Ruth Asawa’s original and innovative approach to sculpture inspired as much wonder about its construction when the artist came on the scene in the mid-1950s as it does today. Trained at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, whose notable alumni including Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Josef Albers, Asawa was encouraged to experiment with materials in search of the nature of their properties. Asawa chose to work with wire after learning basket weaving methods, paper folding techniques and crochet. A simple material, wire was readily available in the immediate postwar period and came in a variety of metals, finishes, and thickness. Untitled is made from a continuous length of copper wire, oxidized to give it a blue-green patina.
Asawa’s “form within a form” compositions, such as the present example, are the sculptural relative of her mentor Josef Albers’s paintings of concentric squares known as Homage to the Square, as they nest a gradation of five shapes of different sizes within each other. Suspended from the ceiling, the largest sphere takes on the shape of a rounded teardrop because of the redistribution of weight from the pull of gravity. The gauze-like transparency of the looped wire mesh allows each sphere to be seen individually, darkened by the successive layering of material. Asawa described her process as one of intuition in conversation with materials, saying “You don’t think ahead of time, this is what I want. You work on it as you go along. You make the line, a two-dimensional line, then you go into space, and you have a three-dimensional piece. It is like drawing in space” (R. Asawa quoted by J. Yau, “Ruth Asawa: Shifting the Terms of Sculpture,” Ruth Asawa: Objects & Apparitions, New York, 2013). Line drawn with wire becomes sculpture, a delicate volume that casts a shadow upon the wall behind it, thus collapsing the object back into an image drawn with light.
Compared to Modernisms most ingenious innovators, Asawa often found solutions to formal problems that had evaded her elders. When Untitled was included in Asawa's 1973 retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition’s curator, Gerald Nordland, wrote: “Asawa built upon the Constructivist idea of a two-dimensional composition and carried it directly into sculpture, establishing a new inner space with her early basket form mesh sculpture. The mesh provided tangible surface forms while it permitted the transparency which only Gabo and Calder had found the ability to express prior to Asawa’s generation. Her space was carved three-dimensionally by the mesh into outer and inner and the eye was given a reference point by the fabric of the stitch made Gabo’s application of rods or lines unnecessary and provided a memory factor which was unavailable in Calder’s always changing cycles (G. Nordland, Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View, San Francisco, 1973, n.p.). Curator Emily Doman Jennings describes the perceptual effects of Asawa’s sculptures: “When translated into three-dimensional forms, Asawa’s work deconstructs the viewer’s understanding of mass, for the sculptures are at once airy and dense. The visual oscillation between positive and negative space within Asawa’s interconnected construction creates an optical motion. As the viewer perceives one form, another spatial combination suggests itself, contradicting the first and lending the viewer to reconsider the sculpture as a whole. Thus, Moholy-Nagy’s ‘dematerialized’ and highly intellectualize formula: sculpture = volume relationships” is revealed in Asawa’s complex manipulation of form and volume” (E. Doman Jennings, “Critiquing the Critique: Ruth Asawa’s Early Reception,” The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Berkeley, 2007, p. 135-136).
Asawa would receive international accolades immediately upon her appearance on the scene by being included in exhibitions like the 1955 São Paolo Biennial and the 1955 “Survey of New Art” at The Whitney Museum of American Art (a precursor to the Whitney Biennial), entering her work into the museum’s collection. A retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art would come in 1971. However, like many women artists, her importance to postwar sculpture was largely unacknowledged until a 2006 retrospective by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, reconsiderations of Black Mountain College by esteemed curator Helen Molesworth in 2015 and of women sculptors by Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin in 2016, would reinstate the significance of this graceful sculpture and her delicate constructions.