The Faces of Ruth Asawa

The Faces of Ruth Asawa at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Photo: Glen Cheriton

In 2019, Aiko and Laurence Cuneo came down to the Cantor Arts Center to help oversee the installation of one of Ruth Asawa’s abstract wire sculptures. Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, the Cantor’s assistant curator of American art, was including the piece in a rotation of exhibition, The Medium Is the Message: Art since 1950. During installation, Aiko, Asawa’s daughter, asked Alexander if she knew about the hundreds of ceramic face masks that used to hang on their family home’s exterior. From the mid-1960s through 2000, Asawa created individual masks out of clay.

“Though I had been an admirer of Asawa’s work for a long time,” Alexander recounted, “I had never heard of these masks or her ceramic work. Once Aiko and Laurence showed me some pictures, I was amazed—these masks, cast from the faces of friends and family—completely expanded my understanding of Asawa’s practice. It demonstrated to me that community engagement was an essential part of her world and artistic output.”

Asawa’s youngest son, Paul Lanier went on to become a ceramic artist himself. He remembers lying down on a covered mattress, having his face smeared with a thin coat of Vaseline and feeling the “cold and creamy” plaster on his skin, starting when he was six or seven years old. His mother described the steps of the process to him along the way.

Asawa made hundreds of these masks, giving one to the subject and keeping one.

In 2002, she told an interviewer,

“When I cast a face, I know I’m just capturing a minute of a person. Or if I cast a foot of a baby, I know that baby’s foot will grow and grow and grow. I know it’s going to go away, but I like that moment.”

The Cantor acquired Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks), a selection of 233 masks in 2020 as part of part of Stanford’s Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI). On July 6, 2022, they went on long-term view at the museum, marking the first time this work has been shown in its entirety at any museum or public institution. The focused exhibition, The Faces of Ruth Asawa, curated by Alexander, will feature the masks and three vessels by Asawa’s son Paul Lanier.

Hear from Asawa’s family and friends, including mask subjects, about her process making the masks >

Learn more at this article by Jori Finkel at The Art Newspaper >

View exhibition details in the Calendar >