Significant sculpture in San Francisco

Two major, very different and yet significantly similar women sculptors are in the news this fall: Ruth Asawa, receiving the first annual Mayor’s Art Award from Gavin Newsom, and the “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend” opening in the de Young Museum later this month.

Asawa, 81, was interned at age 16 because of her Japanese heritage. Nevelson (1899–1988), who came as a child to the U.S. from Ukraine, created large-scale works commemorating the Holocaust.

The new San Francisco Arts Commission award, presented to Asawa Monday, came in recognition of a lifetime of artistic achievement bythe sculptor who counted Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller among her teachers. Besides her distinctive wire work being seen in major museums — including, prominently, the de Young — Asawa is known and acknowledged for her commitment to public art, neighborhood arts programs, art in schools and after school.

She also is known also for her works gracing fountains in the city — including Mermaid Fountain on Ghirardelli Square and the Hyatt Fountain on Union Square — and her sculpture in tied, crocheted and cast metals and cast concrete, as well as drawings, life masks, and models of public art.

Asawa had a traumatic experience being in effect jailed as a teenager, simply because of her ethnic origin. Internment was one of the influences turning her into an artist, and later in life she refused to give in to resentment: “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am.”

Nevelson’s groundbreaking technique involved assembling cast-off wood pieces and transforming them with coats of monochromatic black, white and (occasionally) gold spray paint. Her work started with tabletop scale objects, but quickly grew into human-scale and room-sized works. Her later, monumental public works stood their ground with the buildings that surrounded them.

One of America’s great sculptors, Nevelson deals with issues of religion, immigration, marriage and death in her art. Many of her monumental, pioneering works create an environment unto themselves, such as “Homage to 6,000,000,” a seemingly endless curved wall representing the unfathomable number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, or “Mrs. N’s Palace,” a room-sized installation that surrounds the viewer.

The exhibition, organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, looks at the entire span of Nevelson’s career with more than 70 works of sculpture and drawings. Included in the exhibition are sculptures that were pioneering in the fact that they created discrete environments.

IF YOU GO

The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend

Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; show runs Oct. 27 through Jan. 13, 2008

Tickets: $6 to $10; free first Tuesday of every month

Contact: (415) 750-3600 or www.deyoungmuseum.org

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