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Ruth Asawa, Untitled (ZP.16B, Twelve Looped-Wire Sculptural Forms), c. mid-to-late 1950s. Screentone on board, 10 × 24 in. (25.4 × 61 cm). Private collection. Artwork © 2023 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner

“Ruth Asawa Through Line” at the Whitney Museum of American Art

By Jonathan Goodman, January 15, 2024

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), born on a family farm in Southern California, was forced to relocate to detention centers with the rest of the family during the Second World War. After what amounted to imprisonment, Asawa tried to get a teacher’s license but the application was denied because she was Japanese. At that point, she attended Black Mountain College, the alternative art school in West Virginia, where she made contact with such American art luminaries as Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham. Eventually, Asawa made her way to San Francisco, where she stayed and made work, in particular the thin-wire, organically abstract sculptures that she is best known for.

But the current show, titled “Ruth Asawa Through Line,” which was up until January 15th at the Whitney, offers us Asawa’s drawings, which was a steady activity of hers during the course of her career.  The drawings span a broad range of subjects; they can describe the layered, often vertically hierarchical concentric disk shapes that usually make up the sculptures. But they can also include a delicate figure drawing or a sensitive treatment of fruit. Given the Japanese background of Asawa, it would be easy to claim her work as Asian-addressed. But, in fact, the drawings are more international than that, even belonging to the Western tradition in some cases. When an Asian artist like Asawa, who began life in the States, makes art, inevitably the context in which she was raised asserts itself. Additionally, the artist’s work belongs to a period before the constant eclecticism and borrowing we know today. That means Asawa’s broad stylistic front resulted from the confluence of two very different cultures, brought together by the artist’s skill. Instead of resorting to a facile report on Asawa’s influences, it is better to read these works as independent statements; their unity is such that they evade all attempts to see them as multiple elemented.

So it is impossible to read Asawa’s art, her drawings and sculptures, as deliberate hybrids, and leave it at that. The stylistic freedom offered artists since modernism began is remarkable, but it may blunt the art’s effectiveness if too many references come into play. The differences in subject matter we meet in this show tell us that Asawa was highly capable in her command of focus, so that she traveled easily across geographies and cultures. Still, she was surrounded by American artists and art, although her long stay in San Francisco, where a good number of Asians resided may also have influenced the artist. We can only look at the work itself, and what we find is a broad approach to ideas, as well as a fine line, likely influenced by the black pen-and-ink drawings central to Asian art. So the wide footing of Asawa’s interests starts to look like a precedent for America’s general cultural field, which encompasses  many backgrounds, especially within abstraction.

If we look at this show with as unjaundiced an eye as possible, it becomes clear that Asawa’s Asian identity did not necessarily dominate her work. Not so long ago, we were at pains to differentiate one culture from the other, emphasizing foreign influences as separately given, even if they were to become important to artists who did not come from the background forming a particular style. Yet that insight has become a cliché, given the huge amount of international traveling and re-settling among artists for at least two generations now. While Asawa seems to have stayed mostly on the West Coast, she was able to parlay her Japanese identity into a sensitivity to line, no matter how various–and Occidental–the subjects of her art might be.

When Asawa began branching out into several kinds of art, including geometric abstraction, studies of nature, pencil or ink drawings of people, and two-dimensional versions of her remarkable steel-wire sculpture, even today. Within and outside the art community it is now plausible, even expected, for artists to jump from one cultural realm to the next, we may appreciate the broad variety that results even as we worry that a loss of focus may result with so many influences taking place at once. 

But Asawa does not have this problem, primarily because she is constant, within a particular style, from one artwork to the next. So the innate autonomy of a single outlook makes its way into one drawing and stays free of borrowing. What is interesting about Asawa’s work is its variety; as I have commented, her work ranges from hard abstraction to highly lyric studies of fruit. Indeed, her Untitled (Persimmons) (c. 1970s-’80s) is a small masterpiece of color, form and feeling for composition. In this work, we can see the fruits arranged haphazardly, in small groups, rendered mostly in red, orange, and yellow (a few lighter-colored fruits can be viewed on the bottom right). One might comment, with some acuity, that the work is merely a study of fruits, but the lyricism, Japanese here but hard to define and support beyond intuition, makes the artwork tremendously appealing. The fruit, which we find turned every which way, become examples of nature’s inherent  poetic strength.​

At the same time, Asawa belonged to a generation of artists whose experiments with form were often abstract, and she took part in this trend. An untitled watercolor, painted c. 1948 or 1949, horizontal in orientation, shows stripes and rising flame-like forms occurring within a context dense with color. The hues intensify the composition’s forms. The top of the design is golden, stretching across the width of the compositional plane, while the middle is taken up mostly with blue stripes and white stripes, while at the bottom, a gold band overrides a black one. Vertices with sharp points, composed of different colors, rise from the tops of different bands. The drawing is immensely satisfying, being an exercise in both free form and its constraints. Here Asawa demonstrates her proficiency in pure abstraction, in addition to her prominent realist skills.

Untitled (Self-Portrait) (c. 1960s), an ink on paper drawing by Asawa, shows the artist lying on her stomach, working on a drawing being done on the paper before her. Her head is raised off the floor as she works on the piece; she wears glasses, and her hair is drawn up in a topknot as her left hand supports her head. Strangely, the black garment covering her body ends up looking like a mermaid’s tail. This is a personalized study of creativity, whose strength derives from Asawa’s attention to detail. It is Occidental in feeling and hand, even if the face of Awawa herself is clearly Asian. But that’s the point, even some three generations ago, Asawa was perfectly comfortable jumping from her ancestors’ culture to the one she grew up in. Visual influence is variable, as light as the wind, and  Asawa took advantage of her freedoms flawlessly.

The last work in the show was a single example of Asawa’s spectacular sculptures, made in 1955. Six-lobed, the sculpture hung from the ceiling, its half-dozen concentric disks pushing out, away from a single stem. The piece ends about a foot off the floor; its organicism conveys a belief in the inherent beauty of forms derived from nature, although Asawa says nothing publicly of that sort. Generally speaking, Asawa’s lyricism is a far cry from the rugged industrialism of the minimalist school, even of the work of both overlapped. But the artist was Asian, lived her life outside Asia, and stayed in contact with Japanese lyricism, its close contact with nature. Linked as she was to several sources at once, Asawa saw her context as a series of opportunities without the need to adhere to a single influence. In this marvelous show of drawing, we see her drawing skills strongly reiterated. Indeed, there is a large study of a fish that is a tour de force of detail and clarity. The many elements available in her art, abstract and figurative, Asian and Occidental, must be understood as a gift, not an inability to focus. By ranging over a wide territory, aided by her gifts of the hand, Asawa created a place in her art that was greater than any adjective wwe might assign it. Its humanity is our greatest gift.


Jonathan Goodman,  has long written about the art scene of New York. His primary area of expertise lies in East Asian art, with a notable emphasis on fostering collaborations and deep engagements with Japanese artists. His published appear in XIBT Magazine, frontera digital, Brooklyn Rail, WhiteHot Magazine, Tussle Magazine, Arte Fuse, and his interviews are featured in Sculpture Magazine.

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