“During the last week I’ve been drawing,” writes John Berger in Confabulations, “asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalized, and are not particularly addressed to us.” Ascending the stairs into Modern Art Oxford, one enters a strange forest. Lit from many angles, casting duplicate shadows, the distinctive hanging sculptures of American artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) float as if suspended in deep water. Fragile and sinewy, evoking cacti or carcasses stripped of their skins, Asawa’s pendulum-like structures, intricately brought-to-form by single threads of looping wire, emit a solemn, otherworldly presence. Drawn from her minute observations of the structures of organic life (inspired, as she suggests, “by plant growth, bone structures and patterns seen in water and oil, soap bubbles and smoke”), Asawa’s sculptures cast out a message of their own, totemic and mysterious, captivating our attention as we bring our own forms face-to-face with theirs.
The first public solo exhibition of her work in Europe, Citizen of the Universe, emphasises Asawa’s sculptures as the product of an artist committed not only to a profound sense of creative individuality but to the enriching values art can bring to both communal and domestic life. Celebrating her studentship at the experimental Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, the show offers a generous selection of Asawa’s lesser-known drawing and printmaking, much of it produced in classes taught by Josef Albers and R. Buckminster Fuller, the influence of whose geometric architectural designs can be detected in Asawa’s later works. Alongside these, the exhibition also centralises Asawa’s importance as a figure for whom artistic practice and domestic life were not distinct from one another, revealed in photographs by Imogen Cunningham that depicts the artist working studiously at home among her six children, illustrating the “integration of creative labour within daily life” at the very heart of her philosophy.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Asawa became one of an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans forcibly interned in detention centres across the United States. While these years saw her artistic gifts encouraged by several Disney animators with whom she was incarcerated, Asawa’s plans to train as an art teacher following the Second World War were scorched by further racial prejudice, leading to her private rejection (in a letter to Albert Lanier, a fellow student and future husband) of the labels ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’, choosing instead to identify as “a citizen of the universe,” fully awake to the freedoms and potentials of a life lived with and through the arts.
Asawa’s sculptures are the magnificent, lasting achievement of this life, blending the ontological strangeness of Yves Tanguy’s alien objects with the huge, time-comprehending trees of Tacita Dean’s photography. With great, stunning simplicity, they exemplify Asawa’s sense of the artist’s purpose: “An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.” Review is written by Rowland Bagnall.