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  • The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air
  • Amy Ione
The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air edited by Daniell Cornell. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A., 2006. 205 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0520-25044-4; ISBN: 978-0520-25045-1.

Published to accompany the first complete retrospective of her career, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air is a superb accomplishment. The book examines her pioneering modernist contributions and convinces the reader that Asawa's work is well deserving of the wide recognition it has received. Covering her early work on paper, her incredible wire sculptures, public commissions, and her activism in the arts and education, the volume is a must read for anyone who is interested in contemporary art and the history of Black Mountain College. Moreover, her artistic creativity is conveyed in the various essays that speak of her lifelong experimentation with wire, especially its capacity to balance open and closed forms.

Asawa's unusual history is especially well done in the book. Having always characterized her in my mind as a Japanese-American artist, I learned how little I knew of her history and of the kinds of events that had shaped her life and her work. All of the essays conveyed the multiplicity of ways Asawa's heritage influenced the woman she became. A few events stand out in my mind. Born in America to Japanese parents, Asawa was among those interned during World War II. While in a camp in California, she met a few Japanese artists from the Disney studio who taught art classes there. One, Tom Okamoto, had an immense influence on Asawa's future development.

A second event that impressed me was the path that led her to Black Mountain College. She had attended Milwaukee State College with the intention of becoming an art teacher. Unable to get a teaching certificate because no one would hire a Japanese American even for practice teaching in 1946, she went to Black Mountain in North Carolina, where she studied with Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller and Ilya Bolotowsky, and met her husband (the architect Albert Lanier). When she arrived at Black Mountain, Asawa had intended to become a painter. She learned to knit with wire during a summer break in Mexico. The transparency of the designs appealed to her artistic sensibility. Indeed, she so liked the way the interior and the exterior of knitted wire intertwine and how the material takes on a fluid, ever-changing shape that it came to define her artistic path.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking chapter is "Critiquing the Critique: Ruth Asawa's Early Reception," by Emily K. Doman Jennings, which deals with the significance of Asawa's Japanese-American identity to her art. Jennings argues that, on the one hand, it is correct to say that Asawa's Japanese-American ethnicity framed her experiences (e.g. spending time in the internment camps) and pointed her toward certain kinds of preferences in art and her activism. Yet, on the other hand, the development of her art is unique to her individuality and those who attempt to account for it in terms of her Japanese heritage are apt to misconstrue critical aspects of her history. For example, Asawa was born in the United States and did not develop her interest in Eastern thought and tradition primarily from her upbringing. Rather, it stems from her instruction by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. Jennings tells us that

while her work can be discussed in regard to the fundamental figure-ground relationships of calligraphy or the teaching of Lao-tze, categorizing her work in strictly Asian terms disregards its context within a larger body of contemporary artists, such as Mark Tobey, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, who drew upon Asian philosophy as a creative source (p. 130).

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Here I wanted to hear more about the relationship to three-dimensional modalities such as pottery than about the design and calligraphic influences that resonate with Asawa's mentors and the Black Mountain experience. Thus, it seems that this essay succeeds in capturing Asawa's recognition of the...


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