I first saw work from the American artist and educator Ruth Asawa in a show at David Zwirner, just before COVID hit. I was pretty captivated by her weightless sculptures made of wire, hanging from the ceiling like shoals of jellyfish. Back in the UK a couple of years later, she’s taken over an even larger space, the upper floors of Modern Art Oxford, in an exhibition that showcases a broader variety of her work, and the ideals that informed it.
Asawa’s life was one of overcoming deep and traumatic setbacks through determined progressivism. A Japanese-American, born in 1926, she was interned in a concentration camp in Arkansas during World War 2, couldn’t complete teacher training due to ingrained racism, attended Black Mountain College and studied under Josef Albers, and steadily built an artistic practice from her base in San Francisco during the latter half of the 20th century. She died in 2013 as an artistic icon - having established an educational foundation which taught art to thousands of the city’s school children.
The MAO exhibition is a tale of two rooms, for me. The famous wire works are in the main gallery. An apt representation of Asawa’s visual lexicon of spheres, cones and stars, inspired by natural phenomena such as desert flowers. Looked at closely, the physical effort required in their construction is obvious: Asawa needed to wear heavy industrial gloves to work the wires.
The simple wire ties that bring the strands together are irresistibly evocative of barbed wire fencing. Which of course leads the viewer’s mind back to the concentration camp - not something the artist would have wanted. “The material is irrelevant,” Asawa told an interviewer once. “It’s just that that happens to be the material that I use.” Wire, she explained, is just an “ordinary” material for her, that she renders into something new through art.
The second room of the exhibition I remember is small - the smallest in the gallery. In there, a video plays of Asawa’s daily life in middle age. It features the photographer Ingrid Cunningham, whose photographs of Asawa at work in the studio are also on show - and Asawa's devoted husband Albert Lanier.
In the film, Asawa drives her beaten-up pickup truck up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco, expertly prepares a meal for a table full of friends, works with the local children. It’s a life of business, of community - informed by deeply progressive ideals. And, throughout, Asawa gazes out at her surroundings with a resolute stare. What determination and strength she must have needed to achieve what she did in her life.
Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe is at Modern Art Oxford (Oxford). 28 May - 21 August 2022