Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio
Filled with some two dozen wire-woven openwork sculptures by Ruth Asawa, the big second-floor gallery at David Zwirner's West 20th Street space in Chelsea looks like a basketry forest, or a subaqueous garden, or a cloud of microbial life. The sight is one of the enchantments of the New York fall season.
Asawa was born to Japanese immigrant parents in rural California in 1926, and grew up working on her father's farm. (She died in 2013.) On her one day off, Saturday, she went to Japanese school and learned calligraphy, and loved the challenge of having to "work so this round curve turns into the next stroke." During World War II, when she was in her teens, the family was confined, with other Japanese-Americans, to internment camps, where she met artists who gave her drawing lessons. With the goal of studying art education, she enrolled in a teachers college in Milwaukee, but was eventually unable to get her degree because of her ethnicity. While at the school, she had encountered the future mail artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995), who, in 1946, was heading off to an experimental school called Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C. She decided to go too.
There she became a fully fledged artist herself. Under the tutelage of the émigré Bauhaus painter Josef Albers and the weaver Anni Albers, she learned that art, craft and design were inseparable; that all materials were potentially art materials; and that natural and abstract forms could be comparably organic. She studied with Merce Cunningham and incorporated the buoyancy of dance into her painted and woven forms. She also saw Buckminster Fuller raise his first geodesic dome. (Fuller later designed the wedding ring Asawa wore when she married Albert Lanier, a fellow Black Mountaineer. You can see it on her finger in a 1952 portrait by Imogen Cunningham.)
In 1947, Asawa went to Mexico to teach, but once there she became, again, a student, learning from local craftsmen how to weave baskets from metal wire, which she started using as her primary medium. It was a tough, even punishing one. Wire was light and malleable, but when used for crocheting and weaving forms inside other forms, it could and did cut flesh, requiring Asawa to swath her hands protectively as she worked. As if in deliberate defiance of such physical challenges, she shaped sensuously curving and swelling sculptures that seemed to float, bubble-light, in space.
The Zwirner show captures that lightness in its Chelsea installation and gives it an ideal historical context in a show titled "Josef and Anni and Ruth and Ray" at its Upper East Side space. Here a collage made from dried leaves by Josef Albers, an abstract textile by Anni Albers and a marvelous early Ray Johnson painting called "Calm Center" of nested colored squares — along with affectionate letters exchanged between all four colleagues — together help explain where Asawa's magic came from, and how it would spread. Of her childhood experience with learning calligraphy she said, "It was like a dance. Lift your feet up and lift your hands." At Zwirner, lift your heart.