Untitled (S.446, Hanging, Seven-Lobed Single-Layer Continuous Form), circa 1952 looped brass wire 78 x 14 x 14in. (198.1 x 35.6 x 35.6cm)
PROVENANCE: Private Collection, San Francisco (acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner in the 1950s). By descent from the above to the present owner.
This work is registered in the Asawa records under number S.446.
Diligently laced and conscientiously shaped, Ruth Asawa's hanging sculpture transforms light and its surrounding area into a prism of shadows and slivers of illumination. Created in 1952, this exquisite example of her lobed undulating hanging works epitomizes the artist's mastery of material, challenging the definitions of sculpture, space, and the visual plane in which the artist cleaves room for the viewer. Untitled (S.446, Hanging, Seven-Lobed Single-Layer Continuous Form) personifies the synthesis of form and artistic process, revealing impressions in the woven metal wire as a message from the artist touch, feel and be transformed. This palpable connection to its creator demonstrates Asawa's keen understanding of form and space, a foundation in the artist's art historical education established during her time at Black Mountain College. This acute sensitivity to her surroundings, however, was also shaped by Asawa's transient childhood and time spent in Japanese Internment camps.
Coming of age during the intensely racist and fearful period post-Pearl Harbor in 1942, Asawa and her family were displaced and relocated to a Japanese internment camp at the Santa Anita Racetrack. Here, alongside other Japanese wrongfully isolated from society, Asawa came to learn from traditional Japanese artists, who in the hopes of distraction came to practice what they knew. It was during this period where Asawa came to know first hand the power of art and creation both as a means of survival and that of adaption.
By the time she was 17, Asawa was allowed to attend college in Milwaukee to become a teacher. However, it was only upon completing her third year of schooling did Asawa come against the harsh racism persistent within America, where no one would hire her as a teacher because she was Japanese. Morphing this disappointment into an opportunity, Asawa decided to attend Black Mountain College, an art school she had heard of from fellow students while in teacher's college, and in 1946, she began course work with a then unknown modernist Josef Albers.
Looking back on her arrival at Black Mountain, North Carolina, Asawa stated that it was then, "that summer that helped me decide to take charge of my own life." (R. Asawa, quoted in D. Cornell et al., The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, exh. cat., San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 13). In this supportive and innovatively creative environment, Asawa studied alongside Robert Rauschenberg and longtime friend Ray Johnson under the instruction of Josef and Anni Albers, Max Wilhelm, Ilya Bolotowsky and Buckminster Fuller. While weaving multiple philosophies together, such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism along with color theory and traditional artistic practices, students at Black Mountain transformed not only how they created, but even more so, how they saw creation and their role within the process. Led by Albers and his constant stress on visual perception and the participatory element of artistic creation, Asawa's now iconic network of wires and loops voiced the importance placed on means rather than end product.
Inspired during her time in Mexico during the summer of 1947, Asawa's creative lexicon came to include various examples of traditional crocheted baskets that where omnipresent at market places and homes. The idea of form from simplistic material came back with Asawa upon her return to classes in North Carolina, and began to burgeon on campus among the creative and cooperative nature. Asawa noted that this simplistic construction is the key element of her work, where she stated, "All my wire sculptures come from the same loop. And there is 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 drawing in space." (J. Hoefer, "Ruth Asawa: A Working Life", in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Berkeley 2006, p. 16.)
Created just after leaving Black Mountain, Untitled (S.446) embodies the stress placed on form and its morphing tendencies, clearly referencing Albers' Bauhaus principles on space calling into question the privileged position art historians have placed on volume and mass in defining sculpture. Through encouragement and experimentation, Asawa developed her own stylistic challenge to traditional sculpture, re-purposing light and shadow alongside tangible material, all the while foreshadowing the soon to be storm of Minimalism.