In 1946, Ruth Asawa—aged 20 and intent on pursuing training in fine art—packed her belongings into a small trunk, hopped on a train and departed for a trip across the American Midwest, beginning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ending in the deep south of North Carolina. Her destination was the progressive liberal arts school, Black Mountain College. Initially, Asawa enrolled in the school’s summer program, assuming that she would be there for a few months and then return to Wisconsin, she ended up staying for three years. That first summer, alongside her coursework in art, she worked as the school barber, on the cooperative farm, and in the laundry room (such work was fundamental to the civic-minded spirit of the school).
The education Asawa received at Black Mountain gave her the freedom to experiment with form, material and media and to consider the possibilities of what modern sculpture could be. Through the teaching of Josef Albers, Asawa learnt about colour, modelling and design; Merce Cunningham’s dance classes inspired her to focus on movement and form and the rhythmic quality of line; and Buckminster Fuller proffered a reconsideration of space, architecture and materials.
During her time at Black Mountain, Asawa tasked herself with exploring the limitations and potentiality of modern sculpture. Yet it was a trip to Mexico in 1947 that served as the primary catalyst for her career-long preoccupation with materiality and form. In Toluca, Mexico—alongside her older sister, Chiyo—Asawa taught “children to draw, and the villagers taught her how to crochet baskets out of wire.” (i) Asawa was amazed by the simplicity of the wire loops that formed the villagers’ crocheted baskets, and saw potential in these loops for her own practice. When she came back to Black Mountain, loops infiltrated almost every aspect of her work, “it’s an amazing technique,” she said, “the shape comes out working with the wire...you work as you go along...you make the line, then you go into space...it’s a like a drawing in space.” (ii)
Asawa incorporated this technique into sculptural objects and also into drawings and paintings. Dancers (BMC.56)—a small painting from 1948—is one such example. Looping circles rhythmically cascade across the surface of the picture plane, invoking a series of twirling pirouettes. By the early 1950s, Asawa was fabricating long, thin sculptures that were hung from a simple wire, suspended in space. Made of copper or iron wire, these chains consisted of conjoined bulbous forms that closely resembled onions or crooked-neck squash. These biomorphic shapes formed the basis of her sculptural practice throughout the 1950s.
By the mid-1950s, Asawa’s work was widely collected and exhibited, and she began to receive much critical attention. The Rockefellers and Philip Johnson owned pieces by 1955, and that same year she was included in a group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and in the São Paulo Bienal in Brazil. In the years that followed, she continued to exhibit her sculptures, paintings, and drawings at museums and galleries in San Francisco and New York. A critic for the New York Times described her wire sculptures from this period as “gossamer lightness” with “wire [that] dematerializes when the pendant sculptures are turned...the shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.” (iii) Indeed, her wire sculptures activate their surroundings with a dynamism achieved through the undulating, organic forms, and light. Each of the intricate loops that comprise the sculptures allows light to permeate the form, casting shadows onto the adjacent walls.
Asawa began to work directly from nature in 1962 after receiving a desert plant as a gift from a family friend. She completely dismantled the plant in order to understand its form and construction, and this exercise inspired a series of small-scale wire sculptures, resembling tumbleweeds and other succulents that dot the desert landscape in the American Southwest. The desert plant also found its way into Asawa’s lithographs made while the artist was in residence at the Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. The works are innovative and beautiful. Some of the prints are quite saturated with color (as with Desert Plant (TAM.1560), 1965 whereas others are simple black and white silhouettes (as with Desert Plant Black Reverse (TAM.1469), 1965.
In 1968, Asawa returned to teaching, forming the Alvarado Workshop in San Francisco with other parents from her community. At the Workshop she taught elementary school students to make art through an economy of means. Milk cartons were transformed into biomorphic sculptures, puppets were made from old newspapers, and small sculptures from plaster casts. An unquenchable drive to explore new forms and materials underscored Asawa’s teaching methods and her artistic practice.
The tenets of Black Mountain College—experimentation, exploration, and inquisitiveness—were fundamental to Asawa’s formation as an artist, and were constants throughout her long and productive career. Her contribution to the development of postwar American art is certain—her work questioned disciplinary boundaries, limits, and dwelled in possibility. As Asawa plainly put it in an interview in 2002: “I’m interested in the material and what you can do with it.” (iv)
Words by MacKenzie Stevens, from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
(i) Jacqueline Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life,” The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006, p. 17. (ii) Ibid, p. 16. (iii) The New York Times, April 29, 1958. (iv) Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
First image: Asawa in her studio in 1957 by Imogen Cunningham. Photo © 2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Second image: Asawa courtesy of Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina. Second image: Asawa courtesy of Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina. Third image: Installation view, Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner New York, September 13 – October 21, 2017. Photo: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Fourth image: Untitled (S.407, Hanging, Five-Lobed, Continuous Form within a Form with Two Spheres), c. 1952. Hanging sculpture—copper wire. Private Collection, New York. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Fifth image: Ruth Asawa working in her home, 1956. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. Photo © 2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Sixth image: Continuous (S.340, Hanging, Miniature Single-Lobed, Three Layered Continuous Form within a Form), c. 1981-1982. Hanging sculpture—gold-filled wire, The Asawa Family Collection. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.