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Ruth Asawa with Family Masks (1991) (© 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, image courtesy the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, photo by Laurence Cuneo)

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SAN FRANCISCO — Artist Ruth Asawa’s most recognizable works are probably her delicate hanging wire sculptures. But Asawa, who served on numerous art commissions and boards and was involved in arts education, including founding a public high school for the arts in San Francisco, loved involving others in her art making.

So, Marci Kwon and Aleesa Alexander, co-founders of the newly formed Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI) at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, are particularly pleased with the acquisition of 233 ceramic masks Asawa made of the faces of family, friends, and fellow artists, including Buckminster Fuller and Anna Deavere Smith.

Neither Alexander nor Kwon had ever heard of this “Wall of Masks,” which hung outside Asawa’s San Francisco home, but they both think it’s perfect for the AAAI’s collection.  

Ruth Asawa, “Untitled (Wall of Masks)” (detail) (c. 1966–2000), and “Untitled” (c. 1950s), ceramic, bisque-fired clay (© 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, image courtesy the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund, photo by Laurence Cuneo)

“It 100% belongs at a university museum,” Alexander told Hyperallergic. “And it’s an amazing testament to who she was. It changes your perspective if you just know her from her wire sculptures. She was engaged in the community and engaged in making art for everyone. These were on the exterior of her home, so she was literally putting the community on the exterior of home.”

Kwon agrees. “Seeing those masks, you see a constellation of her world and all the people who came and visited and the artists she knew,” she said.

The Asian American Art Initiative has also acquired works by painters Bernice Bing and Martin Wong, and photographer Michael Jang, along with 141 works on paper from San Francisco art dealer and collector, Michael Donald Brown. His collection is strong in works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which makes it historically important, Kwon and Alexander say.

Hisako Hibi, “Untitled” (1947), oil on canvas (the Michael Donald Brown Collection, made possible by the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund and the Asian American Art Initiative Acquisitions Fund)

Kwon got the idea for the AAAI after coming to teach art at Stanford in 2016 and creating a class she had always wanted to take but had never found in graduate school: one on Asian American art. She says Stanford offered great resources to create the class, including helping to realize the first published book on Asian American artists before 1970, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, edited by Stanford professor Gordon Chang, San Francisco State University professor Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul Karlstrom.

Besides having scholars like these in the area, Kwon and Alexander say Stanford is a great place for the AAAI for other reasons. According to recent census data, about a quarter of the residents of the San Francisco Bay Area identify as Asian. And Chinese migrants labored to build the Central Pacific Railroad which made Leland Stanford wealthy, leading to the founding of Stanford.

Jade Fon Woo, “Chinese Night Club” (c. 1938), watercolor and graphite on paper (the Michael Donald Brown Collection, made possible by the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund and the Asian American Art Initiative Acquisitions Fund)

“The history of the university is tied to Chinese Americans,” Alexander said. “They literally built it.” (A recent exhibition at the Cantor, The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death and Mourning at Stanford, explored this connection.)

Kwon’s class was popular, and students’ interest plus the rise of discrimination and xenophobia coinciding with the 2016 election made Kwon think it was time for something like the AAAI. Alexander came on as assistant curator of American art at the Cantor in 2018, knowing that working on the AAAI would be part of her role.

“Aleesa is a brilliant curator, which is not a skill I have,” Kwon said. “I absolutely trust her eye, and we knew we wanted to create this Asian American collection with a strong historical basis.”

Kwon says that with the collection she and Alexander want to show the broad range of Asian American art.

Chiura Obata, “Sunset Over Sacramento Valley” (1930), woodcut and color (the Michael Donald Brown Collection, made possible by the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund and the Asian American Art Initiative Acquisitions Fund)

“One thing that is very important for us to convey about this initiative is the way we’re approaching Asian American art is as capacious as the art itself,” she said. “It’s important to us that we’re showing not the homogeneity of Asian American art, but the heterogeneity.”

Alexander looks forward to researching new artworks for the collection as well as planning how they will be installed. Kwon just wants to see the art on the walls. While the AAAI does not yet have a dedicated space at the Cantor, they are exploring that possibility and will be installing an exhibition in 2022.

“There is nothing like being in front of a work of art, and the pandemic has highlighted how precious that is,” Kwon said. “I miss it so much and I look forward to being in the presence of these works of art and the conversations they generate.”

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Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher, Oakland Magazine,...