Methodically woven by hand, Ruth Asawa's hanging sculptures exists as majestic drawings in space, at once delicate and awe inspiring. Untitled (S.540 Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Interlocking Continuous Form Within a Form) is among Asawa's most lyrical looped wire sculptures; it's undulating silhouette demonstrates the artist's nuanced understanding of form in space; it was created with a visual sensitivity honed from the artist's cultural background and her education at Black Mountain College, where she was exposed to the pre-eminent modern artists of American art history.
Growing up Japanese-American on a Southern California farm, the artist was acutely aware of the cultural divide, as her immigrant parents were denied citizenship and barred from owning land. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, government officials seized her entire family, holding them first in a racetrack arena where they lived in two horse stables, and later in an Arkansas internment camp where they lived in tarpaper barracks. In 1943, at age 17, the young Asawa was granted leave to attend college, only to find three years later, that she couldn't become a teacher due to war-time discrimination.
In the summer of 1946, she began her studies at Black Mountain College. She recalled, "It was that summer that helped me decide to take charge of my own life." (R. Asawa, quoted in D. Cornell et al. The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 13). Asawa studied alongside Robert Rauschenberg and longtime friend Ray Johnson under the tutelage of Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham.
Asawa began experimenting with wire after a transformative visit to Mexico in the summer of 1947. Captivated by the crocheted baskets of galvanized wire used for eggs and other produce, she began exploring the medium in her own art. While her tactile, interwoven surfaces derive from her studies in design, the structural form is rooted in her childhood. When she was growing up in Southern California, she drew undulating patterns into the ground that bring to mind the contours of her mature looped wire sculptures. The artist remembered, "We had a leveler. It was pulled by four horses....I used to sit on the back of the leveler with my bare feet drawing forms in the sand, which later in life became the sculptural forms that make up the bulk of my sculptures." (R. Asawa, quoted ibid., p. 13.). Asawa's looped wire sculptures not only preserve the visual vocabulary of her childhood, but her sensitivity to the poetic forms of the everyday.
Executed circa 1958, Untitled (S.540) demonstrates Josef Albers' profound influence on Asawa in its transparency of form and structural clarity that recall the modernist principles as espoused by the Bauhaus. Instead of blocking and confining space, Asawa created interlocking patterns by using lines to distill form, yet preserve its sense of lightness and see-through clarity. These looped wire sculptures, with their multi-layered exterior and interior forms, seem to draw on Albers' iconic series, Homage to the Square, which likewise depicts forms nestled within similar graduated forms.
Untitled (S.540) was purchased from Ruth Asawa by Ethel Weiner Guttmann after she saw the sculpture hanging in Asawa's 1973 retrospective held at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Weiner Guttmann and Asawa were both advocates for women in the arts, and both devoted to arts education. They became acquainted with each other in the early 1960's as both were active members of San Francisco Women Artists (SFWA), an organization of artists formed in 1887 committed to celebrating the work of Bay Area female artists.
Ethel Weiner Guttmann was born in New York City in 1916, and moved to San Francisco in 1943 with her first husband - Martin Snipper, of the San Francisco Art Commission. She received formal art training during the 1930's through the government sponsored WPA program. Guttmann's work of that period hangs in the Smithsonian Institute, and her subsequent career is documented in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. From the early 1940's until her death in 1990, Ms. Weiner Guttmann was a contributor to the Bay Area Figurative Art movement as an accomplished artist and as an influential arts educator. She taught for over 40 years at City College of San Francisco's Adult Education program. Her students included Zero Mostel, Charles Griffin Farr, William Wolff, Byron Randall, Robert McChesney, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Erle Loran, Chairman of the Art Department at the University of California at Berkeley was an exponent of the "Berkeley School" of painting, a style which stressed abstract linear and textural qualities. Loran wrote of Ethel Weiner in the February 1950 edition of "Art News" that she "is a painter of honesty, originality and maturity." Alfred Frankenstein, the long-time art and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, described Ms. Weiner Guttmann as "a Matisse with a conscience". Poet George Hitchcock, writing for the San Francisco Review in December, 1940 opined that Ms. Weiner Guttmann "continues to stand head and shoulders above most Bay Area painters."