Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere
David Zwirner is pleased to announce an exhibition of work by American artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) at the gallery’s London location. This will be the first major presentation of the artist’s work outside of the United States and will include a number of her key forms, focusing in particular on the relationship between her wire sculptures and wide-ranging body of works on paper.
An influential artist, devoted activist, and tireless advocate for arts education, Asawa is best known for her extensive body of hanging wire sculptures. These intricate, dynamic, and sinuous works, begun in the late 1940s, continue to challenge conventional notions of sculpture through their emphasis on lightness and transparency. Relentlessly experimental across a range of mediums, Asawa also produced numerous drawings and prints that, like her wire sculptures, are built on simple, repeated gestures that accumulate into complex compositions. Although she moved between abstract and figurative registers in her sculptures and drawings, respectively, viewed together, the works in this exhibition nevertheless incite a rich dialogue and find commonality in their sustained emphasis on the natural world and its forms, as well as in their deft use of the basic aesthetic concept of the line. As she noted, “I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”1
Born in rural California, Asawa was first exposed to professional artists while her family and other Japanese Americans were detained at Santa Anita, California, in 1942. Following her release from an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, eighteen months later, she enrolled in 1943 in Milwaukee State Teachers College. Unable to receive her degree due to continued hostility against Japanese Americans, Asawa left Milwaukee in 1946 to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, then known for its progressive pedagogical methods and avant-garde aesthetic environment. Asawa’s time at Black Mountain proved formative in her development as an artist, and she was particularly influenced by her teachers Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and the mathematician Max Dehn. She also met architectural student Albert Lanier, whom she would marry in 1949 and with whom she would raise a large family and build a career in San Francisco. Asawa continued to produce art steadily over the course of more than a half century, creating a cohesive body of sculptures and works on paper that, in their innovative use of material and form, deftly synthesizes a wide range of aesthetic preoccupations at the heart of twentieth-century abstraction.
Asawa’s work was recently the subject of a major exhibition titled Life’s Work at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. In May 2020, Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe will open at Modern Art Oxford, England, and will subsequently travel to the Stavanger Kunstmuseum, Norway, the following October. The Estate of Ruth Asawa has been represented by David Zwirner since 2017. The gallery’s inaugural solo exhibition of the artist’s work took place the same year at its New York location. The presentation was accompanied by an extensive publication that includes texts by Tiffany Bell and Robert Storr and features an illustrated chronology.
Image: Installation view, Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere, David Zwirner, London, 2020
1 Ruth Asawa, cited in Daniell Cornell, “The Art of Space: Ruth Asawa’s Sculptural Installations,” in Cornell, ed., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. Exh. cat. (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2006), p. 138.
Asawa studied at Black Mountain College from 1946 to 1949, emerging as one of the school’s key figures and a strong proponent of the radical artistic experimentation it generated. As the artist recalled in an interview in 2002, “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards.” Following a visit to Mexico 1947, where she learned how to create baskets using wire, Asawa returned to Black Mountain and began to develop the signature sculptural works she would continue to explore over the course of her nearly sixty-year career.
She executed her looped-wire sculptures in a number of complex, interwoven configurations. These range from small spheres to long, elaborate “form within a form” compositions, in which nested shapes unfold from a single, continuous line of wire. The artist’s other forms include hyperbolic shapes, suspended cones, interlocking spheres, and open windows.
“Initially, these works gave structural form to many of the images in Asawa’s drawings,” Ann Reynolds explains. “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.... The descriptive language she developed for her practice... was explicitly modernist, reflecting... especially, her studies with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. Yet, she engaged with each concept, including transparency, in ways that were totally her own.”
Asawa’s intensely focused work with modest materials foreshadowed minimalist tendencies of the 1960s, and her art has recently received renewed attention, as evinced by the major 2018 exhibition Life’s Work at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis—which struck The Washington Post as “the most beautiful show of the year.”
Major thematic exhibitions in recent years, including Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today at the Museum of Arts and Design (2015) and Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at The Museum of Modern Art (2017), both in New York, highlight a broader institutional imperative to address the practices of women artists whose legacies have been overlooked. As Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes in Artforum, “Asawa weathered storms of weak interpretation... that made too much of her positions as a wife and mother and not nearly enough of her contributions to modernism and abstraction.” The MoMA show, which featured an untitled hanging wire sculpture by Asawa from circa 1955, led The New York Times critic Holland Cotter to assert “the reality that work by women, feminists or not, was the major inventive force propelling and shaping late-20th-century art.”
In May 2020, Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe will open at Modern Art Oxford, England, marking the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in a European public institution. The show will travel to the Stavanger Kunstmuseum, Norway, the following October.
Published in 2018, this immersive monograph on the artist’s life and work features texts by curator and writer Tiffany Bell and the artist, curator, and writer Robert Storr, illuminating the depth and importance of the Asawa’s practice in the context of modernism.
Untitled (S.741, Wall Mounted or Hanging Open Circular Undulating Form), c. 1976-1979
Untitled(S.745, Hanging Sphere), c. 1976-1979
Untitled(S.722, Hanging Single-Lobed, Two-Layered Continuous Form within a Form, with a Collar Forming a Partial Third Layer), c. 1990-1999
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