The Wire Sculpture of Ruth Asawa

Originally posted July 9, 2009 on interiordesign.net

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Until recently, Ruth Asawa was an under-appreciated artist whose work in looped wire mesh began after WWII 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.

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 re-evaluation.

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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 WWII, 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.

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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.

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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.

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 WWII.

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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.

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All images from “The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air” (University of California Press, 2007).