Ruth Asawa, installation view of “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work,” 2018–19. Photo: © Alise O’Brien Photography, 
© Estate of Ruth Asawa, Courtesy The Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner

Ruth Asawa

St. Louis, Missouri

Pulitzer Arts Foundation

While writing this review, I started thinking about Ruth Asawa’s bad day. The day when all six children had colds, when the groceries were low and the laundry high, when husband Albert Lanier worked overtime, the phone rang constantly, and the dog (if there was one) vomited on the carpet—the kind of ordinary bad day, when, for a woman working at home, everything uncoils. This dull speculation, as intrusive as it was imaginary, arose while I was transfixed by the idealism connected to Asawa’s working practices and body of work. While “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work” did not present her life experience idealistically, her creative, ethical response to her experience and her tenacious devotion to labor became almost transcendent models of work-arounds for obstruction. The ethereally beautiful exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue with three discerning essays, compelled an empathic imagining of the difficulties surrounding Asawa’s work, which began to approach a visceral understanding of how that work derived from discomfort and how it is comforting until it is not.

The show presented Asawa from a feminist perspective, as a woman and a female artist—one who, not incidentally but crucially, was an Asian American working from a craft-based methodology she learned in an Hispanic culture, whose life and work were affected by racism, internment in Japanese American camps during World War II, the art world’s patriarchal hierarchies, the strong class distinctions between art and craft made during the middle of the 20th century, and the dismissal of those who chose domesticity over careerism. Helen Molesworth’s catalogue essay, “San Francisco Housewife and Mother,” does serious work identifying the binary distinctions of gender, race, and class that plagued Asawa while also erasing and redeeming them by asking whether “maternity,” “domesticity,” and “unaffectedness” might not offer enriched understandings of the function “artist.”

The sense of connection—of linked chains of relations—suggested by such human readings of Asawa’s repetitive, persistent processes and forms (the two cannot be separated) was reified in the installation. In keeping with Asawa’s practice of grouping her sculptures, the Pulitzer presented them suspended over low, white curvilinear platforms. The works appeared not so much discrete sculptures as embodiments—organic beings either clustered or hanging around alone.

The dangling vertical forms, bulbous and sinewy by turns, contain interior orbs like bodily organs visible through a wire-mesh epidermis. Moving almost imperceptibly, their dark netted surfaces create shimmering, kinetic optics that alternate across translucency, obscurity, and filigree shadow. Metaphorical associations to biological and imagined lifeforms gather and accumulate. Though the exhibition did not anthropomorphize Asawa’s sculptures, the works themselves, their installation, and the curatorial arguments quietly coalesced around questions of being, identity, and the idea of labor—work done to find expression, communicate, and survive.

“Evolution of Form,” a section at the end of the catalogue that categorizes the wire sculptures according to Asawa’s methods, functions like a biological taxonomy. The show’s 77 typically untitled works are divided into 20 distinct categories of wire forms, including 12 diverse iterations of her looping technique and six subcategories within her alternate bundling, tied-wire method. Like the taxonomist, the viewer reads each sculpture as a living being bearing a palpable diagram of its history, its means of coming into and negotiating being, including its beauties, adaptations, relations, traumas, and scars. Untitled (S. 208), a hanging sculpture made in 1959–60 of enameled copper wire, exemplifies this manifestly complex evolution. Regular but not uniform, its repetitive coils couple and multiply, becoming webbed surfaces that swell and diminish through three interpenetrating, three-layered spheres. To perceive S. 208 is to trace the complicated emergent identities of the forms as they fold into and out of themselves and each other.

Though Asawa’s work is not about classifying beings by such problematic markers as race, gender, class, or ethnic background, this is not to say that such distinguishing characteristics of identity are implicitly missing. Both Asawa, in her words about her life and work, and the curatorial framework for “Life’s Work” took such factors into account—for example, Asawa wrote with matter-of-fact realism to Lanier, before their marriage, about the racism they would face as a mixed-race couple. Read ontologically and by type, the sculptures unfold a litany of existential cues, which cannot be separated from their forms, the mode in which they were made, the context in which they were made, and the contexts in which they were received and in which they continue to exist.

“Interpretive labor,” anthropologist David Graeber’s term for the empathic work done by the less powerful to accommodate the powerful, suggests a way of comprehending the unorthodox and inspiring force of Asawa’s devotion to labor. In patriarchal systems, women typically engage in interpretive labor; but anyone who occupies an insecure position might do so in order to function, accomplish something, or even survive. Asawa occupied a chain of insecure positions (woman, Japanese American, housewife). It might be natural to expect her to have approached her work either by means of interpretive labor or by means of resistance. Yet, she did neither.

Asawa’s sculptures and other works were not made in the interstitial cracks and crevices left open to her between her obligations to others. She felt no need to apologize for her work and how it did or did not fall into the expectations of the art world of her day. Aware of hierarchical and societal difficulties, she simply put the repetitive, often difficult labor of her artwork and the labor of daily existence—including its communal and familial aspects—at the center and let the rest fall away. Her sculptures are literal object lessons. Metaphorically and physically, wire does not uncoil. Even when cut, it simply splays and pauses. Investigating the possibilities that exist between each instance and the next, Asawa modeled a means of “picking up the thread” so that disruptions become null, the shape of things emerging from determined iteration.