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The DART Board: True Believers

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 22, 2020

T The New York Times Style Magazine is running its second annual online art issue this week, with features related to several main themes: The effect the Corona Pandemic is having on artists; why art is essential; the ways in which some artists have taken on heroic tasks because they must; overlooked woman artists now getting their due, and more. 

In the Introduuction M. H. Miller writes, “…as the foundations of our very existence have gone awry, the basic premise of T’s art issue still stands. Which is to say: Artists have kept working, even through the days when it feels like the world might end, or days when it feels as if it already has. I can’t say this is as much a surprise as it is an affirmation of the notion that art is essential, if you’ll allow me the use of a word that has taken on a greater meaning as of late.

"We’ve called this issue “True Believers,” our initial reasoning being that a number of the pieces we’re publishing this week are about artists who have undertaken nearly impossible tasks and persisted, through sheer willpower.” Above: The entrance to “Star Axis,” with 30-foot-high stone walls built using ancient techniques. Photo by Andres Gonzales, courtesy of T Magazine

Charles Ross, who is nearing the end of a 50-year project, is profiled in a feature about “Star Axis”, in the New Mexico desert. Nancy Hass, who specializes in articles about fashion, design, and art, offers a view of the committment of this artist, with the assistance of his wife, the artist Jill O’Bryan, to working full time on this 11-story naked eye observatory situated two hours away from the nearest airport. Ross conceived the work in 1971, as the Vietnam War waned and Watergate exploded; he then decided, that no matter how long it took him or the cost, he would build a gargantuan staircase aligned perfectly with the celestial pole, marked by Polaris, the North Star.

“Star Axis”, Hess writes, “is meant to embody an astronomical phenomenon called precession. First noted around 130 B.C. by Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer who is also credited as the inventor of trigonometry, precession refers to the top-like wobble of the earth’s axis due to the sun’s gravitational pull on the slightly bulging Equator. The result of precession is that while Polaris, in the constellation Ursa Minor, is currently the closest bright star to the northern celestial pole, that will change over time, as other bright stars from surrounding constellations happen to slowly become the polestar. (The entire cycle takes about 26,000 years.) ‘How could I not want to illustrate that,’ Ross says. ‘How could I not want to find a way to walk through time?’ Read the entire piece here

If there ever were a “True Believer”, it was Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American sculptor who taught herself how to weave using wire she pulled from fences in the American  internment camps where she lived as a teenager during World War II. An artist who enjoyed critical acclaim briefly, at the beginning of her career during the 1950s, she slid into the shadows when her New York gallery closed. Yet she never stopped making work. Above: The artist forming a looped-wire sculpture in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham © The Imogen Cunningham Trust. From “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa,” by Marilyn Chase, published by Chronicle Books, 2020

Today, as Thessaly LaForce writes in T, “Asawa has returned as a subject of rediscovery — someone who has finally been given the kind of international recognition that was owed during her lifetime, and whose legacy reflects both her own contributions as an artist as well as the singular path she forged for herself as the child of immigrants, a woman and an Asian-American. This past April, the United States Postal Service announced that 10 different works of Asawa’s would be featured on a series of postage stamps, [released in April]. Also in April, the first comprehensive biography of Asawa, “Everything She Touched” by Marilyn Chase, was published by Chronicle Books. She is now routinely included in comprehensive group shows alongside artists such as Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks and Bourgeois.” Asawa is represented by David Zwirner gallery, responsible for several lauded solo shows of her work, resulting in sales of her sculptures for well over a million dollars.

Right: The artist with one of her hanging looped-wire sculptures in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham. Imogen Cunningham. © The Imogen Cunningham Trust, courtesy of T Magazine

Asawa’s work only recently began appearing in major exhibitions, including Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstractions at MoMA, in 2017 and Architecture of Life, group exhibition at The US Berkely Art Museum and Pacific Milm Archive, in 2016.

Explaining her fascination with wire as a material, Asawa said, "I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It's still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere." The artist enrolled in Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she absorbed the teachings and influences of Anni Albers (whose work is also included in Making Space), Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, among others, and embraced her own vocation as an artist. 

“It is a common assumption,” continues LaForce, “given the tactile nature of Asawa’s wire sculptures, that she studied weaving with Anni Albers. Anni, in fact, initially rejected Asawa, telling her it was impossible to teach a summer student weaving in just six weeks. Instead, it was Josef Albers who had an outsize influence on Asawa — his economical drawing classes helped discipline her mind and her hands.…In many respects, Black Mountain was a place where sexuality, race and gender were treated with a startling impartiality for the times. Asawa blossomed under Albers’s tutelage. He showed people how to see, she later explained. To think critically and creatively. To use humble materials. For the first time in her life, Asawa finally saw herself as an artist.” Read the entire article here

Among the “True Believers” featured online in T this week, Hito Steyerl, Rachel Rose, Isaac Julien and Lynn Hershman Leeson talk about how they’ve been spending quarantine and just where, in this era of never-ending screen time, their work should live.

On many Friday nights since April, writes Andrew Russeth, “the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has streamed video art by Alex Da Corte, Juan Antonio Olivares and Adelita Husni-Bey, to name a few. Above: Hito Steyerl (b. 1966), Factory of the Sun, 2015, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

 Gagosian Gallery staged web shows with moving-image work by artists including Ed Ruscha and Douglas Gordon, Metro Pictures hosted a digital film festival over more than a dozen weekends, and the artist Nina Chanel Abney curated a two-week run of pieces by Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Solange Knowles and others at Brooklyn’s We Buy Gold. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art launched an online exhibition series with “Lake Valley,” a 2016 cartoon-collage animation by Rachel Rose that follows a rabbitlike animal as it explores an enchanted world, seeking community. “Two-dimensional work or sculpture all comes out a bit flat on social media,” says the filmmaker Isaac Julien. “I’m not saying people can’t sell works. They do, in fact. But I think the moving image — it becomes its own form. It’s not really compromised.” More

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