January 25, 2021
Among the first of its kind, Stanford’s newest hub of interdisciplinary scholarship transforms the museum’s collection and expands research opportunities.
By Beth Giudicessi
The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University announced today the establishment of the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI), a significant effort to acquire, preserve, display and research art related to Asian American and Asian diaspora artists and their practices.
Ruth Asawa with life masks on the exterior wall of her house. (Image credit: Photography by Terry Schmitt. ARTWORK: Untitled (Wall of Masks), c. 1966–2000. Ceramic, bisque-fired clay. © 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner)
The initiative is anchored by the museum’s acquisition of 233 ceramic masks that comprise Untitled (LC. 012, Wall of Masks) by Ruth Asawa and 141 artworks from The Michael Donald Brown Collection, a privately assembled group of pieces created between 1880 and 1996 by Asian American artists. In recent months, the Cantor also obtained 25 photographs by the San Francisco and Los Angeles photographer Michael Jang, Blue Mountain No. 4 from the estate of Bernice Bing, Emissary Sunsets the Self by Ian Cheng and Untitled (Dragon With Two Children) from the Martin Wong Foundation.
“These acquisitions not only fundamentally change the Cantor’s collection of American art – transforming us into one of the leading collections of Asian American art in the country – they are also poised to help change the history of American art as it has been written thus far,” said Aleesa Alexander, assistant curator of American art at the Cantor.
“With the exception of a few major figures, Asian Americans remain in the shadows of American art,” said Marci Kwon, assistant professor in the Stanford Department of Art and Art History in the School of the Humanities and Sciences. “The Cantor’s recent acquisitions demonstrate the historical depth and heterogeneity of Asian American art and the complexity of the term “Asian American” itself. Much work remains to be done to understand the complex legacies of these makers. The AAAI will activate this repository through interdisciplinary scholarship, digital documentation and community engagement.”
Alexander and Kwon, founding co-directors of the AAAI, will work together to shape the AAAI as a hub of study through collecting and exhibiting work by Asian American artists, forging new research connections among disciplines and supporting undergraduate and graduate research in the field. They also hope to engage community members across the Bay Area as the initiative takes further shape. A related conference and exhibition are planned for fall 2022 to rethink and reimagine the historical and theoretical dimensions of Asian American art and aesthetics.
This initiative exemplifies the ways Stanford is leveraging its distinctive faculty expertise and cultural assets to empower discovery, creativity and diverse voices and to advance new directions in the arts. The AAAI will be centered at the Cantor and will engage collaborators from Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, Department of History and the Center for East Asian Studies, as well as from the Office of the Vice President for the Arts, Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Anderson Collection at Stanford University and the Stanford Libraries (Special Collections and University Archives and the Ute and Bill Bowes Art and Architecture Library).
Additional partners include head librarian of the Ute and Bill Bowes Art and Architecture Library at Stanford D. Vanessa Kam, San Francisco State University Professor of Art Mark Dean Johnson and Gordon Chang, Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities, professor of American history and senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University.
“The Asian American Art Initiative arrives at a moment in which white supremacy, xenophobia and discrimination against immigrants are once again on the rise,” Kwon said. “These forces are not new, nor are their effects limited to Asian Americans. The study of Asian American artists sheds light on the entwined histories of racism, settler colonialism and capitalism, which have affected all ethnic groups in this country. Their work helps us see the myriad ways people of color have lived, struggled and survived.”
A breadth and depth of exploration
The coinciding announcements complement a rich history of research and exhibitions at the Cantor dedicated to Asian American art and culture dating to the 1960s, the era during which the Bay Area-based Asian American Political Alliance introduced the term “Asian American” to describe the diverse array of persons of Asian ancestry in the U.S. Just under a quarter of San Francisco Bay Area residents identify as Asian, according to the newest census data.
“Stanford is the ideal place for this project, especially when one considers the history of the Bay Area and the museum’s plurality of audiences,” Alexander said. “In fact, the story of Asian Americans in the region is tied to the founding of the university.”
Background about Chinese migrant workers and other immigrants who labored for the Stanford family by helping build their wealth, railroad and properties, including the Palo Alto farm that became the university’s campus, is explored in artist Mark Dion’s recent exhibition for the Cantor, The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death and Mourning at Stanford.
In 2008, the museum supported the development of Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, edited by Chang, Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, the first comprehensive publication exploring the lives and production of Asian American artists before 1970.
Included in the museum’s permanent collections are works by George Miyasaki, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik, Roger Shimomura, Stephanie Syjuco and Toshiko Takaezu. The Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives are home to archival collections of Bing, Asawa and the James Leong Papers, circa 1950s–1990s. Stanford also holds the Wylie Wong Collection of May’s Studio Photographs and San Francisco Chinatown Ephemera, 1920-1999, the California Asian American Artists Biographical Survey Collection, the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance Records, 1895–2016, the Alice Fong Yu papers and the Philip P. Choy papers, circa 1800s–2000s and materials from the Chinese Historical Society of America. In addition, the Stanford Libraries are partnering with the Martin Wong Foundation to create an online catalogue raisonné of Wong’s works.
Asawa’s life casts and The Michael Donald Brown Collection
The Cantor’s latest acquisitions position the museum at the forefront of collecting Asian American art, particularly work by artists working in or from California.
Asawa’s Untitled (LC. 012, Wall of Masks) features life masks made from the faces of her family and friends over the course of 45 years. They were originally displayed on the exterior of her home in San Francisco. “[T]he moment that I caught … is what I like about casting faces,” Asawa said. “I don’t care about making that a technique. But I like the idea of stopping the moment in time. And it’s going to disappear.”
“We are thrilled that Stanford will be the new home for the face masks our mother made of her family, friends and acquaintances. While our mother continues to gain notoriety for her wire sculptures, it is important to show another side of her practice and her love of including others in art-making. We have very fond memories of her friends and visitors, such as Buckminster Fuller or Anna Deavere Smith, lying on the floor of her studio or kitchen with a pile of wet plaster on their face while they breathed through their nose,” said Addie Lanier, Asawa’s daughter, on behalf of the family.
The artist – who was incarcerated in a World War II internment camp in Arkansas and studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina – has been the subject of renewed attention, in part because of a new, best-selling biography researched in Stanford’s archives. She was born in 1926 and died in 2013; today’s announcement comes a day after what would have been her 95th birthday.
“Outside of the Bay Area, most viewers don’t understand what an impact Ruth Asawa had on our cultural landscape,” Alexander said. “The wall of masks captures decades of interaction she had between high-profile community members, fellow artists and cultural workers and K-12 students, making it both a moving work of art and an invaluable archival document. The work is a powerful testament to Asawa’s presence – she was not just an artist, but an advocate and leader.”
“The Michael Donald Brown Collection, utterly astonishing in its breadth and depth, shows us that artists of Asian descent have long been producing significant, necessary and illuminating work in the United States,” she said. “The display of these pieces, and the upcoming research surrounding them, will offer viewers a more accurate and representative history of American art.”
The core strengths of The Michael Donald Brown Collection are works from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, such as two monumental paintings by Matsusaburo “George” Hibi, paintings by Toshio Aoki and Tameya Kagi and works on paper related to the Federal Art Project, the largest of the New Deal art projects. A selection of works associated with the experience of incarceration of people of Japanese descent by the U.S. government, including watercolors by Koho Yamamoto, are also included.
The collection was built over more than three decades by Michael Donald Brown, a San Francisco-based arts dealer and collector. His personal archive contains details about the objects’ provenance and exhibition history and will be made available to scholars.
“The collection is distinguished for several reasons, including its depth in 19th-century and early 20th-century artists. This makes Stanford’s collection of this early period the most important nationally,” said Johnson. “I congratulate Stanford University on this major and transformative acquisition, including the art and archives that support it, that will be an invaluable resource in the understanding of a fuller picture of American art.”
Details about the presentation of the new acquisitions and activities related to Stanford’s Asian American Art Initiative symposium and exhibitions will be available at museum.stanford.edu/AAAI.