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Black Mountain College was not Ruth Asawa’s first choice. Determined to be an art teacher, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College from 1943 to ’46. She chose Milwaukee because it was the cheapest college in the catalog she consulted while she and her family were interned in the Rohwer Relocation Center, in Rohwer, Arkansas. However, when she learned that her fourth year was going to be devoted to practice teaching, and that no school in Wisconsin would hire someone who was Japanese, she decided to go to art school. The war might have been over, and the Japanese defeated, but the racism it engendered was still officially in place.
This is perhaps why she and her sister Lois took a bus trip to Mexico City, where she enrolled in a newly formed art school, La Escuela Nacional de Pintura y Escultura La Esmeralda. She also enrolled at the University of Mexico, where she took a class with Clara Porset, an innovative furniture designer from Cuba who had been at Black Mountain College in 1934 and studied with Albers. Through the influence of Porset, as well as that of Asawa’s friend Elaine Schmitt, whom she had met at the end of her freshman year in Milwaukee, Black Mountain College and Josef Albers emerged as a viable American option — a small, relatively isolated environment where she had at least one friend, Schmitt.
Asawa was 20 years old when she and her sister arrived at Black Mountain in the summer of 1946. On the way there, at a stop in Missouri, they did not know whether to use the “colored” or “whites only” bathroom. Like other Asians living in America at that time (and even now), she was both visible and invisible, not always knowing which way she would be regarded.
I thought about the road that Asawa took to Black Mountain College on her way to becoming an artist when I went to the exhibition Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner (September 13–October 21, 2017), her first with this gallery, which now represents her estate. Asawa — whose work was included in the traveling exhibition, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, organized by Helen Molesworth — is the latest postwar American artist to be rediscovered by an establishment still waking up to its racist and sexist biases.
In the summer of 1947, Asawa returned to Mexico and worked as a volunteer teacher in the town of Toluca. While she was there, she learned about the crochet loop, which the locals used to make wire baskets. The act of making a loop, or bundling wires together and tying them with a knot, is central to her work. The loop, done in profuse repetition, gave her the freedom to make a range of transparent forms and to contain other transparent forms within them. Many of these works she suspended from the ceiling. Conceivably they could grow to any size, limited only by the dimensions of the room in which they were suspended. There are a number of works done in this way in the exhibition, spheres and cones and teardrop shapes, often with another shape suspended within. I was reminded of soap bubbles stretching but not dispersing, of a form changing slowly and inevitably as it descended from the ceiling.
Made of woven wire, the sculptures oscillate between solidity and dematerialization, which is underscored by the shadows they cast. I think this aspect of the work should have been dramatized more. The strongest works are the ones made of a number of what artist called “lobes” and forms suspended within forms. When she weaves a wire sphere within a larger, similarly shaped form, it evokes a woman’s body, an abstract figure with a womb.
The sculptures with an hourglass shape underscore this association. But this connection can be extended further. In some of Asawa’s sculptures, an elongated tubular form periodically swells into a globular structure with a small spherical form cocooned inside. It is as if these are models for cells undergoing a transformation, generative organisms giving birth to a similar being. At the same time, because they are suspended, gravity is registered as an inescapable and relentless force, an invisible presence manifesting itself on the very structure of the sculpture’s body.
Through the act of weaving the artist has transformed wire — an industrial material — into a cellular structure, something both microscopic and organic. Paradoxically, the structure is a kind of armor, at once protective and vulnerable, with inside and outside visible at the same time.
In other classes of sculptures, of which there are fewer examples, Asawa bundled together wires, which she tied with a knot. These spiky constructions — which are like abstract root systems — were inspired by nature, as were the artworks Asawa made while a student at Black Mountain: small oil paintings on paper, a potato print, a work in ink on paper made with a BMC (Black Mountain College) laundry stamp.
These pieces are complemented by archival materials and vintage photographs of her and of her works taken by Imogen Cunningham. The presentation is beautiful and clean, which made me happy and yet bugged. The wall text at the entrance to the show cited the difficulties Asawa encountered because she was a “woman of color,” which to my mind dilutes what happened.
In all of the work, a simple action or form is repeated. Asawa took this lesson and made it into something altogether unique in postwar sculpture. She does not weld or fabricate. There is nothing macho about her work. Rather, she weaves; her practice, gender, and race cast a shadow over her initial reception in the 1950s in New York, when she had shows at the Peridot Gallery in 1954, ’56, and ‘58. She was a woman of Japanese ancestry making art in the years after World War II, which was a double whammy. In the Time magazine review of her first show at Peridot, the writer paired her exhibition with one by Isamu Noguchi. That same writer identified her as a “San Francisco housewife.” The Art News review of her 1956 show by Eleanor C. Munro characterized her this way:
These are “domestic” sculptures in a feminine, handiwork mode — small and light and unobtrusive for home decoration, not meant, as is much contemporary sculpture, to be hoisted by cranes, carted by vans and installed on mountainsides.
Looking at this exhibition, and thinking about Asawas’ persistence and generosity, I realized why Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has often bothered me. In that poem, read by nearly all American schoolchildren, the poet talks about taking the road “less traveled.” That is all fine and dandy if you have that choice. Asawa did not. More than once, she had to make a road where there was none. She was a pioneer out of necessity.
Ruth Asawa continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 21.