In Ruth Asawa, an immersive new monograph on the artist’s life and work, published by David Zwirner Books, Tiffany Bell begins her essay with an insightful anecdote:
In 1971, the renowned twentieth-century inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller wrote a letter of recommendation in support of Asawa’s application to the Guggenheim Foundation’s annual fellowship program. After noting that he had been writing these recommendations for various candidates for forty-three years, Fuller said: "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." . . . He cited her wire mesh sculptures, with which he had been familiar since the late 1940s when he and Asawa were both at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Also featuring a text by Robert Storr, who discusses Asawa’s work in relation to mid-twentieth-century art, culture, and scientific theory, this publication illuminates the depth and importance of the artist’s practice in the context of modernism. The book’s extensive imagery includes installation views, works on paper, and detailed photographs revealing the intricacy of Asawa’s sculptures, as well as intimate archival portraits of the artist by her friend Imogen Cunningham. Its design is also directly inspired by its subject. Taking the elongated form of the hanging wire works as a starting point, the book’s designer, Michelle Nix of McCall Associates, has addressed the challenge of conveying sculpture on the flat surface of the page through a vibrant combination of inset images and full bleeds, varying indents, and a playful approach to scale. As Nix noted, "One of the advantages for the Ruth Asawa project was being able to view the work at [David Zwirner] before even thinking about the book. . . . Seeing the works in person helped me form a better understanding of the artist, learn the details of her process, and see how the works interacted with each other, the viewer, and the space." Unrestrained by linear narrative, the plates mimic the varied approach one takes when viewing the works in situ, while the lightness of the layout for the essays and illustrated chronology—the freedom to "roam," as Nix puts it—was inspired by an installation view of Asawa’s smaller hanging works that appears on pages 74–75.
Through these pages, Asawa emerges as one of the key figures of Black Mountain College and the radical artistic experimentation that came out of it. 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." While she was still a student under the tutelage of Josef Albers, Asawa began to develop her signature wire works that she continued to explore over the course of her more than sixty-year career. The looped-wire sculptures she executed in a number of complex, interwoven configurations 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 lesser-known forms include hyperbolic shapes, suspended cones, and interlocking spheres.
As the first major monograph about Asawa’s work published since the catalogue accompanying a retrospective of her career at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2006 (where some of the artist’s works are permanently installed), this book provides a timely overview that many argue is overdue. "In her lifetime," Kaelen Wilson-Goldie wrote in an Artforum review of the gallery’s inaugural solo exhibition of Asawa’s work in the fall of 2017, "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."
Renewed attention to Asawa, whose intensely focused work with modest materials foreshadowed Minimalist tendencies of the 1960s, was evinced also in her inclusion in two recent exhibitions in New York: 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). These major thematic exhibitions highlight a broader institutional imperative to address the practices of women artists whose legacies have been overlooked. The MoMA show, which featured an untitled hanging wire sculpture by Asawa from circa 1955, led The New York Times critic Holland Cotter in his review to assert "the reality that work by women, feminists or not, was the major inventive force propelling and shaping late-20th-century art."
Cover image: Ruth Asawa, 1950s (detail). Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2018 Imogen Cunningham Trust