Writes ofIn Ruth Asawa’s first solo exhibition in New York in 1954, the critic Parker Tyler described her sculptures as an invitation to the viewer “to be still as they are, or to tremble when they tremble”. He responded to what had become their trademark: biomorphic shapes woven from industrial wire, hanging from the ceiling like lanterns. The first of these, on view at the Modern Art Oxford retrospective (until August 21st), is the Bronchial Untitled p.052, was manufactured in 1965, the year MAO opened. It hangs at the top of the stairs to the main gallery; A further 18 wire sculptures hang inside, some large and close together, like clouds of towering poppies, while others – smaller, more spiky – float alone.
Asawa first experimented with wire shapes in the summer of 1947 after watching a Mexican artisan in Toluca make baskets for storing eggs. She liked the simplicity of the ribbon cord, and wire was cheap and plentiful in a time when art materials were scarce. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan, and Asawa was born (as Aiko) in Norwalk, California, in 1926, the fourth of seven children. They worked on the family farm every day after school, growing vegetables to sell at the local market.
Their lives were turned upside down in February 1942 when Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. (The word “internment” is common but misleading, since two-thirds of those detained were US citizens like Asawa, and none were convicted of espionage or sabotage.) FBI agents arrested her father, Umakichi, who was sent to New Mexico; In April, Asawa was taken to Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, just outside of LA, along with her mother and five of her siblings, where they were housed in converted stables. “The smell of horse manure never left the place,” she later wrote. The curators of the MAO show draw attention to this difficult time in the second room of the exhibition, which contains a May 1942 poster with “Instructions to all persons of Japanese descent” to report to a civilian control station and a display case with Asawa’s moving ID card authority with a photo of her at the age of seventeen. The camp was also the site of an unlikely initiation. Among the other detainees were three Disney illustrators – Tom Okamoto, Ben Tanaka and Chris Ishii – who taught art in the grandstands of the old racetrack.
These courses inspired Asawa to apply to Milwaukee State Teachers’ College, and in 1943 she received leave of absence from the War Relocation Authority to train as an art teacher. She left without a degree after being told that she could not complete her graduate internship due to anti-Japanese sentiment. A fellow student, Elaine Schmitt, encouraged Asawa to join her at Black Mountain College, where she spent the summer of 1946 and secured a scholarship for three more years. The college’s experimental environment provided “enough stimulation,” she later wrote, “for the rest of my life.” It also got her a boy from Georgia named Albert Lanier, who came with the GI Bill to study architecture in the fall of 1947 and proposed to her within a year.
Asawa and Lanier decided to settle in San Francisco in 1949 after hearing that you could get a five-course Italian meal in North Beach for 75 cents (which turned out to be wrong). Albert got a job at an architecture firm and they had six children in nine years – Xavier, Aiko, Hudson, Adam, Addie and Paul. Asawa found a way to collaborate with them, as illustrated by photographer Imogen Cunningham in a series of portraits. The two women had been introduced by Cunningham’s son Rondall in 1950 and remained friends and collaborators until her death in 1976. In a 1957 image, Cunningham shows Asawa engrossed in her work while her children play around her – one of her sons crouching on a table, his head bowed to eagerly imitate his mother, while two older children stand beside her to sit on the ground. A naked baby feeds from a milk bottle. Two towering sculptures partially obscure the family scene.
“I like to be surprised by a nectarine that isn’t a nectarine anymore,” Asawa said of her attraction to certain organic forms. “I like it when nectarine and apricot are put together.” She had happy memories of her childhood on the farm. The final room of the exhibition reflects Black Mountain’s multidisciplinary ethos and features their drawings, paintings, prints and designs. Natural forms rendered in one medium often flow into another: the skeleton of a desert plant given to her by a friend resulted in a spiky wall-mounted ‘binding wire’ sculpture, a simplified work in ink on paper and a large scale mosaic for a public commission.
Asawa’s fascination with natural geometries was influenced in part by Buckminster Fuller, who came to the Black Mountain faculty in 1948 with, as she put it, “his magical world of mathematical models in an aluminum pendant.” Asawa took his architecture and industrial engineering classes and watched him build the first of his geodesic domes (he liked to suspend students from the ceiling to demonstrate their resilience). Her most complex wire constructions, such as the untitled seven-lobed sculpture in MAO’s first room, which she gave to Fuller in 1961, she viewed as a sculptural expression of his belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of life on “Spaceship Earth”.
citizens of the universe is the first museum exhibition of Asawa’s work outside the US (she will be traveling to Norway’s Stavanger Art Museum this fall), but it has not been neglected at home. A print she created with cascading lines of “BMC” laundry stamps became the cover of the official Black Mountain brochure in 1949 and later became a fabric and wallpaper design. she exhibited throughout her life, with her first museum exhibition in 1960 and her first retrospective in 1973; and the first edition of art forum claimed that her “economically valued works are certainly among the most original and satisfying new sculptures to have come about in the western United States”. In 1982, San Francisco instituted a “Ruth Asawa Day.”
However, when her work was admired, it was sometimes at the expense of her philosophy. Asawa’s statements about the therapeutic nature of art-making are usually glossed over by curators, as is the closeness of her work to traditional crafts. In contrast, the MAO show grounds the sculptures in their broader practice and principles. She didn’t see herself as an activist – although she was involved in many campaigns, she preferred to “work on an idea”, but the serenity of her works should not be enjoyed at a distance from their creation. In 1963, while visiting C&M Plating Works (the company that cleaned and oxidized her sculptures), Asawa noticed the encrusted copper rods used to remove tiny bumps from car bumpers. She asked if it would be possible to reverse the electroplating process to allow new growth to appear on her copper wire sculptures. The coaters agreed, and the idea resulted in a short series (small examples are included in the exhibition) that reflect their enthusiasm for the process and the calligraphic power of their ideas, ranging from dry cacti and chrome bumpers to masterful, haunted sculptures pass.