High-Wire Artist Ruth Asawa Edges Into the Mainstream
Seven years after her death, the artist Ruth Asawa is more popular than ever. In 2021, her wire sculptures will be featured in exhibitions in the U.S., U.K., France, Spain and Norway. And her reputation has spread beyond the art world: Over the summer, the U.S. Postal Service issued a new series of 10 stamps featuring her signature abstract wire sculptures. In May 2019, a Google Doodle depicted Asawa assembling one of her hanging sculptures, leading to a flood of searches that crashed the artist’s website.
Asawa’s posthumous elevation to the modern art pantheon is the latest twist in a story full of them. Born in California in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, she was among the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Released in 1943, she went on to enroll at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina that drew many stars of midcentury modern art, including her teacher Josef Albers, a Bauhaus pioneer.
On a visit to Mexico in 1947, Asawa learned the technique of hand-looping wire to make baskets, which she adapted to create abstract hanging sculptures. Using materials that evoked the barbed wire surrounding her internment camp, she created forms that are abstract but still evoke nature: a snail shell, a spiderweb or a dragonfly wing. Her signature technique, which she called “continuous form within a form,” involved overlapping layers of wire that undulate from inside to outside and back again. Asawa also made tied-wire sculptures, inspired by a spiky desert plant, in the forms of trees and stars.
Her first New York gallery show, in 1954, drew important collectors, including architect Philip Johnson. But critics often wrote about her in sexist and exoticizing terms. In 1955, a Time magazine profile of Asawa and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, headlined “Eastern Yeast,” referred to both U.S.-born sculptors as “Oriental,” describing Asawa as a “housewife and mother.” At a time when male modernist sculptors such as David Smith and Henry Moore were using steel or stone anchored to the ground, critics had trouble making sense of Asawa’s sinuous, handspun spheres and teardrops hanging in the air.
After 1960, Asawa withdrew from the New York gallery world to focus creatively on her home studio and growing family in San Francisco. She lived frugally, worked nonstop and ignored her market valuation. “The artist always pays for the privilege of doing the work,” she told her children. But Asawa’s absence from New York contributed to the eclipse of her work by movements like Pop Art and Minimalism, said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF).
Asawa shrugged off identity politics, calling herself “a minority of one.” But in 2020, the factors that once pushed her to the margins—ethnicity, gender and geography—now make her work more desirable to collectors, according to San Francisco gallerist Trish Bransten. “Asawa’s time is now,” said New York poet and critic John Yau, “because we realize we have such a narrow aesthetic that left too many people out.”
The rediscovery of her work began in 2009, when the artist’s family called Christie’s about selling a painting that Josef Albers had inscribed to Asawa decades before, to pay for her nursing care. Jonathan Laib, a Christie’s curator, made contact with the artist and devoted himself to relaunching her work with gallery shows and auctions. According to Harry S. Parker III, former director of FAMSF, Mr. Laib, now senior director of the David Zwirner Gallery, has done “a remarkable job of attracting interest in Asawa’s unique art and, along the way, stimulated a dramatic market reappraisal.”
Lacma acquires major works by women through lively Collectors Committee Weekend
Other major art museums in the US have dedicated acquisition funds. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) has a lively annual event instead called Collectors Committee Weekend. This year’s edition (20-21 April) raised about $2.65m, enough money for the museum to acquire a total of ten works of art across as many different departments. The big difference this time was that of the six acquired works made in the last century, five were by women, with Lacma adding to its collection pieces by Martha Boto, Betye Saar, Jennifer Bartlett and Julie Mehretu and its first sculpture by Ruth Asawa.
The event kicked off Friday night with swanky private dinners at trustees’ homes and wrapped up Saturday night with a gala dinner and small benefit auction at the museum. There, around 100 participants voted on museum acquisitions to be made with $1.9m raised from party ticket sales and auction items, with the extra funds coming from last-minute pledges for particular works.
But the heart of the event, which took place Saturday morning, consisted of ten curators speaking to a room packed with patrons in an unusually direct way about the value—both historical and financial—of the objects proposed for acquisition. In each case, the price and the seller was published. The curators laced their sales pitches with superlatives to highlight each “extraordinary” work of art and the “extraordinary” or “unique” opportunity to acquire it. “They sound like us,” laughed Kaeli Deane, the head of Latin American art at Phillips auction house.
Transparency excited Ruth Asawa. ‘You can see right through most of my sculpture,’ she claimed, ‘so that no matter what you see, you can always also see through it.’ The majority of Asawa’s three-dimensional hanging wire works, for which she is now best known, are, indeed, transparent, their woven wire loops loosely catching one another to produce a relatively open, and somewhat uneven, mesh.
Initially, these works gave structural form to many of the images in Asawa’s drawings, which themselves were exercises in the ﬂuctuating relationships between ﬁgure and ground: one shape often overlaps, without entirely obscuring the others, through a simple economy of means. Ultimately, the wire works’ transparency was fully manifested in the most magical and beautiful ways when Asawa grouped two or more pieces together and illuminated them, so that their overlapping organic forms cast delicate, also overlapping, two-dimensional shadows onto the surroundings walls. Later, she built a doubling, tripling and, even, quadrupling shadow eﬀect into these works by using a single continuous piece of wire to generate nested shapes, in which the outer surface of one form became the inner surface of the next, with each shape arising, she noted, ‘from the capacity of the technique and the way in which they grow’. Her goal throughout was always to encourage the viewer to truly see – as if for the ﬁrst time.
Asawa’s artworks, regardless of medium, have been viewed through a number of lenses and as representative of a variety of categories, such as drawing, sculpture, textiles, weaving, craft or interior decoration. Asawa herself used different verbs to describe the process of making her wire works – including drawing, weaving, crocheting and knitting – each of which, conventionally, has been associated with a discrete medium and technique. The chameleon-like potential of Asawa’s pieces to be interpreted in so many ways has not always been beneﬁcial to her career. Classifying her work as craft or interior decoration, for example, enabled some critics to dismiss it as an assembly of ‘baskets and ﬁsh traps’, as Otis Gage wrote in Art & Architecture in 1955. But John Yau has more recently suggested that the fact that Asawa’s work was made by hand with simple tools – rather than welded or industrially produced, for example – at a time when craft was in-creasingly viewed as obsolete, posed a direct challenge to contemporary categories of art, conventions of taste and the assumed gender identity of the artist in the 1950s and ’60s, even if this challenge was never directly acknowledged at the time.
How Asian-American Artists Made a Mark on Abstract Expressionism
The vast region traditionally referred to in the West as “the East,” which includes countries like Japan and China, has a long history as a source of fascination for Western artists, from James Whistler to John Cage. Looking East for inspiration becomes an insidious form of Orientalism when the practice results in denigration or in the sense of an exclusive claim to cultural superiority for the West. Such is the subject of Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Curated by Theresa Papanikolas, the exhibition offers a critical examination of mid-20th-century American abstraction and its East Asian influences, including East Asian and Pacific Islander practitioners that are often left out of the established Western canon.
Ruth Asawa, one of the few Asian women associated with AbEx, is given a sensational central role in the exhibition. Her sculpture “Untitled (S. 540, Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form)” (c. 1958), with its translucent undulating curves achieved through entwined wire, evokes a feminine figure when placed across from Wilem de Kooning’s female muse “Woman as Landscape” (1954–5). Although critics often highlight Black Mountain College as a critical moment in Asawa’s artistic development, her placement in this exhibition, adjacent to other Japanese artists, compares her aesthetic sensibility to other Japanese-American contemporaries. For example, Asawa is placed in conversation with Hawai’ian-born Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu’s voluptuous stoneware, which is glazed with a dynamic velocity similar to the paint strokes of Jackson Pollock or Robert Motherwell. Like many Abstract Expressionists, Takaezu studied Zen Buddhism and visited Japan to learn from traditional Japanese potters and ceramicists. Meanwhile, Tadashi Sato’s paintings also feature overlapping, effervescent ovoids that evoke the clear water of his homeland, Hawai’i.
The low visibility of Asian abstractionists until recently is due to the discrimination they faced during a moment when the craze for Asian concepts and aesthetics ironically crescendoed in the United States. Anti-Japanese sentiment rose during World War II, when Japanese-Americans such as Asawa and her family were ordered into internment camps between 1942–46. Not long afterward, from 1949 to 1955, a group of predominantly white male artists in New York called The Club met several nights a week at a community space on Eighth Street to discuss important concepts such as Zen. Artists, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, and John Cage, took a liking to the many lectures on Zen’s principles: its embrace of emptiness, chance, and oneness with nature. It was not until 1988 that the United States offered a formal apology and reparations for interned Japanese-Americans through the Civil Liberties Act.
Franz Kline’s “Corinthian II” (1961) features grandiose black brushstrokes on white background, with obvious visual affinity to Morita Shirū’s graphic lacquered folding screen “Dragon Knows Dragon (Ryu wa ryū o shiru)” (1964). Their quick yet decisive brushwork arouses the sensuousness of blank surfaces and marking upon them. The large scale at which they work allows us to marvel at the visibility of the artist’s hand, where micro becomes micro: breaks where bristles do not quite touch, or small splatters of ink that signify the ferocity at which they leapt. In fact, both Kline and Shirū entered into correspondence in the 1950s to share their love for Japanese calligraphy. Klein also wrote directly to another featured artist, Saburo Hasegawa, about his love for older painters of Japan and China.
Art critic Clement Greenberg opposed the perceptible link between Abstract Expressionism and Asian discourse, writing in 1955 that, “[N]ot one of the original ‘abstract expressionists’ — least of all Kline — has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West.” Not only was this xenophobic statement untrue, it also served to erase Asian-American Abstract Expressionist artists who were drawing from their own cultural roots while relegating them to be perpetual foreigners in the United States.
While some have claimed that Philip Guston’s paintings reinvent the sublime, the fact that he drew upon Zen and Chinese painting’s dissolution of form into nothingness often goes uncredited. On view together are Guston’s “Ceremony” (1957) and George Miyasaki’s “Green Landscape.” Made the same year, both feature ghostly shapes of sea foam green and dusty red swim against each other as if lost in fog. While Mark Rothko is revered for his studies of vibrant color as a locus for meditative contemplation, this was also explored by artists such as Tseng Yu-ho, Isami Doi, and Bumpei Akaji.
The presentation of these parallel histories broadens current understandings of Abstract Expressionism beyond its well-celebrated New York-based artists. Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West is a long overdue expansion upon well-founded perceptions of American abstraction. Perhaps, though Clement Greenberg was incorrect in denying any “Oriental” influence in Abstract Expressionism, his suggestion that it was a uniquely American movement still holds. The critic’s nationalistic desire for an aesthetic attributed to the United States must simply accept that non-white cultural production can be authentically American too. As we continue to unravel the ancient empires built upon small boys clubs, I yearn for even more narratives beyond those that uphold white creativity as the historical measure of greatness and propositions that Asians or other minorities can also meet this bar.
These days, it can sometimes seem like the line between gallery shows and museum shows is blurring. As museums try to shed their image as lofty temples of culture and capitalize on the excitements of contemporary art, galleries seek gravitas and substance. Occasionally, galleries mount exhibitions that are so substantial they can fairly be described as museum-quality. Two such exhibitions can now be found at the David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street) in Chelsea, and together they remind us that the history of post-war art is being revised as we speak.
A photograph of Ruth Asawa and her art taken by her close friend Imogen Cunningham circa 1957. Photograph © Imogen Cunningham Trust and Estate of Ruth Asawa/David Zwirner Gallery
The history of American art is getting a rewrite at the David Zwirner gallery on West Twentieth Street, in a transporting show of sculptures by the little-known Ruth Asawa: diaphanous wonders, crocheted out of wire, that appear to be floating in space. (They hang from the ceiling.) In her use of line as sculptural form, Asawa provides a crucial link between the mobile modernism of Alexander Calder and the gossamer Minimalism of Fred Sandback, whose yarn pieces similarly render distinctions between interior and exterior moot. She hit on her singular process in 1947, at the age of twenty-one, while on a visit to Mexico, where she saw baskets in the process of being made. That domestic association has led to her work being marginalized, as was the case with so many female artists of her generation.
The addition of Asawa to art’s overwhelmingly white-male hit parade comes at a critical time in our country, as the policies of the current Administration challenge the undeniable fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Asawa’s parents were farmers, who emigrated to rural California from Japan. (“Sculpture is like farming,” the artist once said. “If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”) Asawa loved to draw as a child, but she didn’t have much time between chores. She began to make art in earnest while living in internment camps in California and Arkansas, in 1942-43; she received pointers from several fellow-detainees, who were animators at Walt Disney. She went on to study at Black Mountain College, where her mentors included Josef Albers, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, then settled in San Francisco with her husband, the architect Albert Lanier. She raised six children, but never stopped making art, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that she languished in obscurity until now. A solo show in New York, in the fifties, was favorably reviewed in the Times; her work was included in the São Paolo Biennial in 1955; she is in major museum collections and has several prominent public projects in San Francisco.
Photo: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson/Estate of Ruth Asawa/David Zwirner, New York/London
Although Black Mountain College, the legendary postwar incubator for the avant-garde, launched the careers of many twentieth-century luminaries who would eventually enjoy international renown, the sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) never quite became a household name—instead, her oeuvre has so habitually been relegated to the household. When the artist debuted her wire sculptures in New York in the Fifties, critics dismissed them as decorative or housewifely. "These are 'domestic' sculptures in a feminine handiwork mode," wrote one critic in a 1956 ARTNews review. Because Asawa worked with common materials, twisting copper and iron into undulating forms, her art is often scoffingly associated with that art-world anathema: “craft.” And so a three-room exhibition of Asawa’s works at David Zwirner cannot help but feel restorative, an opportunity to reassess both the expansiveness and consistency of her vision.
Photo: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa and courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Black Mountain College was not Ruth Asawa's first choice. Determined to be an art teacher, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College from 1943 to '46. She chose Milwaukee because it was the cheapest college in the catalog she consulted while she and her family were interned in the Rohwer Relocation Center, in Rohwer, Arkansas. However, when she learned that her fourth year was going to be devoted to practice teaching, and that no school in Wisconsin would hire someone who was Japanese, she decided to go to art school.
In her lifetime, the artist Ruth Asawa weathered storms of weak interpretation: whole seasons of lazy criticism that made too much of her positions as a wife and mother and not nearly enough of her contributions to modernism and abstraction. Asawa’s hanging looped-wire sculptures were a triumph of line and form, playing with weight, gravity, visibility, the continuity of multiple spheres and cones, and the ambiguity of inside and outside space. Critics in the 1950s read them as women’s work. They also attributed her style to a Japanese aesthetic that was assumed but unsubstantiated. Asawa was born to a family of farmers in California. The singularity of her visual and spatial language came from Mexican basket weaving and Black Mountain College.
For better or worse, critical appraisals of Asawa's art have gained clarity and depth since her death in 2013. The current exhibition, her first at this gallery, spans four decades, adding to our understanding in layers. Across three rooms are twenty-eight exquisite sculptures, including lesser known examples of her tied-wire pieces based on forms found in nature. There are also seven diminutive abstract drawings and paintings in ink, oil, and watercolor, at once playful and revelatory. Untitled (SF.046b, Plain Potato Print in Blue and Orange), 1951–52, is a jubilant pattern of bold and fading spheres, while Untitled (BMC.83, Dogwood Leaves), 1946–49, is a moodier study of shapes and turns. A room with archival materials, including photographs by Asawa’s lifelong friend and neighbor Imogen Cunningham, rounds out the mythmaking. But it is the relationship between Asawa's paintings and sculptures that remains the most compelling open question.