St. Louis

View of “Ruth Asawa,” 2018–19. Photo: Alise O’Brien.

View of “Ruth Asawa,” 2018–19. Photo: Alise O’Brien.

Ruth Asawa

Pulitzer Arts Foundation

View of “Ruth Asawa,” 2018–19. Photo: Alise O’Brien.

“Life’s Work” is not merely the first solo museum retrospective devoted to Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) beyond the West Coast; it is also the first after a flurry of “rediscovery” exhibitions that have marked the artist’s transition from the margins to the canon proper. Building upon the foundational career-spanning survey in 2006 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, subsequent shows up to this point have exhibited Asawa’s work as a corrective gesture, to counter racist and patriarchal art-historical models, while reiterating certain biographical narratives in response to prior dismissals: her childhood as a daughter of Japanese immigrant farmworkers who were, as a family, interned during World War II; her galvanizing education as a student and friend of Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, among other established modernists, during her three years at Black Mountain College; her two trips to Mexico, where she learned her signature wire-looping technique, before and during her studies at Black Mountain; and her move from Asheville, North Carolina, to San Francisco, where she became a wife, a mother of six, and an advocate for public art education. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation sought to establish a firm vocabulary for the specific sets of concerns that defined Asawa’s fastidious, lifelong practice, and to direct viewers’ interest beyond these foundational influences toward a broader legacy.  

But it’s easy to move past these bulky critical debates over the groundwork of Asawa’s reputation; the visual spectacle of Asawa’s work is enthralling to the point of feeling like an impassioned argument in itself. Curator Tamara Schenkenberg has navigated the magisterial, light-filled expanses of the Pulitzer’s galleries with a sensitive focus on Asawa’s most noted body of work—hanging works in metal wire—that evokes nothing less than irrefutable beauty. Turning the corner from the entrance gallery, which functions as a table of contents delineating Asawa’s formal range, one arrives at the main hall, where, in dangling thickets, Asawa’s multilobed looped-wire sculptures stretch as if in an inverted, luminous field. Ensuing galleries are devoted to the other three techniques Asawa has applied to wire: tying it, electroplating it, and casting it in bronze. Scattered amid (and often visible through) her diaphanous sculptures are small, elegant drawings and paintings that remain ancillary but serve to underscore the artist’s enduring enthusiasm for iterative, biomorphic forms.

As Schenkenberg carefully lays out in her comprehensive exhibition essay, Asawa’s humbly industrial sculptural medium was a source of infinite innovation and, importantly, consistent manual labor, which was one manifestation of her essential commitment to community—that of her family and her city. Painting and drawing, though important to Asawa’s development, simply lacked the capacity to involve either. While Asawa’s public projects are excluded from this show, her dedication to artmaking as a social activity driven toward civic justice is as distinguishing as her formal contributions to modernism. And integral to this civic commitment was her radical belief that motherhood could not only complement a rigorous creative life but become essential to it.

Catalogue contributors Helen Molesworth and Aruna D’Souza provide fruitful reassessments of early criticism of Asawa’s work—which discredited it as too domestic, crafty, nature-focused—by turning it on its head. As Molesworth writes, Asawa’s identities as “wife, mother” shouldn’t be disregarded but rather should be revalued as strengths and extensions of the artist’s aesthetic. This perspective propels the discourse around Asawa into new, urgent territory, situating her as a proto-social-practice artist who presaged the field of activist crafting and the framing of artists as laborers and as mothers. This is where I’m most excited to see Asawa positioned, where her work needs no further defense and can invite broader synchronic connections—to feminist linguistic and poetic structures, for example. “Form is not a fixture but an activity,” said poet Lyn Hejinian in her 1983 essay “Rejection of Closure.” She might as well have been describing Asawa’s work.