For acclaimed modernist sculptor Ruth Asawa, art and family were intrinsically meshed together.
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A lot of Ruth Asawa’s work was made while people were sleeping. A mother of six, raising her children in San Francisco, Asawa used any spare time she could find to make art, often working at night or very early in the morning. Widely known for her wire sculptures and more locally for her public art works and fountains, the artist produced an enormous body of work—sculptures, drawings, paintings, prints, clay objects, life masks, even full body casts—in her home, surrounded by her family. “She never wasted a second while she was awake,” says her daughter and second-oldest child, Aiko Cuneo. “She was drawing, cooking dinner, making something, gardening—I think this was because of her farming roots. I was there when she was doing all these things, and I don’t know how she did it!” Asawa’s work conveys a strong sense of immediacy—not in the temporal sense, but rather spatially—the way her forms intermingle so closely, each knot depending on every other knot, and how close her output is to every part of her life, her family, and her story.
Asawa was raised on a farm by Japanese immigrants in Norwalk, Calif., and early on equated hard work and dedication with results. Her upbringing shaped Asawa’s work process and artistic philosophy, as well as her mindset during her art education, which took place at Black Mountain College—the Bauhaus-esque communal art school in North Carolina that Asawa attended between 1946 and 49. “[My parents] taught us how to be good workers regardless of how we felt about anything. So we learned primarily to work,” said Asawa in an interview she taped for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 2002, 11 years before her death. “That’s what was the thing at Black Mountain that helped me because I was a good worker and they needed workers, because most people were idea people, and I could scrub floors or I could do menial work.” The fiercely experimental school, which counts Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Asawa’s husband, the architect Albert Lanier, among its alumni, was as financially poor as it was creatively rich, depending on students to maintain it.
Black Mountain was founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and other former faculty members of Rollins College in Florida. By the mid-’40s when Asawa was attending, many of the school’s supplies were war surplus materials and many of its teachers were refugee scholars who had fled Hitler. Recalled Lanier in the same Smithsonian session, “They would rather teach at a place like Black Mountain College for $50 a month than not teach at all. So we benefited greatly, that they were here.”
Black Mountain was the not the first time Asawa learned from artists displaced by war. Her family, along with around 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were placed in internment camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. First they were held at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., where she learned drawing from some animators who had worked for Disney and were also interned there. Then she was relocated to a camp in Arkansas. She left the camps in 1943, at the age of 17, after a Quaker organization arranged for her to go to teacher’s college in Wisconsin. Though trained as an art teacher, as a Japanese-American Asawa couldn’t expect to get a teaching job, so instead she decided to continue studying art at Black Mountain with teachers such as Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham.
With an atmosphere of self-reliance—if a student needed a chair for his or her room, he or she had to go to the woodshop and make it—Black Mountain also encouraged students to use whichever materials they could find, often natural materials from the grounds, to make their work. “[The administration] was experimenting and we were also experimenting at the time. And we were so poor that we were taking materials that were around us and using leaves and rocks and things that were natural rather than having good paper and good materials that we bought,” said Asawa. “We had to scrounge around with things that were around us. And I think that was very good for us.” And with self-sufficiency and spontaneity came freedom. “It was like they gave you permission to do anything you wanted to do. And then if it didn’t fit they’d make a category for you.”
Asawa experimented with a vast variety of materials at Black Mountain and after, but she eventually arrived at her signature technique of knotting and weaving wire to form organic, sculptural forms. Asawa recalled seeing the abstract wire and plaster sculpture of Peter Grippe, who visited Black Mountain. She was impressed by his work with wire, but as soon as he added plaster, she didn’t like how his pieces “became solid.” While her work with wire at Black Mountain and her encounter with Grippe were influential, it was actually during a visit to a Quaker village in Mexico in the summer of 1947 that Asawa learned to knit with wire.
Albers, Asawa’s mentor at Black Mountain, summered in Mexico City and along with his wife Anni took Asawa to the town of Chapingo to see Diego Rivera murals and to study Mexican housing with Clarita Porset, who had been thrown out of Cuba by the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Albers’ influence on Asawa cannot be underplayed. When asked if her mother spoke of her time studying with Albers, Cuneo exclaimed, “Oh yeah! He was her greatest mentor and teacher—not just in art, but in life.” Albers, who had dissuaded other students from having children, famously told Asawa what he often said about painting flowers: “Make sure they’re yours.”
When Asawa transitioned from Black Mountain to raising her children in California, Albers’ emphasis on experimenting with everyday, readily available materials did not fall by the wayside. Throughout the ’50s, Asawa began to develop the forms and lines that would make up her signature sculptures. Maintaining transparency and openness—unlike Grippe’s solid approach—she wove iron, copper, and brass wire forms that she considered to be three-dimensional drawings. As in a drawing, Asawa placed emphasis on the long, interwoven lines that formed the body of the sculptures. “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,” she said. “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.” The swollen, hourglass shapes of Asawa’s works came in part from lines and patterns she used to draw with her feet in the sand, sitting on the back of the leveler used to irrigate her family’s farm when she was a child. Asawa, an avid gardener, took a lot of inspiration from natural forms. “A friend gave her a desert plant, and she tried to draw it, but she was having a hard time,” explains Cuneo. “But then she tried with wire, and that was her first tied wire sculpture. We still have the desert plant.”
Cuneo and her siblings spent a lot of time watching their mother’s process—experimenting and finding new materials. Cuneo recalls visiting C & M Plating Works, where Asawa brought pieces to be electroplated—a process that made the copper ends of her sculptures become bulbous and full-looking. “They got such a kick out of her there because she was this five-foot-tall woman with all these kids in tow, and they were used to men coming in to get their car bumpers plated,” says Cuneo. “She would bring in sculptures to be dipped, to plate them or coat them. I don’t think they ever charged her, but she would give them little sculptures.”
Always earthy, at times natal or womb-like, her work is intrinsically tied to her life as a mother and gardener. However, it is not, as was suggested by ArtNews in 1956, “domestic.” The magazine’s description of the sculptures as “in a feminine handiwork mode” reduces them to a series of minor tasks performed simply to accomplish a larger chore. In reality the grace and avant-garde qualities of the sculptures, which themselves carve into space, and create unique diffusions of shadow and light depending on where they’re hung, seem both deeply rooted in process and completely unmade, as if they were found in a cave or hanging from a rainforest canopy. Though they are a product of “craft,” they are perhaps one of the best examples in 20th-century American art of craft that is not in opposition to fine art, but rather an essential part of its canon. “Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art—that is a definition that people put on things. And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use,” Asawa said, “and I think that is important, that you take an ordinary material like wire and you make it, you give it a new definition. That’s all.”
Asawa had her first gallery show in 1954 at Peridot Gallery in New York, which five years earlier had given Louise Bourgeois her first solo sculpture show. In 1955 she showed work in the Whitney Museum’s then yearly survey of contemporary art and the São Paulo Art Biennial. Put off by the business of art, Asawa showed in galleries only sporadically, eventually choosing instead to work on public projects as a means to get her work seen, to the point that she became known as the “fountain lady.” In 1968, she created a figurative sculptural group for a fountain in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, with a mermaid motif, including a “merbaby” being nursed, with frogs, turtles, and splashing water. In 1973 Asawa had a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), where she insisted on including a public program that let parents and children create clay figures that were hung up on a board. In an exhibition titled “Completing the Circle,” which showed at the Fresno Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California in 2001 and 2002, Asawa insisted that there be a piece made by each one of her children and grandchildren included.
In 2006, a retrospective at the de Young in San Francisco brought her work back to public consciousness and raised her prices at auction as well. At a sale at Wright in Chicago in June 2012, Untitled (Continuous Form Within a Form), 1952, went for $98,500. Untitled (Continuous Form Within a Form), a work made between 1965 and 1969, which had a high estimate of $180,000, went for $578,500 four months later at Christie’s. In May 2013, just a few months before the artist died, Christie’s staged a month-long exhibition of her work. “Ruth Asawa: Objects & Apparitions,” a 48-piece exhibition, was the artist’s first in New York in 50-some years. On March 15, 2013, at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art day sale, which was contemporaneous with the exhibition, Untitled S.566 (Hanging Five-lobed Continuous Form with Spheres Inside Each Lobe, Four of the Inside Lobes Contain Spheres Within Them),1954, sold for $1,025,000, tripling its low estimate of $300,000. During Christie’s evening sale the same day, Untitled (S.108, Hanging, Six-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form Within a Form), a sculpture from the late ’60s, set Asawa’s current auction record, $1,443,750. Most recently, the record was nearly tied by Untitled S.437 (Hanging, Seven-lobed, Two-Part Continuous Form within a Form with Two Small Spheres), 1956, which sold for $1,430,000 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on February 23, 2014.
However, of a different sort of value was the artist’s work with students in San Francisco schools. Asawa’s observations of her children’s arts education and her own experiences with informal and unorthodox education helped form her dedication to teaching children the arts. Her philosophy of teaching was not unlike that of her art making—it is essential to learn by doing. In 2010, the San Francisco School of the Arts, a school which Asawa was instrumental in developing, was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.