Ruth Asawa

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Selected Press

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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.

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Re-thinking American Post-War Art

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.

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Ruth Asawa Reshapes Art History

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.

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Ruth Asawa: Tending the Metal Garden

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.

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Ruth Asawa, a Pioneer of Necessity

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.

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Critics' Picks: Ruth Asawa

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.

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