I’m slightly embarrassed to say that, after three years of History of Art, I had never come across Ruth Asawa until now. Successful in her early years in the 1940s and 1950s as an interdisciplinary artist and continuing to gain fame as her career progressed, she doesn’t even fit the usual bill of an only recently ‘re-discovered’ female artist. Her life story is also striking – she grew up on a Californian farm and spent time detained in internment camps, as the child of two Japanese immigrants, but then found her way into the high art circles of the moment, crossing paths with the likes of Joseph Albers and others. In San Francisco, she even has her own day–apparently. Since 1982, the 12th of February has been named ‘Ruth Asawa Day’ in the city. All new to me!
The Modern Art Oxford’s Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe exhibition, which opened at the end of May, has done an excellent job at introducing her work to an unaware audience (like me); so much so that by the end of the show I was sold on the idea that such a thing as an Asawa day should exist everywhere.
The exhibition manages to find the balance between providing a space to freely experience her work, generating curiosity, and offering a framework for contextualising it as the product of an authentically lived person. Rather than distancing the works through the lens of a far-removed context, as is often done in retrospective exhibitions, viewers are given the opportunity to bring them into the present, reflecting Asawa’s vision and belief in art’s potential to act through time.
Art as a Subject
Returning to my unassuming approach to the show, I walked into the first large gallery room at the Modern Art, and my initial reaction to seeing her works was of how modern they look. Her characteristic wire sculptures hang as free forms occupying the ample vertical space, while her more compact branch-like sculptures, which break the gentle rhythm of the other curvilinear forms, are also scattered around.
Besides an initial general introductory text as one enters, the works themselves are accompanied by little individual context. Not organised in any obvious chronological manner, they draw one in through their sheer presence as forms in space. I felt physically small getting closer, but even more so as I noticed the way the shapes and overlapping shadows that are reflected onto the room’s white surfaces become dynamic, following you as you move.
I enjoyed this kind of de-historicised and formal experience–I sensed the calm and contemplative naturalism which was expressed in the general introduction. But, other than that, I was thinking less about Asawa. I was more preoccupied with thoughts concerning the presence of the works themselves: how had the sculptures gotten here, had the wires been individually hand-woven or had they been carefully shaped from a continuous sheet, were they delicate to touch or weighty and heavy? The way the space leads one into this kind of exploration of their relationship to the works in the present allows for the sculptures to take on agency as ‘art subjects’ rather than ‘objects of evidence’, perhaps a crucial difference that sets the tone for the success of the show.
Evidence, however, is not lacking if that is what you are seeking. The second gallery room provides ample information about her complex life and experimental approach. My thoughts regarding the materiality of her hanging sculptures were answered with evidenced photographs of Asawa working on them by hand, kneeling on the ground in her home. In fact, I can’t help but smile at this series of images taken by her good friend Imogen Cunningham. Surrounded by her children in some, the blending of art, hand-craft, motherhood and domesticity, as well as just the intimacy of it all makes me think–well, this is very different from Rauschenberg’s supposed exploration of the ‘space between art and life’.
Like Rauschenberg and others, we learn that Asawa had attended the experimental Black Mountain College which was known to have focused on an interdisciplinary study of the liberal arts. This is perhaps best reflected in her quote: ‘Through the arts you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem-solving in the abstract’. The handling of materials, that is, the experience of engaging with art both physically and conceptually then is seen as an act of discovery and learning.
In this vein, I sense that the small origami sculpture made of metal in this room embodies this idea perfectly. Art allowed Asawa to discover a new way of being in the world, to navigate her past and present conditions in such a powerful way that she dedicated much of her mature career advocating for art education and community engagement in the creative arts.
I don’t want to spoil it, so please go and sit and enjoy it for yourself, but the subtitled silent film tucked away in the side room is possibly the highlight of the whole exhibition for me. You can’t help but fall in love with Asawa as her personality comes to life through a series of home videos and interviews. We learn that she often worked backwards: first exploring the natural potential or inclination of a medium and then allocating a subject matter accordingly.
She often found nature to be a fitting content but, preoccupied with staying true to the forces of the medium, this is never made explicit or central. I love how there is nothing outwardly performative about her practice–it is about the internal exploration of how art can blur the boundaries between practice, form, and content. Thinking back to the first room, the ins and outs of the sculptures or their positive and negative spaces, it is all ambiguous; where does one plane end and the other begin?
More than an ‘artist’
The last gallery room of the exhibition does well to cement just how important it is not to have boxed Asawa’s practice into any one art movement or ascribed style. The variety of works in this room, from sculptures and design prints to delicate ink drawings, demonstrate that the scope of her practice doesn’t lend itself to a reductive categorisation. I think of how her work literally defies Susan Sontag’s classic criticism that we risk hindering art’s potential by concentrating on ‘interpreting’ through a search for ‘content’–this couldn’t seem less relevant for her work, and hence the decision to move the curatorial apparatus away from these traditional modes of considering past art does justice to the artistic vision and potential Asawa understood art to hold; as something active regardless of time period, situation, or identity.
Neither considering herself a ‘Japanese’ nor ‘American’ artist, but rather a ‘citizen of the universe’, the exhibition rightly mirrors her undercutting of typical categories and the sensationalisation of the artist. Perhaps we can say that she believed in art as a force for improving society more than the word ‘artist’ indicates on its own. My favourite quote of hers is: ‘Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader’.
Instead of distancing and interpreting, the exhibitions’ strength lies in the way we are invited to lean in, experience, and see the value in the special relationship Asawa cultivated with art.
If, at its core of this relationship, is the idea that creativity can be channelled for social good, then the entire exhibition takes on a tangible contemporary relevance we must embrace. Needless to say, I encourage everyone to go and see the exhibition and let themselves simply be inspired by the positive faith in art that it emanates.