Ruth Asawa’s intricate sculptures arrive at Modern Art Oxford

In a 1957 photograph by Imogen Cunningham, a baby drinks from a bottle of milk and children play, while their mother, artist Ruth Asawa, painstakingly works on one of her winding wire sculptures. The image reveals how intertwined life and art were for the San Francisco-based artist, who set up her studio in the family home where she raised six children. “Art deals directly with life,” she said, and studying it means “learning the basic principles essential to staying alive.”

Asawa’s lifelong commitment to art, both as an artist and a passionate advocate for the role of art in education and society at large, is the “key” that runs through Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe, the first institutional personal exhibition devoted to his work in Europe, specifies his co-curator Emma Ridgway. The exhibition opens this week at Modern Art Oxford and travels to the Stavanger Art Museum in Norway in October.

Imogen Cunningham’s 1957 photograph of Ruth Asawa at work on one of her wire sculptures, surrounded by four of her six children © 2022 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Asawa was born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents in rural California and grew up on the family farm during the Great Depression. The 16-year-old was among 120,000 Japanese Americans interned by the US government following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was then that she experienced the power of art education, studying drawing with Walt Disney animators who were held in the same camp. She aspired to become a teacher herself, but was told after three years of training that she could not complete the course due to her Japanese background.

I now want to wrap the severed fingers in aluminum shavings […] Only these things produce tolerable pain

Ruth Asawa

In 1946, she joined the legendary liberal arts school Black Mountain College, emerging as a “stellar student”, says Ridgway. This is where her experiments with looped yarn began, informed by the craftsmanship of basket weaving she encountered on a trip to Mexico. Her signature technique channeled the creative principles she had learned from her college mentors, Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, of understanding negative space, shaping free-standing structures, and making the most of the minimum.

from Asawa Continuous (S.340, suspended, single-lobe miniature, three-layer continuous form in one form) (1981-82) Photo: Dan Bradica; © 2021 Ruth Asawa, Lanier, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS

Asawa’s ethereal, interlocking metal forms from the 1950s and 1960s will be the centerpiece of the Modern Art Oxford exhibition, suspended in the dark main gallery and illuminated by spotlights – a display technique the artist has herself. even used. “These works are made to be experienced physically as you move through space,” says Ridgway.

Despite their imposing size, the sculptures are “extremely delicate”. This fragility means bringing Asawa’s work to Europe has been “quite complicated”, says Ridgway, given the “logistics of care involved in every aspect of the expedition” and the associated costs. Although she enjoyed early success in the New York art world, Asawa was “partly discouraged” by the practical challenges of shipping works later in her career, preferring to stay local to San Francisco.

by Ruth Asawa Untitled (BMC.92, In and Out) (circa 1948-49) Photo: Dan Bradica. Illustration © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London. Courtesy of David Zwirner

The exhibition will also highlight lesser-known aspects of her work, such as the color abstract paintings she produced at Black Mountain College, sensitive observational drawings of nature, and knotted wire sculptures inspired by desert plants. An archive room will offer “a more intimate look” into her life, including photographs of her home and artist-led studios she created in San Francisco public schools, as well as personal letters.

Here is a copy of the 1948 love letter from which the exhibition takes its title. Writing to her future husband Albert Lanier, Asawa described how she “overcame most of the fear” of racial intolerance and became a “citizen of the universe”, transcending Japanese or American labels. Announcing the uncompromising path she would later blaze as a working artist, mother and dedicated community activist, she wrote, “I no longer want to nurse such wounds, I now want to wrap severed fingers in foil shavings. and hands flayed with wire. Only these things produce tolerable pain.

Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the UniverseModern Art Oxford, 28 May-21 August; Stavanger Art MuseumOctober 1-January 22, 2023

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