Cellular and Vast: Ruth Asawa at the Menil Drawing Institute

by Rosa Boshier González May 14, 2024

I have never felt more Californian than when I was looking down at Ruth Asawa’s Redwood 356 (PF.1012) (1960), a giant drawing that traces the lifelines of a redwood tree. After a childhood in Los Angeles and a decade of adulthood in the Bay Area, I didn’t just see the forest in those endless redwood rings. I saw the thrashing Pacific Ocean, Marin’s headlands lined with Queen Anne’s lace, and the faces of my loved ones laughing in high definition at Baker Beach.

A round abstract drawing replicating the rings of a redwood tree.

Ruth Asawa, “Redwood 356 (PF.1012),” 1960, ink on Japanese paper, 25 x 25 in. Private collection. © 2024 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner. Photo: James Paonessa.

Walking through Ruth Asawa Through Line, an exhibition at the Menil in Houston that highlights Asawa’s drawings, collages, watercolors, stamp prints, and paper works, feels like picking my way through Golden Gate Park. I follow the confidence of Asawa’s hand as she sketched the fat, drowsy heads of ranunculi, wiry endives, agile cosmos, and the soft, clam-like clusters of allium petals. A student of calligraphy, Asawa described working with ink as a breathing line, exhaling as the line is rendered and inhaling as the ink is dipped again. I have the same impulse to inhale as I step to a new drawing in the exhibition, then exhale as I take it in. I anticipate the smell of honeysuckle and eucalyptus leaves.

Through Line shows how Asawa’s drawings exceed the page, entangling the wisdom of nature with the specificity of human experience. Adam’s Ranunculus, (P.F. 1107, Bouquet from Adam Lanier with Snail (1999) is a drawing of a gifted bouquet that Asawa eventually gifted back to the giver. Other drawings feature Asawa’s loved ones, such as Untitled (FF.1211, Paul Lanier on Patterned Blanket) (1961), an intricate but tender felt-tip pen portrait of her infant son Paul, in which the only un-patterned section of the piece is the baby’s skin.

An intricately patterned drawing of a baby asleep on a blanket.

Ruth Asawa, “Untitled (FF.1211, Paul Lanier on Patterned Blanket),” 1961, felt-tipped pen on paper on board, 31 x 21 in. Private collection. © 2024 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner

These images are controlled by Asawa’s hand while leaving enough room for imperfect forms of nature to make their mark. “I was interested in…the economy of the line,” Asawa once said of her work, “making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out.” This negotiation of object, space, and surface is apparent in Asawa’s stamp works such as Untitled (SF.045c, Potato Print – Branches, Purple/Blue) (ca.1951-52). The tool of the stamp has an inherent finality, yet there are places where the saturation fades, where the color bleeds through. Asawa allows the material to convey its own temperaments  its own response to its collaborating surfaces.

A japanese woman stares into the camera while holding a folded paper sculpture.

Ruth Asawa holding a paperfold, ca. 1970s, gelatin silver print, 9 13/16 x 7 5/16 in. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Photo: Laurence Cuneo. © 2023 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner

Best known for her fine wire sculptures, Asawa was born in Norwalk, California in 1926, where she worked on her family’s farm. Even then, Asawa drew hourglass figures in the dirt as a child, sealing her interest in balance and natural materials. She later attended the infamously experimental Black Mountain College, studying under Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers and architect Buckminster Fuller. 

Halftone prints of wire sculptures.

Ruth Asawa, “Untitled (ZP.16B,” Twelve Looped – Wire Sculptural Forms), ca. mid-to-late 1950s,
screentone on board, 10 x 24 in. Private collection. © 2024 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner. Photo: James Paonessa

Opacity — it’s a word we art writers choke ourselves on, often without understanding its true Glissantian meaning. Opacity in Asawa’s hands creates a thin membrane between the known and unknown, which perhaps even protects us within that sticky cell. Asawa renders objects that betray an affective intimacy while still refusing to fully define themselves. Untitled (SD.264, Looped-Wire Five-Lobed Sculpture Drawing) (1957) is a structured iron cast object on the outside, yet on the inside contains a riverine wildness. A better word for Asawa’s work might be porous, an openness to changing the world and letting the world change you. Beyond the studio, Asawa was a staunch arts advocate. She joined the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1968, then went on to help establish the first public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982, renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010. 

An installation shot of prints and drawings and a single abstract wire sculpture.

Installation view of “Ruth Asawa Through Line.” Photo: Paul Hester

Through her drawings, Asawa imagines new containers for living and observing and offers different shapes to the life around her. Her use of negative space at once makes life cellular and vast. In the exhibition, I stopped at Asawa’s Networks series. Deeply psychological, the sprawling drawings are as familiar to me as if I’d drawn them with my own hand. I made similar iterative markings when I moved to California as an othered preteen uneasy and excited by the recent uproot, dust, and dry heat. Asawa’s Network drawings’ dense, anxiously endless branches mimic both the internal systems of the body and the natural world. They could be within us or they could be around us, or they could be both, making the known uncanny in a way that instills wonder and not horror. Given Asawa’s background, I think of her Network branches as a literal lifeline. Asawa’s early art training took place in two separate incarceration camps as a child, one on the Santa Anita racetrack and one in Arkansas. In Santa Anita, she was interned with several Disney animators, who led her towards an attention to the line. In Arkansas, interned children were sometimes allowed to leave the camp and explore nature through an arts program. There, she first started using watercolors.

An installation shot of Ruth Asawa Through Line.

Installation view of “Ruth Asawa Through Line.” Photo: Paul Hester

Asawa was a notorious insomniac. After I viewed Through Line, I woke up in the middle of the night with Asawa’s renderings still spinning in my head. I too know the urge to recreate small things in the middle of the night, in the early hours of the morning, to look at a loved one when they’re the furthest away from you, nestled into the crevices of their unconscious, as Asawa did Paul. My loved ones have also woken up to renderings of their faces — insights into how I see them. In describing Asawa’s long creative friendship with photographer Imogen Cunningham, the Whitney Museum’s curator Kim Conaty maintains that they kept “imagining each other” over and over again. Through Line offers us a new way of imagining Asawa, allowing her to be a complex, iterative, creative force in the minds of generations to come. 

 

Ruth Asawa Through Line is co-curated by Edouard Kopp, John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Chief Curator of The Menil Drawing Institute and Kim Conaty, the Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with Kirsten Marples, Curatorial Associate at the Menil Drawing Institute, and Scout Hutchinson, Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition is on view at the Menil Collection in Houston through July 21, 2023.

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