Ruth Asawa

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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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