A Line Can Go Anywhere - Ruth Asawa Exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
#ArtThrowback In February 2020, the “Ruth Asawa: A Line Can Go Anywhere” exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London reminded Londoners and the art world that resilience, talent, and artistry are intrinsically intertwined.
Who is Ruth Asawa?
Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was a groundbreaking Japanese-American artist. Although she started as an extremely talented painter, Asawa is best known for being a pioneering modernist sculptor of abstract forms. She gained prominence during the 1950s with her far-reaching body of intricate, sinuous, hanging wire sculptures.
Early Art Lessons in an Internment Camp
Born in Southern California in 1926 to a family of farmers, Ruth Asawa’s life changed drastically during World War II, when she was just 16 years old. As the US government feared that Japanese Americans would sabotage the country, Ruth was one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans living in the western United States who were removed from their homes and sent to internment camps.
In April 1942, Ruth, along with her mother and five siblings were taken to the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, California. They only grabbed what they could carry and were forced to live in horse stalls for five months, in a horrible horse stench that “never left the place the entire time we were there,” as the artists recalled years after.
The only silver lining of the entire camp ordeal was that she started to take art lessons straight from Walt Disney Studios’ animators who were also kept there. Also, Ruth had more spare time since she didn’t have to work long hours on the family farm anymore, so even when the Asawas were further transferred to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, she continued to practise her drawing and painting.
The internment camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences, was guarded by eight watchtowers, and was extremely crowded. The water smelled like rotten eggs and there were queues for everything, prompting Rush to recall “I think half of our time there was spent waiting in line.”
Luckily, Ruth’s incarceration lasted only eighteen months. In August 1943, the Japanese American Student Relocation Council awarded her a scholarship to attend college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The War Relocation Authority issued an ID card that permitted her to travel there and that’s how she regained her freedom.
For Ruth, the internment and losing everything at such a young age profoundly changed her perspective on life and art. Later on, in 1994, reflecting on the experience, she came to terms with those challenging years.
“I blame no one. I hold no hostilities for what happened; 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.”
Black Mountain College and Transformative Education
With a “less is more” approach to art-making, Black Mountain College was a grand, isolated experiment in progressive, truly individualized education that opened in 1933 in rural North Carolina. By welcoming students from persecuted groups and Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Europe, the aim was to create a safe environment for teachers and a sanctuary where students are responsible for their own education.
The practice of the arts at the center of the curriculum and teaching was a planned exploration of invention and discovery. For Asawa, being mentored by visionaries was transformative, because she was allowed to absorb fundamental lessons, express herself as a unique individual, and above everything, learn that her opinion mattered. Black Mountain College gave her the courage to become a real artist.
Giving Back: Arts Activism
“Learn something. Apply it. Pass it on so it’s not forgotten.”
In 1968, Asawa co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop which soon was among the 50 public schools in San Francisco. “I think that I’m primarily interested in making it possible for people to become as self-sufficient and independent as possible. That has nothing really to do with art, except that through the arts you can learn so many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem-solving in the abstract.”
“A child can learn something about design, about color, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art makes people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”
Discovering her Artistic Niche: Wire Sculpture
The famous Ruth Asawa sculpture technique was inspired by Mexican basket weaving. On a journey there, in the summer of 1947, she was fascinated by the looped-wire baskets used in markets to sell eggs and other produce.
“My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing the spiral shell of a snail, plants, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, seeing light through insect wings, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”
Looped Wire Sculpture
Often completed at home, surrounded by her six children, Asawa’s lopped wire sculptures express a unique sense of movement, grace, and transparency, alluding to her poetic narrative of life intertwining with art.
Her “twisted” artworks are suspended by the ceiling, therefore susceptible to movement, while their three-dimensional, multi-layered interior and exterior shapes invoke a sense of wonder that instantly challenges the viewer’s curiosity about how they were made.
“A continuous piece of wire, forms envelop inner forms, yet all forms are visible (transparent). The shadow reveals an exact image of the object.” Later on, she realized she had subconsciously replicated the forms she made as a young child at her parent’s farm.
“All my wire sculptures come from the same loop. And there's just one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape.” (Ruth Asawa)
Tied Wire Sculpture
Asawa created the first tied wire artwork in 1962 when a friend asked her to draw a desert plant brought from Death Valley. She found it easier to just construct it in wire instead. She was amazed at the endless “branching” possibilities and she instantly adopted this new way of working in wire without hesitation. As with most of her work, tied wire shapes and “trees” exuded the freedom to discover how “the relation between inside and outside and was integral, interdependent.”
“I am fascinated by the possibilities of transforming cold metal into shapes that emulate living organic forms.”
Asawa’s first experiments with cast forms date from the mid-1960s and reaffirmed what she learned from at Black Mountain College: “The artist must discover the uniqueness and integrity of the material.” Whether it was wax, bronze, wire, paper, persimmon stems, or baker’s clay, she didn’t hold back.
“I was interested in the wire sculpture 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 interweave and interlock, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.” (Ruth Asawa)
“The best ideas come all of a sudden from a conversation or a common activity like watering the garden. These can slip away or get lost if not acted on when they occur.” (Ruth Asawa)
To honor a lifetime of outstanding achievements in the visual arts, in 1982, February 12th was declared Ruth Asawa Day in San Francisco, and the public high school for the arts she founded is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.
To discover Ruth Asawa art for sale, Ruth Asawa prints, and Ruth Asawa books, visit www.davidzwirner.com.
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