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July 27, 2020

Ruth Asawa, American Master

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From the New York Times:

Seven Years After Her Death, Ruth Asawa is Finally Being Recognized as an American Master

In 2009, the New York City auction house Christie's received an unsolicited query: A woman named Addie Lanier had a painting by Josef Albers, the mid-century abstract artist who pioneered modern arts education.

Could Christie's help her sell it?

It wasn't uncommon for a major auction house like Christie’s to get cold calls.

News generated by large sales can create curiosity and spark interest; people often approach auction houses in the hope of confirming that they have been sitting on priceless works of art.

Jonathan Laib — then a senior vice president and senior specialist of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's — was excited to hear of an Albers.

The details surrounding the painting, from Albers's "Homage to the Square" series, intrigued Laib.

Like many artists, Albers was fond of trades and frequently gave artworks away.

Rarely, though, did he gift a painting as substantial as this one.

In some respects, the series was his masterpiece; for 26 years, Albers repeatedly nested three to four superimposed squares of varying hues, a cumulative expression of his life's work in revealing how perception could be manipulated by the arrangement of form and color.

Lanier also possessed a signed note from Albers, verifying the painting's authenticity. It was surprisingly affectionate: "Dear Ruthie, This is just for revenge, And it is yours for the promise not to acknowledge receiving it. Love, A."

Lanier attested that her mother, a woman named Ruth Asawa, and Albers had been friends.

Laib began a correspondence with Lanier, learning more about her mother, a San Francisco-based artist, who was then 83 years old and bedridden with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease.

The family was in need of money to provide the round-the-clock care that Asawa required.

The eventual sale of the Albers brought in over $100,000, but it left Laib wondering if there was more to Asawa's story.

She had been a student of Albers at Black Mountain College in the 1940s.

Her own art incorporated many of the principles Albers espoused: the use of negative space, beauty in repetition and a deep awareness of the material at hand.

1951

[1951]

Asawa often worked with coiled lines of metal wire that she wove into undulating, biomorphic shapes that hung from the wood rafters of her house in Noe Valley.

She had shown these pieces in a New York City gallery, Peridot, where she was represented for six years beginning in 1954, placing works with top collectors including the Museum of Modern Art, the architect Philip Johnson, and Mary Rockefeller, the first wife of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

It was surprising to Laib that Asawa's name was not as well known as those of her contemporaries, such as Eva HesseLouise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama.

Asawa's last show with Peridot was in 1958.

Less than a decade later, she had all but disappeared from the New York art world.

Today, 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.

1954

[1954]

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 (top), out next month.

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 AlbersSheila Hicks, and Bourgeois.

Laib, who took the original call from Asawa's daughter, eventually moved from Christie's to the David Zwirner gallery and is responsible for several lauded solo shows of her work, resulting in sales of her sculptures for well over a million dollars.

In a culture of acknowledging those who were previously overlooked, when artists and their earliest champions are finally getting their dues, there is a satisfaction in witnessing the record be corrected.

Yet a purely revisionist approach ignores the ways in which Asawa's art is still remarkably contemporary, how it is a clear articulation of midcentury art's engagement with spatial abstraction.

I have stood in a gallery hung with Asawa's wire sculptures, where the movement of my own body has caused them to sway, the shadows of the woven wire dancing against the floor.

For a moment, I was quietly transported elsewhere — to the deep sea, to a forest or maybe to someplace altogether unearthly.

1957

[1957]

In interviews, Asawa chose her words carefully.

I suspect she would have resisted ever being portrayed as a victim.

But there are the plain facts of her existence — that she was incarcerated as a teenager in a Japanese-American concentration camp; that she overcame incredible prejudice and racism to be an artist.

What, exactly, can we learn from her life?

Her father, Umakichi, had worked as a tofu vendor, leaving Japan in 1902 to avoid conscription in the Russo-Japanese War.

Her mother, Haru, was a Japanese picture bride — one of the thousands of Japanese women who, at the beginning of the last century, agreed, through the exchange of black-and-white portraits, to marry a Japanese man living in the United States in the hopes of a better life.

By the time Ruth was born, the family was leasing an 80-acre farm in what would later become greater Los Angeles, unable to own property as immigrants because of the California Alien Land Law of 1913.

Eventually, the Asawa family would grow to include seven children.

Ruth was the fourth oldest.

In the spring of 1943, Asawa became eligible for early release [from the Rowher Relocation Center in Arkansas] as a high-school graduate (on the condition that she attend a college in the country's interior, which was considered less of a national security threat, and that she find a financial sponsor).

One of her teachers handed her a catalog for the Art Institute of Chicago.

She couldn't afford it and instead chose the Milwaukee State Teachers College, where a semester only cost $25 (roughly $360 today).

Leaving behind her mother and her younger siblings, Asawa said goodbye to Rohwer and took a train north.

Two of her friends from Milwaukee, both artists, Ray Johnson and Elaine Schmitt, were planning to attend a summer course at a school called Black Mountain College and urged Asawa to join them.

After first arriving for a summer session, Asawa finally enrolled as a full-time student in the fall of 1946.

The art program was run by Josef Albers, who had fled Hitler's Germany that same year with his wife and fellow artist, Anni Albers.

The couple had fallen in love at the Bauhaus school, where Anni had been a precocious weaving student and Josef a teacher.

The Bauhaus itself was a radical moment in German design, combining fine arts with crafts and emphasizing a more democratic relationship between practicality and aesthetics.

Black Mountain, as a result, was a rare amalgamation of European modernism, American individualism, and of Albers's old-world rigor.

It also possessed an undeniably romantic atmosphere, in which students and teachers were equals, eating, living and socializing together.

It is a common assumption, 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.

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.

The success Asawa achieved in her lifetime was not unremarkable.

Had she remained with Peridot or some other New York City gallery, there is reason to believe that she would have risen alongside her contemporaries.

1957 - 2

[1957]

Peridot, which opened in 1948, was a small, successful Upper East Side gallery run by Lou Pollack, who, as Hilton Kramer wrote in his obituary in 1970, was a "sweet, soft‐spoken, courageous man" (Pollack died suddenly while vacationing in Corsica, after which the gallery changed name and ownership).

Kramer described Pollack as having "a firm sense of that other art world, light-years removed from the hucksterism and fashion-mongering that make the headlines and collect the (blue) chips, where the aesthetic transaction exists primarily as a private pleasure and a spiritual need."

Other artists on Peridot's roster included Philip Guston, Bourgeois, James Rosati, and Costantino Nivola. The partnership between Asawa and Pollack eventually ended, in part because Asawa found it too costly to ship her wire sculptures across the country, especially as she had to assume the financial burden for any damages.

Peridot's ceilings were also only eight feet high — too short for her more ambitious and larger works.

But with hindsight, it is easy to see how Asawa was dismissed.

Her sculptures, made of wire and by hand, were also often labeled "craft," a term that today may carry more positive associations but was still limiting for a woman moving in the same circles as Abstract Expressionists, postmodernists, and conceptualists.

Most crucially though, there was no lexicon to explain or understand Asawa's own trajectory from a dusty farm in Norwalk to being incarcerated during World War II to being in the same room as near mythological figures such as Robert RauschenbergMerce Cunningham, and Willem de Kooning.

It is unfortunate to me that women who enter the pantheon of great artists are often close to dead or, like Bourgeois, old enough that they seem to be eclipsed by their own careers — so that their story of genius is always one of overcoming, of wise, womanly perseverance.

I am reluctant to see Asawa as anything more than what she was: a remarkable individual with a story that is so American in its triumph against adversity that it’s impossible to imagine it going another direction, as it did with thousands of Japanese-Americans of her generation who were promised a better life, as it did with her parents, who were forced to start over, who never fully regained what they painstakingly built for themselves as immigrants.

This past December, I visited the Noe Valley house in San Francisco where Asawa died in 2013.

Home 1957

[At home with her children, 1957]

Perched on a slanted hill, the house could be what Donald Judd's former home in SoHo is today, a preservation of the artist’s space that is so complete that it is nearly a work of art itself.

Judd's home underwent a costly rehabilitation, and it requires a professional staff to maintain.

For now, Asawa's youngest son, Paul, and his wife, Sandra, live there with their children.

The front doors, six hulking slabs of redwood, were hand-carved and burnished by Asawa with the help of her husband and children.

The cobblestones that pave the pathway through the front garden were carried up by the family from a nearby beach.

A ume plum tree that Asawa planted still stands in a the verdant garden, now overgrown with oxalis and nasturtium.

San Francisco is a city of heights and fog and light — crossing a street can sometimes feel like stepping from darkness into pure blue sky.

Standing in her living room, flooded by the midday sun, the city unspooling below, I was able to conjure a black-and-white 1995 photograph (below)

Home 1995

that depicted how Asawa’s most important sculptures were hung in her home (many have since been placed in prominent museums and collections).

Her children told me anecdotes, collected over the years: Asawa was fond of pointing at her sculptures, constellations in her own universe, and remarking that "this one is a seminal piece," "that one should go to a museum."

"Somehow," Addie Lanier told me, "She knew that the works would get there."

July 27, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why slicing a tomato with a dull knife is so frustrating

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From Ars Technica:

If you're anything like me, you have a set of kitchen knives so dull that you could swap the handle and the blade with no noticeable effect on your fingers.

And yet these knives will still cut — you just have to saw away at that soft tomato with less downward pressure.

Surprisingly, although physicists had a general idea of why sawing with a knife helps cut soft material, no one had really looked at the details.

Luckily, this oversight has been corrected and you can now optimize your cutting technique using — as certain radio personalities put it — the power of science.

Too squishy to crack, too solid to flow

Gels — a tomato is a gel with a skin — fall into a funny category.

A gel is a liquid (usually water), at least if you decide by volume.

However, a gel doesn't really flow, because the liquid is contained within a polymer network.

You could say that a gel is a bit like a sponge: if you squeeze a gel hard enough, water will be expelled, and when you relax your grip, water will be sucked back into the network.

But not all gels hold their shape if they dry out, while a dry sponge still retains its structure.

Although gels are flexible, they are still breakable.

If you stretch a gel, the gel becomes strained.

As long as the strain is below a certain limit, it will always return to its original shape when you stop stretching it.

The maximum strain for which this is true is called the elastic limit.

To cut a gel, the strain has to be above the elastic limit.

When the strain is above the elastic limit, the polymer network melts to form tiny particles embedded in the water.

When the strain drops below the limit again, the polymer network may reform, but it will not return to its original shape.

A cut is basically a boundary across which the polymer network remains broken.

To cut a polymer, a blade must press down into it, which strains the polymer.

This results in water being expelled from the gel to form a liquid layer between the knife edge and the polymer network.

This means that cutting a gel is a fluid dynamics problem.

It's all in the boundary conditions

The key to understanding fluid dynamics problems is to figure out the boundary conditions.

Essentially, all problems have edges, and if you know what is happening at the edges, you can use that knowledge to figure out what is happening everywhere else — though you might need a supercomputer to do the figuring.

In this case, we have a solid blade that is sliding along one axis while slowly moving downward to slice.

This is equivalent to the blade being held fixed and the gel being moved, which is how the researchers set up their solution.

The extremely thin layer of liquid in contact with the solid blade moves with the blade (this is called the no-slip condition).

Elsewhere, the gel starts to behave elastically again exactly where the strain equals the critical strain.

At that location, the fluid is moving with the gel rather than the blade.

The solution will show a smoothly increasing fluid/gel velocity from the blade to the strain boundary.

Likewise, the strain, carried by the viscosity of the water, will reduce from the blade out to the critical strain boundary.

So where exactly is that location?

That depends on how fast the gel is moving (or in reality, how fast the blade is moving horizontally).

Furthermore, the cutting velocity (the speed at which the blade moves vertically into the gel) depends on the speed at which the gel parts.

That makes the boundary condition, in one sense, well-defined.

But in another sense, it's rather fluid.

The researchers were able to draw an immediate conclusion based on these boundary conditions: a gel requires that the blade is drawn (e.g., slicing), and purely downward pressure (dicing) is generally not sufficient to initiate a cut (witness exploding tomatoes after they're given to a kid to cut).

Now, the skin of a tomato changes that, but the model does not include the skin, so don't take the tomato example too literally.

The researchers' numerical solution revealed that the latter boundary condition (a smooth interface where the strain is on the threshold of exceeding the elastic maximum) is only nicely defined when the knife cuts downward at less than 24 percent of the speed at which it saws horizontally.

At these cutting speeds, the cut boundary is a constant distance from the edge of the knife, and both propagate smoothly into the gel.

At higher speeds, the boundary still exists, but it fluctuates continuously, sometimes ballooning out from the knife edge and sometimes collapsing in toward the knife edge.

In other words, when the downward speed is too high in comparison with the draw speed, the cut result becomes unpredictable — the tomato explodes.

Simplicity at its finest

The most amazing part of this work is its simplicity.

OK, fluid dynamics is in no way simple, but the alternative is understanding crack propagation.

This is the idea that at some random location — usually a microscopic defect — a material begins to fracture.

The fracture propagates in a random way, using up the strain energy acquired from the knife.

Where will that crack go, how long will the crack be, how many cracks will form?

These are all random processes that are enough to drive anyone to distraction.

This solution doesn’t rely on the randomness of crack formation and propagation, so it's much easier to test quantitatively.

It should be possible to visualize the formation of the fluid layer, the melting of the polymer, and to do all of this at a range of different cutting speeds.

"Cutting and Slicing Weak Solids" is the title of the paper deconstructed above; it was published on July 15 in Physical Review Letters.

You can read the abstract here.

July 27, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Paris Review Interviews

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Every single one of the hundreds of interviews published in the magazine since 1950 is now online.

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Free, the way we like it.

Fair warning: there's enough here to provide enjoyment for a long, long time.

July 27, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nakotah LaRance, World's Greatest Hoop Dancer, Dies at 30

From the New York Times:

Nakotah LaRance, a Nine-Time Winner at the World Championship of Hoop Dance, Also Performed with Cirque du Soleil

Nakotah LaRance, a nationally acclaimed Hopi-Tewa hoop dancer who performed with Cirque du Soleil, died on July 12 near the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico.

He was 30.

He died after falling while climbing a bridge in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, his father, Steve LaRance, said.

Nakotah LaRance's career began at age 4, when an aunt took him to a powwow.

There he met the hoop dancer Derrick Suwaima Davis, who taught him the basics of the style known as fancy dance.

Hoop dances, a tradition in many Native American cultures, tell tribal and individual stories through the use of as many as 50 hoops, which represent the circle of life and are decorated with tape and paint to represent the changing colors of the seasons.

"Hoop dance is originally a medicine dance, for healing," Mr. LaRance told The Arizona Daily Sun in 2016. "Mine is involved in modern and Native American performance for the beauty of movement, and to be in touch with oneself when one is moving."

Soon after Mr. LaRance began dancing, his father took him to compete in the annual World Championship of Hoop Dance at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

He won three youth division championships and three teenage division championships before winning the adult division title in 2015, 2016, and 2018.

In 2004 he performed on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

He later competed on "America's Most Talented Kids," where he won his episode.

Mr. LaRance was also an actor.

He was seen in Steven Spielberg's 2005 TNT mini-series, "Into the West," a performance for which he won an acting award from the organization First Americans in the Arts.

He later appeared in the HBO movie "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (2007) and a 2012 episode of the AMC series "Longmire."

Nakotah Lomasohu Raymond LaRance was born on August 23, 1989, in Barrow (now Utqiagvik), Alaska.

His father is a jeweler and a sculptor; his mother, Marian Denipah, is a jeweler and a painter.

The family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, after Mr. LaRance was born.

He attended Coconino High School there before transferring to the Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy in his junior year.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Mr. LaRance became a principal dancer with Cirque du Soleil.

He joined the troupe in 2009 and traveled with it for more than three years.

He was a principal dancer at the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and performed at an American Folklife Center concert in Washington in 2016.

He later went to New Mexico to work as the master instructor for the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers.

In 2017, 2018, and 2019 he performed in the Brooklyn Ballet's "Brooklyn Nutcracker," mixing his traditional hoop and hip-hop dances.

"My inspirations are movements in the world from hip-hop to martial arts," he told The Arizona Daily Sun. "When I was younger, Michael Jackson was a huge influence. Growing up, a big influence has been the Twins from Paris," the French dancer-choreographers who have performed alongside artists like Beyoncé and Missy Elliott.

In addition to his parents, Mr. LaRance is survived by two sisters, Nizhoni Denipah and ShanDien Sonwai LaRance; a brother, Cree LaRance; and his paternal grandparents, Ed and Rosella Lawrence.

Though he made his name dancing on the national stage, Mr. LaRance said he found the most fulfillment in passing his craft on to a new generation.

"My kids come up and give me a big hug and are so happy to be doing what they are doing," he said in a 2016 interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican. "Educating others about their world and their tribal heritage and sharing that through performances with other people — to me that's the payoff."

"To make that contribution to the community through my art, through working with youth," he added, "is enough for me."

July 27, 2020 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

World's Blackest Watch

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From CNA Luxury:

H. Moser & Cie may well be the only watchmaker with a sense of humour.

When it's not busy producing elegant dress watches with beautiful fumé dials and complications, it's making a statement with bizarre one-offs made of Swiss cheese, plants, or the hallmark features of other brands' iconic models.

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For last year’s April Fool's joke, the brand revealed a concept watch you couldn't even read the time off because everything was supposedly coated in Vantablack, one of the world's darkest materials.

As it turns out, interest and demand for such a ridiculous concept was so overwhelming that H. Moser & Cie decided to follow through on the idea — with practical revisions, of course — and it resulted in the Venturer Concept Vantablack series last year.

For 2020, the collection welcomes new Venturer Vantablack Black Hands models with an even stealthier look with barely-there hands.

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If you're wondering why the so-called "Black Hands" appear grey on the watches, it's because Vantablack is really just that much blacker by comparison.

Created by UK-based SurreyNanosystems, Vantablack is the brand name for a range of ultra-black coatings capable of absorbing up to 99.965 per cent of visible light, and was primarily developed for applications such as deep space imaging, automotive sensing and optical sensing.

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In a watch, it's just cool.

Apply within.

July 27, 2020 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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