A photo by Imogen Cunningham of Ruth Asawa standing at her door, dated 1963.

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.

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Image: Ruth Asawa, Sculptor, at Her Door, 1963 (detail). Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust

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.

Dates
January 10February 22, 2020
Private view
Thursday, January 9, 6–8 PM
Artist
A photo titled Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture, dated 1951. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.
Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture, 1951
Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust
 A photo titled Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2, dated 1951. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.
Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2, 1951
Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust

“It doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things. And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire and... you give it a new definition. That’s all.” —Ruth Asawa, 2002

A photo of Ruth Asawa, Sculptor, and Her Children, dated 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.
Ruth Asawa, Sculptor, and Her Children, 1957

Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust

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.”

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.590, Hanging Open Undulating Form), circa 1960.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.590, Hanging Open Undulating Form), c.1960
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

10 1/2 x 9 x 9 inches
(26.7 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm)

“I state, without hesitation or reserve, that I consider Ruth Asawa to be the most gifted, productive,
and originally inspired artist that I have ever known personally.” 
—Buckminster Fuller, in a letter of recommendation supporting Asawa’s application to the Guggenheim Foundation’s annual fellowship program in 1971. He added that he had been writing these recommendations for various candidates for forty-three years.

A photo by Imogen Cunningham titled Ruth Asawa at Work 3, dated 1956.
Ruth Asawa at Work 3, 1956
Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust

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.

A hanging bronze wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.371, Hanging, Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Multi-Branched Form Based on Nature), dated 1965.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.371, Hanging, Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Multi-Branched Form Based on Nature), 1965
Hanging sculpture—bronze wire

11 3/4 x 11 1/4 x 9 1/2 inches
(29.8 x 28.6 x 24.1 cm)

A hanging galvanized wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.515, Hanging Two Interlocking Hat Forms with Undulating Brims), circa 1950 to 1959.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.515, Hanging Two Interlocking Hat Forms with Undulating Brims), c. 1950-1959
Hanging sculpture—galvanized wire

14 1/4 x 17 x 17 inches
(36.2 x 43.2 x 43.2 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.727, Hanging Single-Lobed, Four-Layer, Continuous Form within a Form, with a Short Collar Forming a Partial Fifth Layer), circa 1980-1989.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.727, Hanging Single-Lobed, Four-Layer, Continuous Form within a Form, with a Short Collar Forming a Partial Fifth Layer), c. 1980-1989
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

12 x 13 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches
(30.5 x 34.3 x 34.3 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.595, Hanging Single Section, Reversible Open Windows Form), circa 1963.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.595, Hanging Single Section, Reversible Open Windows Form), c. 1963
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

11 1/4 x 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
(28.6 x 26.7 x 26.7 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.590, Hanging Open Undulating Form), circa 1960.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.590, Hanging Open Undulating Form), c.1960
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

10 1/2 x 9 x 9 inches
(26.7 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm)

A hanging wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.592, Hanging, Single Lobe, Three-Layered, Continuous Form within a Form), circa 1958.
Untitled (S.592, Hanging, Single Lobe, Three-Layered, Continuous Form within a Form), c. 1958
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

12 x 12 1/2 x 13 inches
(30.5 x 31.8 x 33 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.524, Hanging Miniature Single Section, Reversible Six Columns of Open Windows), circa 1980-1989.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.524, Hanging Miniature Single Section, Reversible Six Columns of Open Windows), c. 1980-1989
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

12 1/2 x 6 x 6 inches
(31.8 x 15.2 x 15.2 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.742, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), circa 1976-1979.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.742, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1976-1979
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

5 x 5 x 5 inches
(12.7 x 12.7 x 12.7 cm)

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.764, Hanging Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Multi-Branched Form Based on Nature), circa 1964-1966.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.764, Hanging Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Multi-Branched Form Based on Nature), c. 1964-1966
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

5 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 6 1/4 inches
(14 x 16.5 x 15.9 cm)

Ruth Asawa

(left to right)
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
Hanging sculptures—copper wire
(left to right)
5 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 1 inches
(14 x 14 x 2.5 cm)
1 x 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 inches
(2.5 x 3.2 x 3.2 cm)
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches
(14.0 x 21 x 21 cm)
An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.1042, Shasta Daisy Stem), dated 1991.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.1042, Shasta Daisy Stem), 1991
Ink on paper

11 x 8 1/2 inches
(27.9 x 21.6 cm)
Framed: 15 7/8 x 13 3/8 x 1 3/8 inches
(40.3 x 34 x 3.5 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.1039, Geranium Stem), dated 1991.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.1039, Geranium Stem), 1991
Ink on paper

11 x 8 1/2 inches
(27.9 x 21.6 cm) 
Framed: 15 7/8 x 13 5/8 inches
(40.3 x 34.6 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.1043, Japanese Maple Stem), dated 1991.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.1043, Japanese Maple Stem), 1991
Ink on paper

11 x 8 1/2 inches
(27.9 x 21.6 cm)
Framed: 15 7/8 x 13 3/8 x 1 3/8 inches
(40.3 x 34 x 3.5 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.150, Daisies), dated 1989.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.150, Daisies), 1989
Ink on paper

11 x 16 5/8 inches
(27.9 x 42.2 cm)
Framed: 15 7/8 x 21 1/2 x 1 3/8 inches
(40.3 x 54.6 x 3.5 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Gladiolas Salmon Pink (PF.589), dated 1990.

Ruth Asawa

Gladiolas Salmon Pink (PF.589), 1990
Ink on paper

35 x 23 inches
(88.9 x 58.4 cm)
Framed: 40 1/4 x 28 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches
(102.2 x 71.8 x 3.8 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.891, Bouquet of Fortnight Lilies, Teucrium, and Roses), circa 1994.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.891, Bouquet of Fortnight Lilies, Teucrium, and Roses)
Ink on paper

35 x 23 inches
(88.9 x 58.4 cm)
Framed: 40 1/4 x 28 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches
(102.2 x 71.4 x 3.8 cm)

An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Embarcadero Center's Chrysanthemum (PF.900), dated 1993.

Ruth Asawa

Embarcadero Center's Chrysanthemum (PF.900), 1993
Ink on paper

23 x 35 inches
(58.4 x 88.9 cm)
Framed: 28 1/4 x 40 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches
(71.8 x 102.2 x 3.8 cm)

A hanging stainless steel wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Wintermass (S.187, Hanging Tied-Wire, Double-Sided, Open-Center, Five-Branched Form Based on Nature). circa 1974.

Ruth Asawa

Wintermass (S.187, Hanging Tied-Wire, Double-Sided, Open-Center, Five-Branched Form Based on Nature)
Hanging sculpture—stainless steel wire tipped with resin

43 x 43 x 21 1/2 inches
(109.2 x 109.2 x 54.6 cm)

An ink drawing on rice paper on board by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.1015, Horsetail), dated 1961.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.1015, Horsetail), 1961
Ink on rice paper on board

35 x 23 inches
(88.9 x 58.4 cm)
Framed: 40 1/4 x 28 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches
(102.2 x 71.8 x 3.8 cm)

A gelatin silver print by Imogen Cunningham, titled Ruth Asawa Sculpture 2, dated 1951.
Ruth Asawa Sculpture 2, 1951
Gelatin silver print

Print: 9 x 7 1/4 inches
(22.9 x 18.4 cm)
Framed: 16 7/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 3/8 inches
(42.9 x 37.8 x 3.5 cm)

A gelatin silver print by Imogen Cunningham, titled Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture, dated 1951.
Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture, 1951
Gelatin silver print

Print: 4 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches
(11.4 x 8.9 cm)
Framed: 12 x 10 7/8 x 1 3/8 inches
(30.5 x 27.6 x 3.5 cm)

A gelatin silver print by Imogen Cunningham, titled Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2, dated 1951.
Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2, 1951
Gelatin silver print

Print: 4 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches
(11.4 x 8.9 cm) 
Framed: 11 7/8 x 11 x 1 3/8 inches
(30.2 x 27.9 x 3.5 cm)

A wall-mounted bronze wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.307, Wall-Mounted Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Five-Petaled Form Based on Nature), circa 1970-1979.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.307, Wall-Mounted Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Five-Petaled Form Based on Nature)
Wall-mounted sculpture—bronze wire

58 x 58 x 11 inches
(147.3 x 147.3 x 27.9 cm)

A hanging iron wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.435, Hanging Eight-Lobed, Single-Layered Continuous Tear-Drop Form)e, dated 1952.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.435, Hanging Eight-Lobed, Single-Layered Continuous Tear-Drop Form), 1952
Hanging sculpture—iron wire

125 x 14 x 14 inches
(317.5 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm)

A sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.563, Hanging Six Lobed Form with Two Interior Spheres), dated 1956.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.310, Hanging Five-Lobed Continuous Form Within a Form with Spheres in the 2nd, 3rd, and Bottom Lobes), c. 1954
Hanging sculpture—copper and brass wire
64 x 15 x 15 inches (162.6 x 38.1 x 38.1 cm)
A hanging galvanized steel and iron wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.041, Hanging Four Layers of Hourglass Forms Surrounding a Bud-Shaped Center with an Intersecting Disk in Top), circa 1962.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.041, Hanging Four Layers of Hourglass Forms Surrounding a Bud-Shaped Center with an Intersecting Disk in Top)
Hanging sculpture—galvanized steel and iron wire

29 x 31 x 31 inches
(73.7 x 78.7 x 78.7 cm)

A hanging steel wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.636, Hanging Open Windows Form with Seven Tiers), circa 1950 to 1953.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.636, Hanging Open Windows Form with Seven Tiers)
Hanging sculpture—steel wire

40 1/2 x 15 x 15 inches
(102.9 x 38.1 x 38.1 cm)

Ruth Asawa

Study for Fox Plaza (Grovesnor Square) Fountain (S.220, Free-Standing, Electroplated Tied Wire Organic Form), 1964
Electroplated copper wire and copper tubing with green patina on painted steel base
23 x 14 x 10 1/2 inches
(58.4 x 35.6 x 26.7 cm)
An ink drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (PF.1007, Fennel Bloom), dated 2000.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (PF.1007, Fennel Bloom), 2000
Ink on paper

30 x 22 1/2 inches
(76.2 x 57.2 cm)
Framed: 27 3/4 x 35 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches
(70.5 x 89.5 x 3.8 cm)

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