Ruth Asawa: the Loop, the Wire, the Suspended line

Jenny Gheith, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A crocheted loop stitch used to make egg baskets in the town of Toluca, Mexico was the last essential component that Ruth Asawa needed to realize her most celebrated sculptural forms. It was the summer of 1947 and after Asawa visited Anni and Josef Albers on sabbatical in Mexico City, she worked with children as a volunteer art teacher. In her down time, the local craftspeople taught her their tradition of knitting with wire. Wire was not a new material for Asawa, who grew up on a farm in rural Norwalk, California and studied at the renowned, experimental school Black Mountain College,  but this specific way of manipulating it enabled her to weave together various aspects from her life and education to define a new sculptural dimension.

Repetition, order, and structure within an economy of means, pervaded Asawa’s upbringing. Raised on a truck farm during the Depression, Asawa spent long hours laboring in the fields and completing daily chores alongside her six siblings. She would later discuss the monotonous process of crocheting her sculptures in relationship to farming explaining that her art was “only done in wire instead of plants.”  She developed a strong connection to nature, and importantly, life on the farm effected Asawa’s vocabulary of shapes and forms. The organic, spherical volumes found in her large-scale hanging sculptures stem in part from the endless drawings she made with her feet in the dirt as she road on the back of farm vehicles.

On Saturdays Asawa attended a Japanese language school where she learned the aesthetic discipline needed to execute calligraphy. This distinctive writing system is marked by expressive characters, yet in Asawa’s studies order and repetition were stressed over creativity. Understanding the possibilities and variations held within a single symbol consequently impacted the expansive experimentation that Asawa sought in crocheting wire. She commented, “The crochet loop is like an e. You begin by looping a wire around a wooden dowel, then making a string of e’s, always making the same e loop. You can make different size loops depending on the weight of the wire and the size of the dowel. You can loop tight and narrow or more open and loose. The materials are simple. You can use bailing wire, cooper wire, brass wire. We used whatever we had.”  Besides focused character study, calligraphy taught Asawa the importance of the empty space around the brushstrokes and the overall sculptural environment that it created. She noted, “When you’re working in calligraphy, you’re not watching what your brush is doing, but you’re watching the spaces around it. You’re watching what it isn’t doing, so that you’re taking care of both the negative space and the positive space.” 

Her studies at Black Mountain College further engaged these concepts, influencing her decision to incorporate the space surrounding her artworks as she made them. Courses in color, design, drawing, and watercolor with Josef Albers stressed the importance of understanding materials, noticing relationships, and respecting both positive and negative space. Problem solving and perspective were underscored, along with the idea of transparency. Asawa explained, “It was Albers’s word. I liked the idea, and it turns out my sculpture is like that. You can see through it. The piece does not hide anything. You can show inside and outside, and inside and outside are connected. Everything is connected and continuous.”  The idea of a continuous form was something that Albers felt was particularly necessary when working with line. In his intensive drawing classes he focused on the relationship between line and form, and allowing one line to create volumes by doing more with less. Asawa would later see her crocheted wire sculptures as accomplishing just that. 

The environment at Black Mountain encouraged experimentation, and this pervasive spirit allowed the disciplined and focused Asawa to try her hand at sculpture in spring of 1948, her last year at Black Mountain. She studied with some of the most important figures of the 20th century including Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Jean Varda, and Ilya Bolotwosky.  Black Mountain was a close community where the faculty and students ate and spent free time outside of class together. During Asawa’s three years there the visiting faculty rotated to include John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Trude Guermonprez, and Jacob Lawrence.

It was in this charged creative climate that Asawa began what would become her most celebrated works. With a single wire she crocheted basket forms that soon turned upside down and hung from the ceiling. She quickly complicated them by building several shapes upon each other. Airy and transparent, soon spheres filled with smaller woven volumes, nested within them. These interwoven layers and penetrating volumes left both inner and outer elements exposed with no apparent beginning and end. Asawa combined the discipline from her childhood on a farm, the biomorphic shapes from her daydreams, the possibilities in a single form,  the relationship between negative and positive space, the continuity of a linear surface, and a single crocheted loop to challenge and redefine what sculpture, and what a single line can accomplish.  




Ruth Asawa 1926-2013

Ruth (Aiko) Asawa, born in 1926, was one of seven children raised by Japanese immigrants in Southern California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor her family was interned in Santa Anita and then eventually in Arkansas. Asawa was granted leave in 1943 to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College but she was unable to teach because of war-time discrimination. In 1946, Asawa enrolled at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where she attended classes by Josef and Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller and Ilya Bolotowsky all of whom influenced her artistic practice. Wire was introduced to Asawa’s work after a trip to Mexico in the summer 1947. She returned to Black Mountain College and she began creating three-dimensional and multi-layered forms out of looped wire.

In 1949 Asawa relocated to San Francisco and married Albert Lanier, whom she had also met at Black Mountain. The following year, one of her works was included in the San Francisco Art Association Annual at the San Francisco Art Museum; it was the first exhibition to feature one of her looped wire forms. Asawa continued to focus on her artwork as she raised their six children. Her works were included in several exhibitions throughout the country and by the late 1950s her works could be found in many prominent collections including the Rockefellers and Phillip Johnson.

Asawa’s reputation was already firmly established when the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco hosted the first solo exhibition her work in 1960. Throughout her career, Asawa received numerous public commissions including the Hyatt Hotel fountain in Union Square. Today her works can be found in major museum collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art and M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

All my wire sculptures come from the same loop. And there’s only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape. That shape comes out of working with the wire. You don’t think ahead of time, this is what I want. You work on it as you go along. You make the line, a two-dimensional line, then you go into space, and you have a three-dimensional piece. It is like a drawing in space. 

—Ruth Asawa