Executed circa 1953-54, Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes) is a sublime exploration of space. Like no other artist before or since, Ruth Asawa meticulously produced complex and intricate sculptures, relying on the natural integrity of her materials to realize these graceful and poetic organic forms. Made from enameled copper and brass wire, this particular example features an extraordinary seven interlocking lobes, all woven by the artist’s disciplined hands. The viewer’s eye penetrates the surface, moving between the inner and outer structures. The same year Asawa created this sculpture, the artist’s work was presented in her first solo exhibition in New York, at the Peridot Gallery, for which she was asked to contribute an artist’s statement that elucidated her creative process: “A woven mesh not unlike medieval mail. A continuous piece of wire, forms envelop inner forms, yet all forms are visible (transparent). The shadow will reveal an exact image of the object” (R. Asawa, via www.ruthasawa.com).
Originally in the illustrious collection of Blanchette H. Rockefeller, the superior quality of Untitled (S.401) was recognized immediately. B.H. Rockefeller dedicated her life to the arts and amassed a monumental art collection with a focus on Asian American art. She was also an active member of the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning in 1949, serving first on the board of trustees, and then as the president of the museum from 1972 to 1985.
To make her iconic looped-wire works like Untitled (S.401) throughout her life Asawa utilized the same technique of working with her chosen material: “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). Indeed, the present work is one of Asawa’s earlier and most complicated interrogations of interlocking forms. On sustained inspection, the enclosed layers become apparent; a result of her engagement and interest in the formal qualities of her forms, and the confluence of inside and outside. This work is a complex construction of interlocking interior and exterior parts engaging the eye, inviting the viewer to closely inspect its dazzling forms.
The origins of Asawa’s interest in process may have stemmed from her childhood growing up on her parents’ farm in rural California. Born in 1926 to Japanese immigrants, Asawa and her siblings helped their parents operate the farmstead. Retrospectively, Asawa has compared her artistic process to her upbringing: “It’s very easy in a way for me to do it because it’s out of my own past,” she said, “having worked on a farm and doing many things that were repetitive, like stringing the bean pole for beans to climb up on and picking the beans and sorting the tomatoes, picking tomatoes, sowing and planting onions and gathering them. All of these things make it very logical that I would select a way of work that would be very similar to that, only done in wire instead of plants” (R. Asawa, quoted in T. Schenkenberg, “Life’s Work,” Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, exh. cat., 2019, pp. 16 – 17). The Asawas’ predictable and humble life was interrupted in 1941 when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, resulting in widespread paranoia towards Japanese Americans. Asawa’s father was arrested by the FBI and sent to an internment camp in New Mexico, while the rest of the family was eventually interned in the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. During her eighteen-month incarceration, Asawa honed her drawing abilities, eventually earning a scholarship and electing to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College. 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).
Asawa was prevented from completing her teaching degree due to continued hostilities against Japanese Americans and in 1946, Asawa traveled to the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina for a summer session, eventually remaining for three years on scholarship. Black Mountain was becoming well-known in the arts community for its utopic, creative environment and students were invigorated by their teachers, as well as one another, resulting in an innovative curriculum. During her time at Black Mountain, Asawa’s study with renowned faculty including Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, gave her the confidence to pursue art. Albers, in particular, taught her to relish experimentation with form. After traveling to Mexico one summer during her studies, she became fascinated by wire baskets that she observed a local craftsman making and learned to work with the same unique material. Back at Black Mountain, she developed her art into an extension of her two-dimensional practice, “I had no intention 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).
After Asawa’s move to San Francisco in 1949, she would become a prolific and well-respected figure in the city’s close-knit arts community both as an artist and a staunch advocate for arts education in the city’s public schools; it was here that Dr. Gaylord Hall, a professor of dentistry and accomplished ceramicist, became acquainted with her. The two became close personal friends, enjoying the creation of their art in various settings. Asawa personally visited Dr. Hall’s home in San Francisco to assist in the installation of this work. When he moved to Lake Tahoe in 2013, Asawa’s sculpture became the heart of his new home, overlooking the breathtaking landscape and remaining the cornerstone of a collection founded on the personal relationships that Dr. Hall shared with artists.
Following her breakthrough with wire as a medium, Asawa’s exploration of the formal possibilities became limitless. She investigated the various ways in which the material moved and curved frequently revisiting and refining ideas throughout her long career. The wire had become her line, allowing her to seek new forms, variations, and iterations of this new artistic vocabulary. Untitled (S.401) is an outstanding example of this mature body of work. Its impressive scale is the result of the artist’s fascination with the endless possibilities of line and form, focusing on the process rather than the end product. “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” (R. Asawa, quoted in A. D’Souza, “Transparency and its Other,” in Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, exh. cat., Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2019, p. 46).