Over the holidays I visited family in the Bay area and while there had the chance to visit the retrospective of Modernist sculptor Ruth Asawa. I was unfamiliar with Asawa before visiting the de Young, but was so impressed with her marvelous sculptures encountered there that I quickly developed a desire to learn as much as possible about the artist. Luckily, for me, the exhibition, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, has produced an excellent catalogue, published by the University of California Press. The catalogue is a marvelous companion to and expansion of the material covered in the exhibit and provides enough background, analysis and visuals to enchant even those who do not have the opportunity to see the exhibit in person (Contours in the Air has since closed in San Francisco, but will reopen at the Japanese American National Museum on March 10th).
Asawa was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who settled in California. Her family was interned during the Second World War; the mother and children were separated from their father, lost their home and were relocated to Arkansas. While in the internment camps, Asawa was allowed to study art, and when she graduated in 1943 she took advantage of the government’s offer of a one-way ticket to the (Midwest) college of her choice. For financial reasons, Asawa chose the Milwaukee State Teachers College. During her time there, she took a trip with her sister to Mexico City, where she studied art from professional artists; among them was, Clara Porset, a friend of Josef Albers, who told the young student about what Albers was doing at Black Mountain College. When Asawa returned to Milwaukee she was unable to graduate from the Teachers College because no small town in Wisconsin would hire a Japanese American — effectively barring her from fulfilling the graduating requirement of practice teaching. Because of the lack of teaching credentials and her eyes having been opened to a world of professional artists from her trip to Mexico, Asawa decided to enroll at Black Mountain College.
Black Mountain College and Asawa’s classes with Albers were extremely influential in steering the course of Asawa’s artistic career. As equally influential was a return trip to Mexico where Asawa learned a basic crochet loop from Mexican villagers. This simple and versatile process became the basis for much of Asawa’s sculptures. With the crochet loop and industrial wire, Asawa was able to create marvelous biomorphic forms, suspended in the air, that became line drawings in space; her work expanded the figure/ground issues developed by Albers into issues of interiority and exteriority.
The catalogue’s essays by Jacqueling Hoefer, Karin Higa and Mary Emma Harris all concentrate on Asawa’s life, especially her formative years and experience at Black Mountain College. The essays frequently overlap and their repetitiveness made me wonder if the reader wouldn’t have been better served by fewer authors. Thankfully, though, the essays were generally very informative and do a fine job of demonstrating how Asawa’s life as a Japanese American affected her work without turning their appreciation of the relationship to a question of some inherent “japaneseness.” Rather than an innate ethnic quality, it was the outside world’s reaction to Asawa’s ethnicity that influenced the development of her career — without the internment camps she might not have studied art at college and without her discrimination as a prospective teacher she might never have attended Black Mountain college.
Emily K. Doman Jennings essay, “Critiquing the Critique” concentrates on the early reception of Asawa’s work. This reception was based on an overemphasis of Asawa’s position as a woman and of Japanese origin. Thus her early reception relegated her to a position of an ethnic curiosity, or, because of her method, a worker of women’s craft. This critical reception did damage to the work of an artist who in retrospect was clearly a dynamic modernist artist.
Also included in the catalogue are an interview with Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier, largely concentrating on their time at Black Mountain College, as well as three essays on Asawa’s later years and her experience as an instructor and community activist.
The visuals in the catalogue are wonderful and varied, including early drawings and paintings by the artist, the plates of the works in the exhibition and photographs of Asawa’s work over the years. The exhibition plates, by Laurence Como, though excellently done, can seem flat and stale compared to some of the views of Asawa’s works as they appeared in exhibitions, permanent installations or the artist’s home (one of these latter, where more than a dozen sculptures hang suspended from the ceiling, looks like a sea of jellyfish). Daniel Cornell devotes his essay, “The Art of Space,” to the installation of Asawa’s sculpture, a very necessary examination considering that Asawa’s sculptures are not freestanding and so can only be considered in the sense of installation.
If you’re lucky enough to visit L.A. this spring, be sure to visit Asawa’s exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, but even if you aren’t, you can discover an unfortunately neglected modernist sculptor in the pages of The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air
Tony Watson is originally from Washington State but has lived most of his adult life in Utah. No one occupation has occupied his working hours but his leisure hours are spent either climbing southern Utah’s redrock country or engaging his mind with aesthetic issues.