next suite of works was a collection of portraits of Asawa’s six children, each rendered in a different style. The first work, Xavier, was simply rendered using lines and spare, light shading; the young boy looked out at the viewer with large, petulant eyes, conveying a sense of defined character. Aiko was also particularly striking; the girl was depicted in profile and appeared to be backlit, the ink smoky and dim, almost ghostly and sinister. Hudson appeared to be loosely drawn, with clean, pen-like line work, while Henry and Adam, which portrayed Asawa’s son Adam with his beloved dog Henry, had a texture reminiscent of crayon, with a lovely sense of intimacy.

Ruth Asawa. Xavier, 1965. Lithograph. © Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Babies appeared to be a series of studies of Asawa’s youngest daughter Addie, with a sketchy, unfinished quality and several renderings of hands and angles of the figure on the same sheet, while Paul was cartoonish and abstracted, with careful, cautious line work and amusing puppet figures sharing the composition with the boy.

The next set of works were two prints depicting Asawa’s father Umakichi presented in a haunted, blurry black-and-white; the second print of Umakichi was especially eerie, with the man’s gray skin and the keen use of sfumato to partially obscure the figure.

The last set of works was perhaps the most dazzling in the exhibition. Called Desert Flower, Asawa depicted the aforementioned subject matter in a radial manner that hearkened back to the mandala form.  The first work in this series was especially luminous, with a glowing orange-gold background and white center behind the exquisitely outlined flower.

Ruth Asawa. Desert Flower, 1965. Lithograph, 2nd state. © 2014 Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Desert II was textured in a way that called to mind the form of a dandelion before it loses its seeds to the wind.

While Home and Away: The Printed Works of Ruth Asawa has closed, the Norton Simon Museum is definitely worth a visit. There is always a special exhibit to experience and savor much in the way that I enjoyed Home and Away. Make an afternoon of your visit: stroll throughout the galleries and marvel at the permanent collection, which features vivid works by Vincent van Gogh and a number of Degas’ dancers, including one of Degas’ beloved Little Dancer sculptures. Get lost amidst Indian Bodhisattvas and Buddhas on the lower level. Meander around the beautiful sculpture garden featuring works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, and Aristide Maillol, and admire the lily pond and beautiful foliage.

Ruth Asawa. Aiko, 1965. Lithograph. © Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Featured image courtesy of Norton Simone Museum. 


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