“I was interested in…the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere”.
(D. Cornell, “The Art of Space: Ruth Asawa’s Sculptural Installations”, ex. cat., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, 2006, p.138)
Methodically woven by hand, Ruth Asawa's hanging sculpture Untitled S.080 is the artist’s very first multi-lobed continuous form within a form sculpture. An historic work that eloquently marks an important leap in the artist’s imaginings, it established the sculptural direction for which Asawa is most celebrated. At once delicate and visually arresting, this impressive hanging sculpture was created circa 1950 shortly after the artist left North Carolina’s Black Mountain College to settle in San Francisco. The city would become her lifelong home and a place she would help to influence and reshape artistically and politically for over five decades.
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 would go on to influence 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 also her sensitivity to the poetic forms of the everyday.
Asawa’s “less is more” aesthetic, long predicated by the Bauhaus first in Germany and then in America, became the basis for an art of “specific objects” that would take root in early 1960s New York through the sculpture and painting of Donald Judd, Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse. Donald Judd was still creating expressionist paintings in 1954-1956 while Asawa was already showing her mature looped wire sculptures with New York City’s Peridot Gallery. Judd’s voice was not yet fully developed, though his vision would become clear in 1963 through incredible works shown with New York’s Green Gallery. It is difficult to imagine the mature work of the Minimalist artists without considering Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky and Ruth Asawa as essential predecessors.
Ruth Asawa’s first solo exhibition was held at New York City’s Peridot Gallery in 1954, this show was followed by two additional solo exhibitions in 1956 and 1958. Peridot Gallery had a reputation for supporting art of the American avant-garde; it was the first major gallery to give solo exhibitions to both Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston in 1949 and 1952, respectively. Bourgeois left Peridot a year before Asawa was invited to join. However, if anyone could fill the void left by Bourgeois’s departure it would be Asawa whose suspended looped wire sculptures are a perfect complement to Bourgeois’ Personages.
“The crochet loop is like an e,” Asawa once said. “You begin by looping a wire around a wooden dowel, then making a string of e’s, always making the same loop. You can make different sized loops depending on the weight of the wire and the size of the dowel. You can loop tight and narrow or more open or loose. The materials are simple. You can use balling wire, copper wire, brass wire. We used whatever we had” (R. Asawa, quoted by J. Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life”, ex. cat., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, New York, 2006, p. 16).
Asawa's process and rhythmic wire loops presage the late 1950 and early 1960 Infinity Nets created by Yayoi Kusama. Though Kusama's nets were primarily graphic works on canvas, her paintings, like Asawa's sculptures, were created through the infinite repetition of a single calligraphic motion. Each artist’s creative process was an act of endurance. Asawa was literally tearing her fingers apart, fighting wire abrasions to her finger tips by taping them over, while it is rumored that Kusama would not leave a canvas for any reason until it was filled by her hand from edge to edge with her spidery “nets”.
Produced shortly after leaving Black Mountain College for San Francisco, Untitled S.080 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 preserving a sense of lightness and see-through clarity. These looped wire sculptures, with their multi-layered exterior and interior forms are akin to Albers' iconic series, Homage to the Square, which likewise depicts forms nestled within similar graduated forms. Albers began his renowned Homage paintings in near simultaneity with Asawa’s production of her signature looped wire continuous form within a form sculptures and in this way the two artists are together a dynamic pairing of creative spirits not unlike that of Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder. Each provided a challenge and a solution to similar themes of transparency and reiteration that demolish conventional limitations of expression and form.
Ruth Asawa’s sculptures are held in many private and public collections including San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Norton Simon Museum, Utah State University’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, among others.