Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe
On ViewModern Art Oxford
Citizen of the Universe
May 28 – August 21, 2022
The exhibition is organized in partnership with Stavanger Art Museum, Norway, where it will be on display from October 1, 2022–January 22, 2023.
While reaching for the little boats in a fishpond, Ruth Asawa fell into the water. She was only five or six years old, but this gesture of the extended hand, a poignant image indicative of her legacy—her community work, arts advocacy, the many commissioned public artworks she made with children around California using her “Baker’s Clay Recipe” of easily-accessible kitchen ingredients—became her life’s work.
In Citizen of the Universe, the artist’s first public solo exhibition in Europe, Modern Art Oxford (MAO) presents Asawa’s work, all of her work—art, family, and community—in tandem, akin to her lived life. Tracing this pioneering, modernist master’s evolution is a great undertaking, due in part to the logistical difficulty of transporting her signature wire sculptures. Suspended from the ceiling in various configurations above white plinths, the volumetric forms cast replicating shadows, self-similar fractals. Asawa’s larger looped, cast, and tied wire hanging sculptures enter into a portentous ecosystem in the upper galleries, neither swaying nor entirely still amidst drawings, letters, works on paper, and smaller wire forms such as freestanding, electroplated, tied-wire works that were soaked in acid to mimic the surface of algae growing on trees, or Untitled (S. 307, Wall-Mounted Tied-Wire, Closed-Center, Five-Petaled Form Based on Nature). “Based on Nature” is a common parenthetical in the artist’s titles, her interest aroused by “observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering [her] garden.”
Organic forms proliferate her oeuvre, perhaps unsurprising for a child who grew up working on her family’s rural farm while attending calligraphy and origami lessons at the Japanese Cultural School. The oil and watercolor works on paper, such as Untitled (BMC.66, Stem with Leaves: “Background” Painting) (ca. 1948–49), display her affinity for meticulous repetition as a mode of demarcating negative space to create the illusion of tangible form. She learned to draw observationally, producing “whatever was in season,” first under the tutelage of Tom Okamoto, James Tanaka, and Chris Ishii, Walt Disney animators and fellow internees of Japanese ancestry, forcibly relocated to the same US concentration camp during World War II. After her eighteen-month incarceration in Santa Anita racetrack and the Rohwer camp in Arkansas, she attended Black Mountain College from 1946 to 1949, where renowned faculty artists Josef and Anni Albers, and the esteemed mathematician Max Dehn, had just emigrated, fleeing Germany. Josef Albers tasked students with making two-dimensional forms such as paper and wire into three-dimensional shapes, without cutting or sticking the material. The understanding of a material’s innate properties is reflected in Asawa’s untitled paperfold, resting on a circular white plinth at the center of the gallery, a study for Origami Fountain (1999), commissioned by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Photographs of her daughters, Addie and Aiko, and a San Francisco School of the Arts dancer performing with the paperfold study embody the artist’s inextricable linking of life with art and art with life.
Black Mountain College was a pedagogical, liberal arts education experiment that aimed to erase racial, social, and disciplinary borders. Here her interest in geometric abstraction grew, influenced by the Bauhaus, Constructivist, mathematical, and biological modes of thinking. Asawa’s math notebook shows a particular focus on descriptive geometry, littered with drawings of interlocking forms within forms, notes on geodetic lines, trefoil knots, and curious poeticisms such as “Weight of body diminished by the volume of water displaced,” and “CENTER of GRAVITY.”1 Her own gravity-defying wire sculptures, fragile and emulating a false weightlessness, elegantly obscure her laborious working methods—Asawa’s hands were often brutally slashed by the wire. In her 1948 letter to future husband Albert Lanier, on display in the gallery, she writes,
My sister insists on my waiting [to marry]. They dare to be tolerant, for we have all suffered intolerance innocently. I no longer want to nurse such wounds; I now want to wrap fingers cut by aluminum shavings, and hands scratched by wire; Only these things produce tolerable pains. You will have to look at me on streetcars or the bus when you hear someone shout ‘dirty Jap’. I hope we never have to experience it, but expect it, but do not fear it. I’ve overcome most of the fear… This attitude has forced me to become a citizen of the universe, by which I grow infinitely smaller, than if I belonged to a family, or province, or race.
Initiating a rebirth, art handling instructions for the biomorphic vessels note cradling the neck(s), like newborns. Resembling a snake that has shed its skin, Asawa’s amorphous, chainmail forms repeat with no return, generating shape and shadow to yield new meaning when viewed from new points of entry.
Orientalizing critique of her work abounded, but Asawa deftly maneuvered her system of wide-ranging references. Inspired by mathematics, nature, and the Möbius strip, a non-orientable surface, she developed a vocabulary of transparency to ensure her wire works fluidly oscillate between inside and outside. In an interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, she notes, “I like the steps that one gets from merely planting a seed…I’m curious to know where it will take me…it may be something very different from anything you ever imagined.”2 She spoke of the enjoyment of closing her open-faced wire baskets, turning them into “fruits” instead, from function to form. Just as scholar Naoki Sakai notes, that “traumatic intensity cannot be lived collectively,” and any effort to universalize it only universalizes the subject and “transform[s] them into a subject of historical narrative,” similarly, the effort to ascribe to and wring collective historical meaning from the fruits of her labor, like pulp, is antithetical to the work itself, which holds power precisely due to its strange, corporal ambiguity.3 Asawa’s lessons from her childhood calligraphy classes are apt reminders to “look at the space that we don’t touch,” and that “what we don’t do is as important as what we do do.”4 There are things that cannot be asserted because to do so would destroy its placement in history under the sign of absence.
The sculptures ask of us a different kind of labor—to stand in the liminal space between opus opera-tum and modus operandi, the worked work and the working mode. Asawa’s tied wire sculptures are, by parenthetical title and description, finished, tied off, enclosed—yet their shadows replicate the form in Asawa’s working mode, regenerating endlessly. The rows of wire on both the sculptures themselves and their shadows seem identical, and follow one another sequentially with a natural, almost inexhaustible flow, like quiet ripples in a fishpond.
- Asawa, Ruth, “Dehn class notes,” Stanford University Libraries Special Collections, box 174, folder 15, 1947-1948, n.p. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/sm735zd2382
- “Oral History Interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian Institution. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222.
- Sakai, Naoki, “Death and Poetic Language in Postwar Japan,” Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism. University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 179.
Harris, Mary Emma, “3. Black Mountain College,” The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 51.