All Is Possible
Simultaneous and inextricable, Ruth Asawa was both a mother and an artist. She worked in interstitial times—early morning, late night, between tending to the kids, the family. “The world is sleeping,” said Helen Molesworth, the curator of “All Is Possible,” at the David Zwirner exhibition’s preview. “But Ruth is working.” In Molesworth’s formulation, Asawa was a “high formalist” who painstakingly worked through a rigorous set of aesthetic problems throughout her entire life. This sweeping exhibition of Asawa’s sculptures, prints and drawings, some of which have not been shown in over 50 years, posits the radical yet deeply ordinary proposition that the artist was a weaver not only of objects, but of worlds.
Indeed, Molesworth positions Asawa—often dulled to the serene, round fullness of mother-artist—as sharply experimental, extending the innovations of several master artists of the 20th century to her own radical ends. Asawa’s sculptures, swaying ever so slightly in a suite of varied, sinuous forms, pick up, Molesworth suggests, on the lines of a Merce Cunningham dance. One work bobs gently like a jellyfish, while another seems more aquatic than airborne, its countless fins fanned out like the whorl of a shell, a slope or an earlobe. She drew the balance of tensile forces that kept her baskets ethereally suspended from her friend Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Like Marcel Duchamp, who pioneered the readymade, she used wire. And like Constantin Brâncuși and Alexander Calder, she eliminated the pedestal and floor.
Asawa went a step further and renounced even a discrete beginning and end in her work. For example, she adapted a school exercise assigned by Josef Albers, her teacher at Black Mountain College, to a lifelong project: her “Meander” series of drawings and prints. One bright orange and pink work, for instance, features heart- or spade-shaped forms in which each color appears to enclose the other. This series is bookended by a massive set of doors carved from Redwood trees. Undulating wave designs wrap around both sides of the heavy doors, portending entrance and exit, a ceaseless portal between within and without. “It doesn’t end, it doesn’t start. It’s actually infinite; it’s always happening,” Molesworth said. “Can you be in that place with her? Can you be in that suspended moment?”
Asawa possessed a boundless capacity for curiosity, believing that every single thing in the world contained the world itself. In her “Meanders,” her prints and her iconic looped- and tied-wire sculptures, lies the assured assertion that the accumulation of simple gestures alchemizes into beauty and meaning. Asawa’s gestures took place both inside and outside of the art object. They were often made at the kitchen table, looking after children (who were sometimes recruited to assist in the process). In one gentle graphite contour drawing of a sleeping father and child, she writes to her daughter, “Happy Mother’s Day, Aiko.” In doing so, she bestows the title of “mother,” without loss. Both of them, mothers: a way to weave the family together.
Indeed, in her most well-known bulbous woven works, one senses nurturing, cultivation, containment. But another impulse can be identified as well in her lesser-known tied wire sculptures, which she innovated due to a frustrated attempt to draw a plant whose branches divided exponentially. Spiked and agentive, they explode outward, recalling pollen and dandelion heads: seeds sown in an ecstatic dispersal into the air. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.055, Hanging Asymmetrical Nine Interlocking Bubbles), c. 1955. Private Collection. © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner