Ruth Asawa has said that her breakthrough woven wire sculptures of the early 1950s were influenced by childhood memories of laboring on a truck farm in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite the demanding planting and harvesting that occupied her family, the young Asawa and other workers “used to make patterns in the dirt, hanging our feet off the horse-drawn farm equipment. We made endless hourglass figures that I now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures.” These organic, woven wire sculptures were the centerpiece of her retrospective on view at the Oakland Museum of California this summer, called “Ruth Asawa: Completing the Circle.” Their grouping in the center of the galleries signaled their importance as the crux of Asawa’s output. The impact of these hanging pieces, human height or taller and appearing like never-ending baskets, derived from their elegant power, despite an understated presence, and their mastery of technique.
“Completing the Circle,” first shown at the Fresno Art Museum in 2001, was presented in an expanded version at the Oakland Museum. The idea of the circle relates to Asawa’s general concern with circular forms, but also points to her family and community “circle”: those who have collaborated with her and sustained her more recent public art projects in California. The exhibition also featured the creative contributions of the artist’s family: her husband, the architect Paul Lanier, their six children, and their ten grandchildren.
Asawa, now 76 years old and residing in San Francisco, lived through the varied stylistic movements of modernism and post-modernism-Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, text-based work, political art, and installation works-yet kept to her own beat, determinedly working on the periphery of the art world. In the 1940s, when some artists focused on gesture painting, she chose to study with Josef Albers-also fiercely independent, and known for his geometric “Homage to the Square” series of paintings-at the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina. By the 1950s, when vanguard sculptors were welding metal into abstract forms with oxyacetylene torches, Asawa created handmade work by crocheting wire into lacy, plant-like forms that belied their origin as an industrial material.
During World War 11, her family had suffered internment, as Japanese Americans. Her father was arrested and sent to a detention center in New Mexico for two years. Asawa, her siblings and her mother were together sent to various relocation camps in California and Arkansas. Interestingly, this ordeal did not dissuade Asawa from later contributing to her community. “Completing the Circle” features some working drawings, photographs, and relief models of her public projects, such as those she made for a number of San Francisco sites as well as the Japanese-American Internment Memorial sculpture for the Federal Building in San Jose (1994). She recently participated in The Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University (2002), created as a living memorial to those Asian-Americans subjected to discrimination during World War II. The transition from making sculpture to these public projects was not fully documented in the exhibition.
Asawa’s public commissions grew out of her desire to affect the lives of public school students in San Francisco through art. By the late 1960s, when her own children reached school age, she felt the need to bring professional artists (including musicians, actors, dancers, sculptors, and painters) into the public school curriculum, an extension of her philosophy of making art a part of daily learning. Along with the art historian Sally Woodbrige, Asawa created the Alvarado Arts Workshop which ultimately grew to incorporate 50 San Francisco public schools and more than 300 artists. Examples of the school children’s ceramics were also on view in Oakland.
By ceding her vanguard contribution to the field of sculpture, Asawa took public her goals. Indeed her transition from making unique objects to public works intended for the widest possible audience brought her work full circle, again embracing family contributions and community experiences, and the memories, of her youth.
–Brooke Kamin Rapaport