|After more than three decades, a solo exhibit of sculptures, drawings, and lithographs by nationally noted artist Ruth Asawa is finally on view in Los Angeles. Although she was born in Norwalk and attended Excelsior Union High School, her work is much better known in San Francisco (where she makes her home) and throughout the Bay area (where she exhibits widely) than in the Southland.
It's impossible to write about Asawa's body of work without mentioning her Buddhist background and her teenage experiences in Japanese internment centers during World War II. That's where she spent five hours each day learning how to draw from Walt Disney studio artists who were interned along with her. Add to that the incomparable three years she spent at legendary Black Mountain College, where "art was a way of living," and the die was cast. It was at BMC that brilliant professors demanded critical thinking from highly motivated students--and Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller entered her life.
In fact, during Asawa's 1946-1949 stay at Black Mountain College, three things happened that directly affected her future. Albers' Taoist sense of "doing more with less" pervaded her artmaking and reinforced her Zen Buddhist philosophy; Buckminster Fuller inspired her with his all-embracing attitude toward the creative process; and she found her personal aesthetic voice.
It was also there that Asawa began experimenting with her crocheted wire sculptures, some of which are on view in this exhibit. If you've never seen these delicate forms in a variety of shapes (baskets, globes, snowflakes, lace, flowers), you'll find it hard to believe that she weaves these intricate mesh objects by hand from long strands of slender wire. Created from copper, brass, iron and other materials, Asawa's sensuous, transparent sculptures hang from the ceiling and cling to the wall--capturing light, exploring space, and changing dimension as you move around them.
The most outstanding example of this unusual sculptural style is an Untitled sphere that penetrates a sphere within a sphere. Like M.C. Escher's drawing of a hand that is drawing a hand, Asawa creates magic. The outside becomes the inside that becomes the outside, a 3-D optical illusion woven from wire.
Along with some bronze pedestal sculptures, there are also two intriguing ink drawings of flowers in a vase (Vashti's Coreopsis Cockscomb and Anni's Bouquet). One cannot help noting how Asawa transfers the visual imagery of her three-dimensional sculpture to these two-dimensional calligraphic drawings.
Untitled, 1998, crocheted
brass wire, 50 x 14.
Plane Tree #6, 1959, sumi drawing
on coated paper, 17 1/2 x 23.
"Desert Plant", 1965, color
lithograph, 18 x 18".
"Untitled," 1960s, enameled
copper, 15 x 10"
"Vashti's Coreopsis Cockscomb
(Celosia)," 1996, ink drawing on
bond paper, 22 1/2 x 17 1/2".
And then there are her lithographs, a dramatic series of prints that illustrate the high degree of skill Asawa acquired when she was a Tamarind Workshop Fellow in the 1960s. Three of these black and white lithos are Desert Flowers that resemble spiky starfish; and two more of them are organic impressions of delicately colored Desert Plants. Especially captivating are her reversal prints, where stark black backgrounds dramatize the white Plane Tree forms that stand in sharp contrast against them.
In addition, a fascinating series of sumi brush drawings produced in the 1950s are on exhibit. Asawa created these unique, poetic scenes by pouring ink over waxed paper, then manipulating the shapes as they form on the wax-resistent surface. Plane Tree #6 is a stunning example of her aesthetic vision at its best.
Throughout her career, regardless of medium, Asawa has stayed true to the credo she forged fifty years ago at Black Mountain College. Then as now, art is a way of living, an integral part of her life; less is always more; and the positive/negative elements of line, form, color and space must be kept in balance.