September 17, 2018

The Wire Sculpture of Ruth Asawa

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, opened “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work on September 14th. The retrospective, which includes about 80 sculptures, drawings, and collages, is the first major museum show of her work in over a decade.  

This post first appeared in July 2009, a few years after an Asawa retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, but well before the Christie’s selling exhibition in 2013, and the solo show at David Zwirner gallery last fall—Zwirner now represents the Asawa estate. At the time, it was plain to me that Asawa was flying under the radar in the art market; in fact, her work was being sold as much through primarily design venues as through art venues. A seven-foot, multi-layered interlocking continuous form could be had for under a hundred thousand dollars. By 2013 the same form would pass one million dollars; today it would be well past that. Such a trajectory is by no means common, and it is personally gratifying to see Asawa get her due. 

Ruth Asawa with hanging sculpture, 1952. Photography by Imogen Cunningham / Imogen Cunningham Trust. Artwork courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa. Photography courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

Until recently, Ruth Asawa was an underappreciated artist whose work in looped wire mesh began after World War II ended. Partly, this was due to art criticism at the time, which attempted to pigeonhole her work as craft-based and feminine, not an odious description in a general way, but dismissive in the rarified circles of avant-garde art. A retrospective exhibition in 2007, and the accompanying catalog titled “The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air,” should help relocate Asawa as an important figure in post-war American art.

Untitled (S.077, Hanging Miniature Seven-Lobed Continuous Form Within a Form). c. 1978. Copper wire. Photography by Hudson Cuneo and courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa.

This is not to say that Asawa was unknown. Her work graced the covers of Arts and Architecture in 1952, and the “lxii American Exhibition”at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957. She had her first one-person show in Cambridge in 1953, and was the subject of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1973. Still, her career was due for reevaluation. Interestingly, the same critic who, writing in 1955, deemed Asawa’s wire crochet technique to be offensively repetitious and mechanical went on to link her work to the heightened awareness of space and movement emblematic of Constructivism. “Miss Asawa’s sculpture,” he wrote, “meets these intangible criteria with an elegance appropriate to the austere architecture of the mid-century’s International Style.” This reference to architecture is apt: Asawa’s volumetric designs share a dialogue with modern architecture’s concerns with space, proportion, transparency, and lightness.

Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in California. As a Japanese-American, she was interned for a period of time during World War II, but after the war she secured a place as a student at prestigious Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, she learned lessons of economy and ecology from Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. She learned to see art as an ongoing process of exploration and experimentation, and to see art education as an integral part of life. She emerged with a sense of herself as an artist and a citizen, connected to her Zen roots and to the broader American culture.

Untitled (S.0889, Hanging Asymmetrical Twelve Interlocking Bubbles. c. 1957. Galvanized steel, brass, and iron wire. Photography by Hudson Cuneo and courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Asawa began to crochet wire-mesh structures in 1948. The symmetrical structures themselves were intellectually rigorous, requiring discipline and technical precision. The resulting constructs were ethereal, fanciful, and vital. They were complex, varying, three-dimensional explorations of lines in space. They were perceived as organic, related to fruit, gourds, or plants. To me they resemble aquatic life, perhaps sea anemones or compound jellyfish. The form-within-forms also seem to contain a generative principle, pregnant with new ideas.

The essence of Asawa’s art in wire has to do with transparency and interpenetration, with overlapping, shadow, and darkening. Her forms appear simultaneously inside and outside, sometimes revealing their inner space, sometimes their outer. This shifting perspective makes the forms dynamic, and gives them a quality of vision-in-motion. Hanging individual works in series adds further layers of complexity, as the overlapping compositions become artworks themselves, which change as the viewer changes position.

Untitled (S.095, Hanging Single-Lobed, Six-Layer Continuous Form Within a Form). c. 1952. Iron wire. Photography by Hudson Cuneo and courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa.

The repetitive, mechanical aspect of Asawa’s technique may have troubled critics, conjuring baskets and fish traps, but I would argue that her art occurred precisely at the intersection of the mechanical and the organic, and so addressed a central problem of early postwar modernism. Rumpelstiltskin-like, Asawa spun living forms out of base materials. She transformed a mechanical process into a richly organic oeuvre, echoing and marking the process of cultural rebuilding and renewal that followed the Machine Age and World War II.

Ruth Asawa raised six children while
working out of a studio at home. This lack
of separation between art and life was
intentional, and reflected Black Mountain ideals. In a profound way, Asawa’s interior and exterior life was as seamlessly interwoven as her wire sculptures. 

Untitled (S.433, Hanging Nine Open Hyperbolic Shapes Joined Laterally). c. 1958. Copper wire. Photography by Hudson Cuneo and courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong.

Sculptures in this article are a part of the upcoming exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work. The show opens on September 14th and is on view until February 16, 2019.

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