May 17, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Venice Biennale will feature works by S.F. artist Ruth Asawa, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s house does not

6 min read
San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, who is perhaps best known for her hanging wire sculptures, died at 87 in 2013. Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice / The Chronicle

It’s been a significant, if mixed, week for the late San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa.

In the period of just a few hours on Wednesday, Feb. 2, it was announced that Asawa’s work would be featured in one of the world’s most prestigious international art exhibitions, and it was learned that a sculpture briefly attributed to her and owned by actor and lifestyle entrepreneur — and nether-region-scented candle shiller — Gwyneth Paltrow was, in fact, by another artist. As @gregorg quipped on Twitter, the work is a #Fauxsawa.

But first the important news: Works by Asawa are slated to be included in the 59th edition of Italy’s Venice Biennale. It’s a belated coup for the artist, who died at age 87 in 2013 and is perhaps best known for her hanging wire sculptures. The prestigious exhibition, whose theme this year is “The Milk of Dreams,” will feature a majority of female and gender-nonconforming artists — a first for the event that speaks to ongoing reckonings around more diverse representation in the art world.

The section of the exhibition that will feature Asawa’s work will be informed by sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin “and her theory of fiction, which links the birth of civilisation not to the invention of weapons, but to tools used for providing sustenance and care,” according to a statement by curator Cecilia Alemani on the Venice Biennale website. As Asawa’s sculptures feel both futuristic and otherworldly, evoking comparisons as varied as undersea organisms, plant life and even extraterrestrial crafts when hung en masse, it feels fitting to include them in the context of Le Guin. 

“Asawa’s inclusion in this iteration of the Biennale represents a new level of achievement for Asawa and her legacy,” said Jonathan Laib, senior director of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, which represents the Asawa estate. “We are all very excited to see her striking work in conversation with other fabulous artists woven into Alemani’s presentation.”

Surrealist Bridget Tichenor, ceramicist Mária Bartuszová and video artist Saodat Ismailova will be among the artists included in this section with Asawa. San Franciscan Lynn Hershman Leeson will also be featured in this year’s exhibition. 

“We were approached by them in early 2021,  and it was really amazing news for our family, especially with everything and all the crazy stuff going on in the world,” Asawa’s grandson Henry Weverka, the president of Ruth Asawa Lanier Inc., told The Chronicle. “It’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re so excited that it’s going to move forward.” 

The Venice Biennale opens to the public on April 23 and runs through Nov. 27.

Metal sculptures created by the late artist Ruth Asawa hang from the ceiling of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

In recent years, Asawa’s work has been featured in major exhibitions in the United States and Europe. In 2020, she was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a series of stamps featuring her signature wire sculptures. This year, her work is to be exhibited in solo shows at the Modern Art Oxford in England and the Stavanger Museum in Norway.

“Ruth and Albert, I’m sure, would have just been thrilled with it,” Weverka said of his grandmother and late grandfather, architect Albert Lanier. 

What Asawa might not have been thrilled about is getting credit for work that she did not create.

A photographic spread of the Montecito (Santa Barbara County) home of actor and Goop founder Paltrow in Architectural Digest gained attention online when design critic Alexandra Lange tweeted about a hanging wire work that the magazine attributed to Asawa, stating: “I’m irrationally angry that Gwyneth has a Ruth Asawa.”

It turns out, she doesn’t.

Lange’s tweet led gimlet-eyed art lovers to scrutinize the image and raise questions about Architectural Digest’s identification and the sculpture’s authenticity. Within a few hours, the caption citing the work was updated and the photo briefly cropped to remove the sculpture. 

It has since been restored with proper credit and the magazine issued a correction:  “An earlier version of this story mis-identifed the creator of the hanging wire sculpture in the living room. It was made by D’Lisa Creager.”

Lange has also since responded on Twitter: “Y’all, they have edited the photo and removed the caption reference to Asawa — I think this actually *is a copy* as many have been saying in my mentions.”

Weverka, Architectural Digest and Paltrow’s company Goop all declined to offer comment on the matter. But an Art News story about the misattribution quoted a spokesperson from David Zwirner Gallery who confirmed, “This work is not by Ruth Asawa.”

Laib declined further comment on behalf of the gallery. 

It should be noted that Paltrow’s Creager — apparently one of at least two she owns — hangs next to an Ed Ruscha painting. The juxtaposition makes me question why an entrepreneur like Paltrow, who has built much of her Goop brand by espousing a philosophy of female empowerment, would spring for a real Ruscha but content herself with a fauxsawa?

Perhaps Paltrow was looking for a bargain: A wire sculpture on Creager’s website (which is full of Asawa lookalike works) is currently listed for $5,200. In July 2020, Asawa’s 1953-54 sculpture “Untitled (S. 401)” was sold at Christie’s for close to $5.4 million. By comparison, in 2019, Ruscha’s “Hurting the Word Radio #2” set a record price of $52.5 million at the same auction house. (To be clear, Paltrow isn’t exactly hard up. In 2020, Goop was reported to be valued at $250 million.)

But as Weverka told The Chronicle, “so much of Ruth’s recognition has happened after she passed away,” and the renaissance of interest doesn’t seem to be fading.

In November, her estate released an audio tour highlighting her public works in the Bay Area. In addition to fountains in Japantown, Union Square and the Embarcadero as well as other works, her hanging wire sculptures are prominently featured in the permanent collections of local museums including the de Young, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Jose Museum of Art and Oakland Museum of California.

While Paltrow may not mind gazing at an imitation, you have plenty of opportunities to see the real thing close to home.

Ruth Asawa’s artwork are not only featured at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, as shown here, but also San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Jose Museum of Art and Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

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Venice Biennale will feature works by S.F. artist Ruth Asawa, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s house does not

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