Tracing A Line

When curating a show of Ruth Asawa’s work, it is not long before some reference to the experimental art school Black Mountain College, which she attended from 1946-1949, will be made. In this show at David Zwirner Gallery it appears in the first work on view, in which Asawa used the BMC laundry stamp to create an undulating overlapping print in black and white. Both inspired and impromptu, it sums up the ethos of the college, which opened the eyes of its students to explore the potential of any material and tool as a means to create art.  

Black Mountain has held the interest of many not least because it had a hand in producing the post-modern American holy trinity of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. The school is the gift that keeps on giving, which is made clear when the quieter artistic forces like Asawa reveal themselves in small but captivating shows such as this one. 

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Tracing artists’ influence back to Black Mountain is a favorite pastime of many art historians, and with Asawa it is easier than most. While I am particularly interested in the school as it was the site of some of weaver Anni Albers’s most ambitious works, it is the other Albers with whom Asawa seemed most concerned.

The pedagogical development of Josef Albers is deserving of a full book (or two or three), but suffice it to say his institutional trajectory was from Bauhaus to Black Mountain to Yale, where he taught the importance of color, line, and material as a way of seeing the world. He insisted that thorough observation was the key to reproducing the world through art.

The connection is most obvious in Asawa’s assertion that a “line can go anywhere,” quoted in the introductory text, something which describes the genesis of her iconic wire basket weave sculptures, which take a single “line” of wire and loops them into organic dripping forms hung from the ceiling. The importance of line, as well as the material potential inherent in wire, tie Asawa to her teacher, but what she does with his lessons are entirely her own and based on her individualized life experience.

Asawa espoused a philosophy of Universalism, a counter to the racism and misogyny she experienced throughout her career as a female artist of color. Interned at a camp in the Midwest and denied a diploma from art school due to her Japanese-American heritage, Asawa focused on the scientific rather than the social. Reminiscent of cell division, these organic forms simultaneously remind us that all life shares a common ancestry, as well as that our day-to-day growth and development is founded on the same processes.

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The opening text in this show describes her work as “sinuous,” but that word is too much of the earth for my taste. Though they hang, neither do they seem to be of the sky—these are not Calder’s kinetic sculptures. This show has us wandering between the micro and the macroscopic, and at once I felt like I was looking into the lens of a microscope and walking on an ancient ocean floor peering upwards at schools of jellyfish high above. Either way I was looking at primitive creatures as if they were the most beautiful things I had ever seen because they connected me through lines of wire to my fellow gallery goers and connected all of us together to our common ancestors. 

 

Ruth Asawa

David Zwirner Gallery

537 W 20th Street

Until October 21, 2017