Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.445, Hanging Single Section, Open Windows Form), c. 1962 (detail)
Ruth Asawa working in her home, 1956. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © Imogen Cunningham Trust
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.”
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.
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.”
“Wire can play.”
—Ruth Asawa, in her Black Mountain College notebook after returning from Mexico, 1947
Ruth Asawa’s sculptures in her living room, San Francisco, 1995. Photo by Laurence Cuneo. © Estate of Ruth Asawa
Ruth Asawa on Saturn Street, San Francisco, c. 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
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.
Asawa with Joan Stack at her opening at Peridot Gallery, New York, 1954
Installation view, Ruth Asawa: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1960. Photo by Paul Hassel
Asawa in her retrospective exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Art, 1973. Photo by Laurence Cuneo
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).