Her friend and mentor R. Buckminster Fuller called her “the most gifted, productive and originally inspired artist that I have ever known personally.” In San Francisco, she’s considered a city treasure. In the state of California, she’s acknowledged as one of the most important postwar artists. Yet nationally and internationally, the sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) is under-recognized. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation hopes its full-scale retrospective, “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work,” on display through Feb. 16 in St. Louis, will fill this gap in art history. The installation of almost 60 sculptures and 20 paintings, collages, prints and drawings is one of the most breath-taking exhibitions to come along in many a year.
Asawa’s work consisted of weaving a continuous string of wire into lobes and globes. Her hanging basket-like shapes seem both immaterial in their porosity and pregnant with generative possibilities, casting shadows that double their impact on the surrounding air. Walking through the four galleries that contain the suspended pieces at the Pulitzer’s Tadao Ando-designed building, I was in awe — and filled with what can only be called joy — at the sculptures’ shape-shifting presence.
Form Follows Farm
An encounter with Asawa’s work feels like navigating through an underwater garden. After growing up on a vegetable farm, Asawa’s imagination teemed with organic memories. “The shapes of the flowers and the vegetation,” she said, “the translucence of a dragonfly’s wing when sunlight pours through it — these things have influenced my work.” The miscellany of forms at the Pulitzer recall coral, tumbleweeds, brambles, bubbles, kelp, roots, a wasp’s nest, jellyfish and teardrops. For an artist with a distinctive, signature style, Asawa encompassed the macrocosm rather than replicating predictable motifs in her work.
She invented an unconventional aesthetic as a form of fine art. Yet, it took grit to stick with it when critics called the sculptures “women’s work” akin to domestic decor. Perhaps her painful experience during World War II steeled her against setbacks. Born outside LA to immigrant Japanese parents, she was caught up in the xenophobic hysteria that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1942, her 60-year-old father (who had lived in the US for 40 years but was not allowed to become a citizen or own property) was arrested and sent to an internment camp. At the age of 16, Ruth, her mother and five siblings were removed to the Santa Anita Racetrack, where they lived in two horse stables. Asawa recalled the pervasive stench of horse manure, but it was there that she learned to draw, tutored by three Japanese-American animators for Walt Disney Studios.
The family was next sent to a detention camp in Rohwer, AR, near a cypress swamp that smelled of rotten eggs. For 18 months, Asawa lived in a tar-paper barracks surrounded by barbed wire. She learned to knit camouflage nets for the war effort and finished high school. Thanks to a Quaker scholarship, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College for three years, working as a maid to support herself. Although she hoped for a college degree and job as an art teacher, discrimination again intervened. Even though the war was over, no school would allow a Japanese-American person to work as a student teacher.
Turning rejection into opportunity, Asawa enrolled in the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she thrived under the influence of instructors like Fuller, Josef and Anni Albers and Merce Cunningham. During the summer of 1947, she took a trip to Mexico as a volunteer art teacher. It changed the trajectory of her life, for there she observed artisans weaving wire into baskets to hold eggs and fruit. She learned the technique, and for the rest of her six-decade career, she elaborated it into increasingly complex patterns.
After marrying architect Albert Lanier and moving to San Francisco, Asawa spent the next 63 years practicing her craft as a professional artist. The only tools she used in her twisted-wire works were pliers and her bandaged fingers, often bleeding from constant abrasions. She worked in a home studio, refusing to separate her life and her art. She had six children in nine years, and they remember her working diligently as they tumbled and played around her. A famous photograph by Asawa’s friend Imogen Cunningham shows Asawa creating a wire work as various children cluster nearby and a naked baby guzzles milk from a bottle.
Critics who hailed Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures as modernist masterpieces failed to accord Asawa the same respect. A Time magazine review of her work in a 1954 exhibition referred to her as a “San Francisco housewife” and demeaned the sculptures as craft because of their humble material and the manual labor involved. Critical praise (and the art market for her work) didn’t increase until after a retrospective in 2006 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (“The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air”). The prestigious David Zwirner Gallery now represents her estate. The Pulitzer exhibition is her first monographic museum show outside the West.
On the Wire
Her method, which Asawa called “drawings in space,” requires shaping loops of continuously unspooling wire into interpenetrating spheres and cones, then suspending them from the ceiling. For color variation, she used wire of different materials: aluminum, copper, brass, galvanized steel and iron. To create her trademark “form within a form,” she began with an innermost small form, working outward to envelop it in overlapping forms — all from a single strand of wire.
Asawa not only took sculpture off the plinth, she changed it conceptually from a heavy, solid object to a transparent, three-dimensional form that looks both enclosed and open. The eye takes in the chainmail-like, mesh surface, doubled by shadows and highlighting the space between grouped sculptures, as both a volume and a void. One’s perspective shifts from the exterior form to the interior, giving it a dynamic quality. It’s as if you see the seed and the fruit simultaneously, the fetus inside the womb and the bulging, pregnant belly.
Connection was important for Asawa, who was taught at Black Mountain “never to see anything in isolation.” She presented the sculptures in groups, saying in a 1974 interview, “When I put one shape next to another, I look at the new shape created [between the two works] in [that] space … I do [each sculpture] individually, but they also are dependent upon each other once they are made.”
Asawa experimented with different techniques. She made wall sculptures out of tied wire and sculpted cast bronze pieces, some of which she electroplated with crusty, knobby growths by soaking them in sulfuric acid. But it’s her intricate, sinuous forms, the hanging sculptures that seem to float — diaphanous and ethereal — that redefined the medium.
Fighting Lupus for the last 30 years of her life, Asawa never ceased working. If you asked her how long it took to create one of her labor-intensive pieces, she always answered, “a lifetime,” said the exhibition’s curator Tamara Schenkenberg. Yet she found time and energy to serve as a tireless advocate for the arts in education. In 1968, she founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, which brought artists-in-residence to 50 San Francisco schools. In 1982, she founded the first arts-magnet public high school in that city. “Techniques are simple to learn,” Asawa said. “Digesting them and making something that represents you will take a lifetime.” Her advice: “Above everything be curious, learn all you can and take a lifetime doing it.”
For Asawa, there was no break between inner and outer spheres. She described herself as “artist, wife and mother.” Everything in her life and work was linked and nested inside something else. “Learn something,” she advised. “Apply it. Pass it on so it is not forgotten.” No Pollyanna but one who knew adversity all too well, Asawa believed in the radical, transformative power of art to create an inclusive, progressive society. “Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”
Her sense of responsibility and community commitment was deep. “An artist,” she said, “is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”