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Exhibition Review

Ruth Asawa, a citizen of the universe.

Grace Storey

Aug 18, 2022

Photograph: Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Asawa Working on Her Wire Sculpture 3, 1956
© 2022 Imogen Cunningham Trust
Artwork: © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Courtesy of David Zwirner 



Citizen of the Universe at Modern Art Oxford is the first institutional show outside the USA of pioneering American artist Ruth Asawa (b. 1926 Norwalk, California; d. 2013 San Francisco, California). Asawa was born to Japanese parents who worked as farm labourers in rural Norwalk, 17 miles southeast of Los Angeles. She began making art while detained in internment camps for Japanese Americans at Santa Anita, California, and Rohwer, Arkansas, where she was sent with her family from 1942–3. Upon her release, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College to train as an art teacher, before joining Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1946–9, a liberal arts college renowned for its progressive pedagogical methods and emphasis on holistic, community living.


At Black Mountain College, Asawa was influenced by teachers including artist-educator Josef Albers, Max Dehn, a mathematician known for his work on geometry and topology, and environmentalist and architect Buckminster Fuller, interested in whole systems and the structures of nature. She rejected the labels ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’, and instead chose to identify as ‘a citizen of the universe’; she strove for a sense of freedom that drove her artistic and civic contribution to society through teaching and public art commissions. 



Installation view of Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe at Modern Art Oxford, 2022
© Modern Art Oxford / Photo: Ben Westoby



The first gallery features eighteen of Asawa’s iconic handmade sculptures, constructed from lines of wire carefully looped and tied into hanging forms. She began to experiment with the material in 1947 after watching a craftsperson in Mexico making egg baskets, ‘I realised that I could make wire forms interlock, expand, and contract with a single strand because a line can go anywhere’. Wire was a cheap and accessible medium when art materials were difficult to access. At Modern Art Oxford, there are bronchial, wall-based forms and biomorphic sculptures suspended alone and in groups, which cast shadows onto the curved white plinths below, she wrote ‘the shadow cast by the sculpture reveals as much as the sculpture itself.’ The forms are influenced by structures drawn from nature and Asawa’s first hand observation of organic matter, inspired by ‘plants, bone structure and patterns seen in water and oil, soap bubbles and smoke’.


The material in the second and third gallery spaces grounds the wire sculptures in Asawa’s wider practice and beliefs. The second gallery features a number of small sculptural studies in looped wire and metal maquettes cast from folded paper models. On the walls are black-and-white portraits of the artist in her wooden Noe Valley home and studio by American photographer Imogen Cunningham, who documented Asawa’s creative practice from 1950-76. Another striking photograph, by Ronald Partridge, enlarged to life scale, depicts her high-ceilinged living room, from which numerous hanging sculptures are suspended. Asawa’s children and friends are pictured relaxing on armchairs, surrounded by books, and baker’s clay is visible in the foreground. In the adjacent gallery, a 1978 documentary Of Forms and Growth provides an intimate look at Asawa’s life as an artist, mother, teacher, civic leader and gardener.  



Installation view of Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe at Modern Art Oxford, 2022
© Modern Art Oxford / Photo: Ben Westoby



The final gallery includes a selection of brightly coloured works on paper, lithographs, paintings of biomorphic forms, prints made using organic materials, graphic fabric and wallpaper designs, from Asawa’s short design career. There is also a group of observational drawings made from flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables in season in Asawa’s garden, she wrote, ‘rather than trying to draw trees, I’m interested in what the ink that I’m using and what paper can do... rather than working with realism, trying to imitate the trees, I’m trying to make the trees fit into the nature of the strokes and ink and the paper’. At the centre of the space, there is a lotus bloom paper fold, a technique Asawa began to experiment with while at Black Mountain College; this design formed the basis for two Origami Fountains, among nine public artworks created by the artist in San Francisco. As with the wire sculptures, these folds evidence Asawa’s interest in working with the innate properties of materials and making 2D forms into 3D shapes. 


While Asawa’s hanging sculptures have been featured in recent solo and group shows at David Zwirner, and as part of the 59th Venice Biennale, this much overdue retrospective showcases the breath of Asawa’s practice, positions her amongst her artistic contemporaries, and highlights her outstanding civic and pedagogical contribution.



Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe is on view at Modern Art Oxford until August 21, 2022 and will travel to Stavanger Art Museum, Norway in Autumn 2022. More information about the exhibition please click here