With its precise and methodical execution, Ruth Asawa’s Untitled (S.387, Hanging Three Separate Layers of Three-Lobed Forms) is an elegant example of the artist’s celebrated wire sculptures. An ethereal concatenation of copper and brass wire, the present work features three discrete layers of three-lobed forms woven by the artist’s disciplined hands. The exterior layer encloses two interior layers much like a translucent cocoon, affording a ghostly, yet salient presence to the space in which it hangs; elegant and sensuous, Untitled (S.387) appears to levitate. Though Asawa used the same simple wire loop to develop her otherworldly, sinuous forms, each is incredibly unique—a trace of the artist’s careful thoughtfulness and openness to form. “All my wire sculptures come from the same loop,” Asawa has said. “And there’s only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape. That shape comes out working with the wire. You don’t think ahead of time, this is what I want. You work on it as you go along” (R. Asawa, quoted in J. Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life,” The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 16). Asawa’s explanation of her process reflects a profound understanding of her own life’s path.
Asawa was born in 1926 to Japanese immigrants in Norwalk, California. Growing up, she and her siblings would assist their parents with day-to-day tasks on the farmland they rented, and it was perhaps during this time that she first developed a curiosity for wire as a medium: “I used to unwind the wire tags that labeled the crates of vegetables and took fine brass and steel wires and braided and twisted them together to make bracelets, rings, and figures” (R. Asawa, quoted in T. Schenkenberg, “Life’s Work,” in Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, exh. cat., Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2019, p. 14). Their assiduous, yet happy life changed in 1941 when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Asawa’s father was arrested by the FBI and sent to an internment camp in New Mexico, while the rest of the family were interned in the Rohwer War Relocation Center. During her incarcerated eighteen months, Asawa honed her drawing abilities, eventually earning a scholarship to attend a college in Milwaukee, effectively leaving behind her past to look towards the future. Later, Asawa reflected “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am” (R. Asawa, via www.ruthasawa.com).
In 1946, Asawa traveled to North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, the legendary American descendent of Berlin’s shuttered Bauhaus. Invigorated by her teachers and peers, she obtained a scholarship for three additional years and learned from the college’s illustrious faculty, including Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller. The college is remembered now for its communal spirit and innovative curriculum, and it emboldened Asawa to articulate a unique visual language premised on economy of form and increasingly modern design. After traveling to Mexico one summer during her studies, she became fascinated by wire baskets designed to hold eggs and learned to work with the same unique material. Back at Black Mountain, she developed her craft into an extension of her two-dimensional practice, “I had no intentions of going into sculpture,” she said, “but found that sculpture was just an extension of drawing… I’m primarily intrigued with… bringing another personality to wire, which is, I think, an extension of the thinking that Albers tried to teach us” (R. Asawa, quoted in T. Schenkenberg, “Life’s Work,” in Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, exh. cat., Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2019, p. 16).
Untitled (S.387) was executed during a fertile period for the artist, having advanced from her early iterations which emulated the simplicity of the baskets she saw in Mexico. By the mid-1950s, during the period when this sculpture was created, Asawa began to engage with more complicated structural methods and different mediums of wire. The present work utilizes three types of metal—copper, brass and enameled copper—to achieve various depths and color. Its parenthetical title, “Hanging Three Separate Layers of Three-Lobed Forms” perhaps best describes the exact structures wherein Asawa elaborately created three discrete layers to intrigue and excite the viewer. In iconic photographs captured by the photographer, Imogen Cunningham, Asawa can be seen working on her sculptures, but surrounded by her curious children and serene sculptures. In one photograph, the artist sits on the floor, hunched over a work-in-progress while her young ones are at play.
Asawa's meticulous and disciplined process is one of labor, memory, and love. Harkening back to her childhood working on the farm, the artist’s laborious and repetitive expression in wire became her signature practice. “What I was excited by was I could make a shape that was inside and outside at the same time,” Asawa once said (R. Asawa, quoted in K. Higa, “Inside and Outside at the Same Time,” in The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, 2006, p. 30). Her practice, in turn, became a seamless part of her life with her family surrounding her in her home with her art and world coexisting together, inside and out.