Exceptional Works: Ruth Asawa | David Zwirner
Header graphic with title: Exceptional Works, Ruth Asawa Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 Hanging sculpture—copper wire.
A detail of a wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 (detail)

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 (detail)

“I hope to give in some degree that wonderful sense of discovery that comes from seeing for the first time.” —Ruth Asawa, 1956

A hanging copper wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, titled Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), circa 1962.

Ruth Asawa

Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c.1962
Hanging sculpture—copper wire

52 x 18 x 18 inches (132.1 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm)

Challenging conventional notions of material and form, Ruth Asawa began making her signature body of wire sculptures in the late 1940s. She created her Window Forms—one of the most complex and technically difficult shapes in her oeuvre—in the mid-1950s, following an accident that proved revelatory.

This online presentation showcases an exceptional example of Asawa’s Open Window Forms: Untitled (c. 1962), constructed from a single continuous length of shimmering copper wire. The work was a gift from the artist to close friends of the family in San Francisco, to celebrate their wedding in 1963, and has remained in the couple’s collection ever since.

A photo of Ruth Asawa working on her wire sculpture.

Ruth Asawa working in her home, 1956.  Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Ruth Asawa working in her home, 1956.  Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Details of three wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 (details)

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 (details)

This sculpture featured in Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, a major solo presentation at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Saint Louis, in 2018. The Washington Post called the show “the year’s most beautiful exhibition,” noting the development of a deeper appreciation of Asawa’s work in recent years that many argue is overdue.

“Taking a cumulative view of Asawa’s experiments in looped wire makes the diversity and breadth of this body of work evident,” explained Tamara Schenkenberg, who curated the exhibition. “It shows how she translated her approach with a single technique into a set of iterative formal challenges that resulted in a unique sculptural vocabulary.”

 

“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.” —Ruth Asawa, c. 1989

A photo of Ruth Asawa working on her sculpture.

Ruth Asawa working on a wire sculpture at her Saturn Street home, San Francisco, 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.
© Imogen Cunningham Trust

Ruth Asawa working on a wire sculpture at her Saturn Street home, San Francisco, 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham.
© Imogen Cunningham Trust

Asawa began making her looped-wire sculptures in the late 1940s while still a student at Black Mountain College (Josef Albers was among her teachers there). The works’ unique structures were inspired by her 1947 trip to Mexico, during which local craftsmen taught her how to create baskets out of wire.

 

Asawa came upon her Window Forms accidentally in 1954, after cutting open a looped-wire sculpture she was working on to correct a mistake. When splayed open, she noticed that the weight of the metal caused the work to twist and bend, adopting a new shape that she first described as being similar to a pinecone.

A photo of Ruth Asawa working on her sculpture.

Ruth Asawa. Photo by Paul Hassel

Ruth Asawa. Photo by Paul Hassel

She then set about trying to re-create these “open windows.” She realized she would have to make the wire loops more rapidly than the work's planned diameter can accommodate, thus forcing the form to curve up and down. The work, therefore, is actually a flat plane that has been forced to curve by the tension of the additional loops.

“To describe my sculpture,” Asawa wrote in 1956, “I would say that they have the quality of an ink drawing, only they are three dimensional....In wire sculpture the greater activity takes place inside, with the outside profile sometimes of secondary importance.

“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, 1971

“Wire can play.”

—Ruth Asawa, in her Black Mountain College notebook after returning from Mexico, 1947

 
a photo of sculptures by Ruth Asawa hanging in her living room in San Francisco.

Ruth Asawa’s sculptures in her living room, San Francisco, 1995. Photo by Laurence Cuneo. © Estate of Ruth Asawa

Ruth Asawa’s sculptures in her living room, San Francisco, 1995. Photo by Laurence Cuneo. © Estate of Ruth Asawa

A photo of Asawa on Saturn Street, San Francisco, c. 1957.

Ruth Asawa on Saturn Street, San Francisco, c. 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Ruth Asawa on Saturn Street, San Francisco, c. 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

A photo of Ruth Asawa and her children at home on Saturn Street, San Francisco, 1957.

Ruth Asawa and her children at home on Saturn Street, San Francisco, 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Ruth Asawa and her children at home on Saturn Street, San Francisco, 1957. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

A photo of Ruth Asawa with her sculpture.
Ruth Asawa with hanging sculpture, 1951.  Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust
Ruth Asawa with hanging sculpture, 1951.  Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

While Asawa received some attention from the international art world in the 1950s, mounting three critically acclaimed solo exhibitions at the prestigious Peridot Gallery in New York over the course of the decade, her work remained under-acknowledged during her lifetime outside of San Francisco. This was due in part to a lingering bias against women and artists of color, as well as her work’s divergence from the dominant movements and styles of the day.

Nonetheless, she continued to produce steadily over more than half a century, creating a cohesive body of sculptures and works on paper that deftly synthesize a wide range of the aesthetic preoccupations at the heart of twentieth-century abstraction. Asawa frequently presented her sculptures and drawings to close friends and colleagues, preferring this to selling her “children,” as she believed in the transformative potential of living with art.

 

Video below: Archives of American Art short film series: Paul Karlstrom Oral History Interview with Ruth Asawa from 2002, Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“In her lifetime, the artist Ruth 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. 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.” —Artforum

A photo of Ruth Asawa with Joan Stack at her exhibition opening at Peridot Gallery, New York, 1954.

Asawa with Joan Stack at her opening at Peridot Gallery, New York, 1954

Asawa with Joan Stack at her opening at Peridot Gallery, New York, 1954

An Installation view of the exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, dated 1960.

Installation view, Ruth Asawa: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1960. Photo by Paul Hassel


Installation view, Ruth Asawa: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1960. Photo by Paul Hassel


A photo of ruth Asawa in her retrospective exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Art, in 1973.

Asawa in her retrospective exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Art, 1973. Photo by Laurence Cuneo

Asawa in her retrospective exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Art, 1973. Photo by Laurence Cuneo

An installation view of Ruth Asawa works at De young museum.
Installation of Asawa’s sculpture in the lobby of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Tower at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2006
Installation of Asawa’s sculpture in the lobby of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Tower at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2006
An installation view of Ruth Asawa sculptures at David Zwirner, London, in 2020.

Installation view, Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere, David Zwirner, London, 2020

Installation view, Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere, David Zwirner, London, 2020

More recently, Asawa’s innovative work has received renewed recognition. In 2018–2019, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis presented Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, the first major museum exhibition of the artist’s work in more than a decade. This year, Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe will open at Modern Art Oxford, England.

 

Asawa’s work has also been in significant group exhibitions, including Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2015; traveled to Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio); Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2017); and In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury, Art Institute of Chicago (2019).

 

Provenance
Private Collection, San Francisco (acquired directly from the artist in 1963 as a gift)

Exhibitions
St. Louis, Missouri, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Ruth Asawa: Life's Work, September 14, 2018–February 16, 2019; exhibition catalogue (texts by Aruna D'Souza, Helen Molesworth, and Tamara H. Schenkenberg), pp. 82, 129 (installation view), illustrated.

London, David Zwirner, Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere, January 10–February 22, 2020.


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