Earlier this month, dozens of copper structures were hung from the ceilings of David Zwirner in New York. The very material from which the wired objects are constructed from, would suggest for a cold, uninviting viewing experience. However, the sculptures rested gently like serene satellites, causing the viewer to stare in wonder.
Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was born in rural California to Japanese parents, forging a career as an artist in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time in which prejudice against Japanese citizens in the United States was high. Asawa originally studied to be a teacher in Mexico before finishing at a teachers college in North Carolina, having originally finding difficulty enrolling in university in the United States due to the hostilities towards Japanese Americans. During her time in Mexico in the 1940s, Asawa was taught how to make wire baskets by local craftsmen, namely how to loop the material and tie a not, a technique that would go on to dominate her art practice and, while there were also works on paper on display in New York, it was undoubtedly these looped wire sculptures that stole the show.
Wire, a hard, grey and inhospitable material, is unrecognizable after being touched by Asawa’s hands. The objects were suspended from up above like metallic lace, having been crafted into intricate hanging ornaments that delicately rest on air. “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,’ Asawa has been quoted as saying, ‘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.’ Thus the forms that were recently on display in New York appeared as woven vertical shapes that contain others inside of them. The cones and spheres that are repeated across the gallery engulf each other; forming interconnected structures much like very intricate, wire paper-chains. And, while the works are always monochromatic, at times, the wire has been covered in gold, capturing the light and adding another dimension of enchantment to the sculptures.
Asawa’s wired embroidery is built on repetition. In a documentary made about the artist in 1978 by Robert Snyder, she explains that the shape by itself is not very interesting, but when multiplied, it becomes much more stimulating. Thus orbs of all shapes are sizes hang off of each other, while others are built around smaller versions of themselves. Despite some quite large structures, there is an emphasis on transparency and lightness throughout Asawa’s oeuvre. The exterior sheds light on the interior, which goes on to give birth to the next form. In fact, Asawa explained that she ‘begins to work inside, then go on up’, explaining that the inside is both interior and exterior.
Besides the wire objects, a number of two-dimensional works on paper hang from the gallery walls. These are the products of Asawa’s time as a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Amongst the works an interest in geometry and primary colour is obvious immediately. Chevron patters are repeated throughout, showing shapes that engulf each other, a common motif that would later appear in her sculptures. Also on display are glimpses into the private life of Asawa. Amongst glass cases are gorgeous monochrome photographs of the artist working in her studio and posed alongside her sculptures, along with handwritten letters and notes. These photographs were taken by Imogen Cunningham and Paul Hassel and show the artist staring out defiantly at the photographer amongst a universe populated by her hanging, vertical creations. In fact, Asawa’s sculptures have a long history of being photographed, having appeared in a 1953 issue of Vogue, besides coat-clad models.
Amongst a city full of excitement, bright lights and little sleep, an exhibition that opposes the very beat of New York managed to steal the spotlight. Ruth Asawa’s spellbinding wire sculptures succeeded in bringing an atmosphere of peace and tranquility to the hectic of streets of New York City.
Ruth Asawa was on display at David Zwirner, New York 13 September – 21 October 2017