The history of American art is getting a rewrite at the David Zwirner gallery on West Twentieth Street, in a transporting show of sculptures by the little-known Ruth Asawa: diaphanous wonders, crocheted out of wire, that appear to be floating in space. (They hang from the ceiling.) In her use of line as sculptural form, Asawa provides a crucial link between the mobile modernism of Alexander Calder and the gossamer Minimalism of Fred Sandback, whose yarn pieces similarly render distinctions between interior and exterior moot. She hit on her singular process in 1947, at the age of twenty-one, while on a visit to Mexico, where she saw baskets in the process of being made. That domestic association has led to her work being marginalized, as was the case with so many female artists of her generation.
The addition of Asawa to art’s overwhelmingly white-male hit parade comes at a critical time in our country, as the policies of the current Administration challenge the undeniable fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Asawa’s parents were farmers, who emigrated to rural California from Japan. (“Sculpture is like farming,” the artist once said. “If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”) Asawa loved to draw as a child, but she didn’t have much time between chores. She began to make art in earnest while living in internment camps in California and Arkansas, in 1942-43; she received pointers from several fellow-detainees, who were animators at Walt Disney. She went on to study at Black Mountain College, where her mentors included Josef Albers, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, then settled in San Francisco with her husband, the architect Albert Lanier. She raised six children, but never stopped making art, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that she languished in obscurity until now. A solo show in New York, in the fifties, was favorably reviewed in the Times; her work was included in the São Paolo Biennial in 1955; she is in major museum collections and has several prominent public projects in San Francisco.
Of course, history is written by the victors, and, too often these days, winning means money. In 2013, four months before Asawa died, at the age of eighty-seven, one of her sculptures sold at Christie’s for nearly 1.5 million dollars—quadrupling expectations. The Zwirner show was curated (and exquisitely installed) by Jonathan Laib, who established a relationship with the artist while he worked at the auction house; when he moved to the gallery, so did Asawa’s estate. Part of me wishes that a museum had mounted this museum-quality show, perhaps the Whitney or MOMA, two institutions that have sensitively contextualized Asawa’s work in recent group exhibitions. But such gripes melt away in the presence of an ethereal copper-and-iron-wire concatenation from 1954—seven interconnected orbs, two of which surround smaller spheres like translucent cocoons. It hangs in front of a window overlooking a garden, enmeshing nature and art. Asawa, whose muses included sunlight on a dragonfly’s wing, would surely approve.