Ruth Asawa, Citizen of the Universe

Ruth Asawa’s Through Line explores the unconventionality of her approach to art.

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By Felipe Marin Bautista

The mention of Ruth Asawa calls to mind iconic wire sculptures resembling the division of cells—undulating organic forms interlacing, stretching, and merging with one another. Much like the cells her artwork resembles, Asawa’s distinguishable style evolved over time, slowly emerging from her artistic learning process. She first moved through mediums like collage, blocking solid color, stamping, and sketching before bending her first fiber of steel, though her work with wire became the most widely recognized. Despite constant rejection, Asawa advocated for her creative journey to be displayed just as prominently as her most acclaimed works. During her lifetime, however, her wish for her unrecognized works to be treated with the same respect was never realized. Today, her exhibition, Through Line, displays works from all stages of Asawa’s life thematically at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 15, 2024.

Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California. From a young age, she distinguished herself through her artistic abilities. When she was 16 years old, her family was forced into a World War II Japanese internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Despite this major obstacle, she kept her passion for art alive, unchanged by the barbed wire fences and watchtowers. Though internment camps were eventually abolished in March 1946, Asawa’s ambition to continue art by becoming an art teacher was greatly hindered by continued hostility towards Japanese-Americans. She went to Black Mountain College, a rurally-isolated institution with progressive ideals, in North Carolina to continue her studies.

Black Mountain College had a profound impact on Asawa’s life. Through the institution, she was encouraged to take unconventional approaches with her materials and developed her own perception of art. After a Mexican craftsman taught her how to weave an egg basket from wire in 1947, she began to experiment with the technique, which eventually evolved into the wire sculpture style she became famous for. She continued to create these coiled sculptures, many of which were made vertically.

In 1968, Asawa went on to co-found the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, a program that provided children in public schools with the opportunity to develop their artistic abilities. She continued her advocacy in the California Arts Council, where she promoted arts education. 

Though many of Asawa’s distinctive wire sculptures are not included in the Whitney exhibit, there is one that stands out from the exhibit’s predominantly two-dimensional works. Her sculpture Untitled (1955) is made of brass and steel wires and hangs from the ceiling. It is composed of six lobes with two interior spheres and appears viscous, resembling the wake of a droplet when it first makes contact with a body of water but on a massive scale. Like most of Asawa’s wire sculptures, the piece is almost six feet long and is suspended from the ceiling. The wire is knit together, forming a netlike pattern, and molded into organic spherical and elliptical shapes that envelop one another in a continuous line. The eyes naturally trail upward from the line of sight to a thin apex from which the piece is suspended.

Around one corner, there is a black wall covered with a multitude of royal blue triangles lined up to resemble the waves of an ocean. The art on this patterned wall is set apart from the surrounding white walls. This section, entitled Rhythms and Waves, explores the delicate balance of positive and negative space. The wall’s selection of works focuses on Asawa’s use of labyrinthine patterns. One of the larger pieces, Untitled (1950s), takes several small black blocks to shape seven thonet-style bentwood chairs, with two fully incorporated and the rest cut off by the paper’s borders. The work shifts between depicting the chairs through negative space (with the blank paper forming their shapes) and positive space (with blocks outlining the chairs). It is clear that Asawa’s technique is laborious, as the ink squares are evenly spaced and have their own sense of direction, elaborately weaving around the white space.. This piece was one of the many Asawa created that reflected her daily life. She often emphasized that the process of art-making, rather than the art itself, is most important.

Another drawing on display, Untitled (1961), is filled with waves of a basketweave pattern that appear to wash over one another but do not overlap. At the bottom of the paper, amidst the flowing patterns lies a baby (identified as Asawa’s youngest son, Paul Lanier, in the work’s synopsis). As a mother, Asawa often drew her six children and incorporated personal observations and experiences into her works. Her close friend Imogen Cunningham once told her, “Artist[s] can still create by observing what is around them, children, plants, and making images that can be savored when we are old.” Much of Asawa’s work was inspired by her daily life. Asawa went on to make several pieces, including Paul’s portrait, which reflects this concept. 

Asawa’s Through Line is said to be the first exhibition to capture her growth as an artist and portray Asawa in the way she wanted. Despite being best known for her intricately-woven wire sculptures, Asawa’s legacy as an artist can be fully appreciated by viewing the various other mediums and subjects she worked with over the years.

Asawa went above and beyond the boundaries of art, immersing herself in the art-making journey and pushing herself past the confines of her physical identity and the medium. She instead opted to be a citizen of the universe dedicated to “improving life through art.” As Asawa has always believed, “Art is not a series of techniques, but an approach to learning, to questioning, and to sharing.”