Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.592, Hanging, Single Lobe, Three-Layered, Continuous Form Within a Form), ca. 1958, copper wire, 12 × 12 1⁄2 × 13".

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.592, Hanging, Single Lobe, Three-Layered, Continuous Form Within a Form), ca. 1958, copper wire, 12 × 12 1⁄2 × 13".

Ruth Asawa

We talk of weightless things: conversations, responsibilities, the bodies of those we love. We talk of them as if they are exempt from reality and rationality, as if they orbit our physical world, their meandering bodies flicking shadows on all that moves below. “A sigh is weightless,” Anne Carson writes, “yet it may interrupt the broadcast.”

Ruth Asawa’s sculptures have that weightlessness, and cast those shadows. Rotating on taut cords, the intricate wire works resemble columns of smoke, woven nests, echoes made visual. As their many layers pulse, contract, double in on themselves, they do so with a tantalizing lightness that belies their status as massy things. “The sculptures,” writes the curator, Helen Molesworth, “simultaneously deny and acknowledge gravity.”

But where there is lightness, so, too, is there the weighty memory of work. Asawa was a believer in the value of labor; she likened her process to “planting five acres of onions during Christmas vacation, or harvesting in July, all of these things.” Her sculptures, all but one here Untitled, are tirelessly rendered, their undulating skins typically composed of innumerable, intricately doweled loops of gradating wire. (Asawa affectionate termed this her “string of e’s.”) But while the objects preserve her industry and devotion, they also reflect the serenity that such a prolonged commitment can bring about. The act of repetition is as meditative as it is mechanical, after all—meditative precisely because it is mechanical.

Seven years after Asawa’s death, “A Line Can Go Anywhere,” the first solo exhibition of her work in London, supplemented these sinuous forms with a display of photographs of the artist among her sculptures and children. (These were taken in the 1950s and early ’60s by Imogen Cunningham.) Also on view were single-line ink drawings of stems and blooming flowers and eight sculptures the artist made by tying, rather than doweling, bunches of straight wire cut into short pieces. Like the looped works, the latter draw (and draw from) nature: desert wildflowers, seedpods, five-point stars pushing into space. But in contrast to the continuous strings of e’s, the billowing forms of which feel organic, the tied objects appear too calculated somehow, too intent on entering the world. These lines cannot go anywhere; they are fixed to their path.

As an artist, Asawa rejected the spatial binary of positive and negative, aiming instead for “interpenetration, transparency, the illusion of more with less.” Accordingly, she treated dead white space as a manipulatable medium unto itself, blocking it out, enclosing it, pushing it to the side; she poured it into her sculptures until they overflowed. In a suspended wire work from around 1958, in which three copper lobes nestle one within the next, it is absence (or, rather, its gradual yielding to presence) that teaches us about depth and definition, about the edges of space. Only when there is nothing do we learn what there is.

Asawa’s was a practice of weights and counterweights, of formal, philosophical equilibrium. Light and dark, labor and ease, space and its absence: Everything here is in balance. This equipoise is emblematic of Asawa’s understanding of, and interaction with, the world, one that was informed by the teachings of Zen Buddhism. In an undated note included in her papers, held in the collections at Stanford University in California, she distills this philosophy of holistic opposition into a poem of twelve words: “Work days days work / Draw life life draws / Love family family loves.”