In a 1952 photograph, Ruth Asawa, hands on hips, stares straight at the camera, with one of her looped-wire sculptures, resembling a kind of chain-mail armor, hanging before her. While Asawa and her work are the subject, the image nonetheless hints at the rich creative exchange that occurred within her network of artists and friends: the photograph was taken by her longtime friend and neighbor Imogen Cunningham, while the black stone ring on her finger was a wedding gift designed by her Black Mountain College mentor Buckminster Fuller. The print was one of many vitrine-bound archival documents presented in the recent exhibition of Asawa’s work at David Zwirner. The version of Asawa that Cunningham portrayed—matter-of-fact, assiduous, and propelled in equal parts by her early influences and her own creativity—came through clearly in the show, which offered a historically nuanced view that challenged tendencies to interpret her work through her identity as a female artist of color.
An early work on paper that opened the exhibition, Untitled (BMC.76, BMC laundry stamp), ca. 1948–49, demonstrated the process-based operations that Asawa pursued throughout her almost seven-decade career: the repetition of a movement of the hand, and the continual superimposition or interweaving of the same forms. Pressing the paper with a stamp borrowed from the Black Mountain laundry facility that she managed in 1948, Asawa created an allover veil of black ink in which the BMC monogram repeats in careful stacks so that its outer characters barely overlap—or else nearly touch—those in an adjacent column. Serving as a two-dimensional exploration of the interlocking quality of the looped-wire sculptures Asawa began the same year, the work, with its wobbly V-shaped negative spaces, also evinces her preoccupation with transparency.
In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, Asawa encountered artists weaving wire baskets in Toluca, Mexico, where she was volunteering as an art teacher. She took the technique straight back to Black Mountain and made it her own, first through baskets and then, by 1949, through suspended sculptures, twenty-six of which were on view at Zwirner. To create one of the sculptures, Asawa would work with taped fingers and a dowel, looping wire in a string of “e” forms and gradually building up transparent pendants that emphasize line over solid plane and generate spatial interplays between inside and outside. The show foregrounded the biomorphic “form within a form” pieces Asawa made between the 1950s and the 1990s; for each of these, she created a series of nested bulbous shapes using a continuous line of wire. A group of them hung over a white, asymmetrical figure-eight-shaped platform in the main gallery; to walk around the installation was to notice the variations within and between the hanging sculptures, in the warmth of the wire’s tonality, or the slight divergences in girth from one loop to the next. In addition to this style of sculpture, several works from other formally distinct groups—single diminutive spheres, interlocked cones, or tied-wire branches—were on view, hinting at the breadth of the artist’s formal investigations.
Since Asawa’s death, in 2013, several high-profile group exhibitions have argued for her inclusion in a revised art historical canon, framing her work within histories of Black Mountain (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston), women abstractionists (Museum of Modern Art, New York), women sculptors (Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles), and American art (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Although there is overlap in these shows’ subject matter, the suitability of her work to numerous revisionist narratives speaks to the richness of her practice and its import to art history writ large.