"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” Ruth Asawa
In 1962, Asawa began tying wire to create sculptures like Untitled, S.771. As she explained: “A friend of ours brought a desert plant from Death Valley and said, ‘Here’s something for you to draw.’ I tried to draw it, but it was such a tangle that I had to construct it in wire in order to draw it. And then I got the idea that I could use it as a way to work in wire” (R. Asawa, quoted at www.ruthasawa.com [accessed 9/2015]).
For most of the 1960s and 1970s Asawa’s imagery tended toward naturalistic, botanical, arboreal configurations and motifs. In addition to her looped wire forms, she began tying, bunching and bending strands of wire to achieve a new dimension of abstract and geometric forms. In Untitled, S.771, the five-branched form has a closed center, which resembles the contours of a flower in which the bristle edges encircle the outer ring pointing outward toward open space.
Asawa’s art owes much to two strong influences. In particular, her three years spent training at Black Mountain College and a trip to Mexico in 1947 where she learned a basket crocheting technique from the indigenous people. It was this looping technique that she developed to make her biomorphic forms. “I was interested in it because of 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 by D. Martin, “Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87,” New York Times, August 17, 2013).
At Black Mountain College, she began working with the technique she learned in Mexico, but using wire as her main material. Her mentor, Josef Albers, strongly encouraged her to continue this innovation. At Black Mountain College, no hierarchy of mediums existed, such that weaving with wire was as legitimate an art form as painting and sculpture. Albers’ influence on Asawa cannot be understated. Robert Storr describes Albers’ Bauhaus background and influence as “a rigorous ideological example of a kind of modern formalism that eschewed romanticism in favor of full concentration of yet to be revealed possibilities inherent in materials and forms. It was a perfect jumping off point for an artist of Asawa’s intensely hands-on sensibility” (R. Storr, Ruth Asawa: Sketches of the Cosmos, p.3)
Asawa found motivation in the malleability of material. As she herself said, “I’m interested in the material and what you can do with it.” She wanted to see how far a material could take her. Wire was her material of choice—it was a particularly paradoxical medium because it was simultaneously stiff, strong and solid yet malleable, transparent and flexible. She could utilize it to serve as line—this fulfilled her desire to extend line drawings into three-dimensional space. But wire could also be woven, crocheted or knotted in such a manner that it metamorphosed from line into form, creating volumes and contours around space.
Ruth Asawa, born in California in 1926 to Japanese-American immigrant farmers, developed early on, both an intimate relationship to nature and exceptional artistic talent. She holds a unique place in 20th century art history for being the first Asian American woman in the United States to receive recognition in the 1950s for her groundbreaking formal explorations of modernist abstract sculpture. And this at a time when the art world was still primarily male-dominated, Her work appeared several times that decade at the Whitney and in 1955, at the São Paolo Biennial.