Abstract wire creation by Ruth Asawa

The Marvel of Ruth Asawa’s Hanging Orbs

Discover the under-recognized artist's work

By Beth Hamilton

Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California. Her parents immigrated to California from Japan at the turn of the century, and operated a seasonal crop farm where Asawa worked as a child. Like many Americans, the Asawa family endured extreme financial hardships during the Depression. Their situation was further exacerbated by the prejudice against their foreign ancestry. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the U.S. Government issued the removal of Japanese Americans, displacing the Asawa family and thousands of others along the Pacific Coast. With her family, Asawa was interned in the stables of the Santa Anita Race Track, and later to a camp in Arkansas. Amazingly, Asawa persevered in the face of opposition; she would go on to obtain a college education, and become a pioneering sculptor of spiritually arresting forms. The grace and beauty of her works defies the oppressive upbringing she endured from the discrimination towards her Japanese ancestry.

Asawa first practiced art and design during high school while she was still interned in Arkansas. Following graduation, she pursued an advanced degree to become an art teacher at the Milwaukee State Teacher’s College. Her hopes of teaching were swiftly destroyed when she was barred from the profession because of lingering discrimination towards Japanese- Americans. Asawa, with unnerving resiliency, then enrolled in Black Mountain College, an interdisciplinary program near Asheville, North Carolina, to pursue her interest in art.

Black Mountain College opened in 1933 to promote art within a cross-disciplinary curriculum. Buckminster Fuller, Ilya Bolotowsky, Merce Cunningham, and Walter Gropius were among the influential teachers who fostered the notion of American avant-garde art. Asawa studied beneath Josef Albers, a former educator at the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany. During her three years at Black Mountain College, Asawa experimented with wire sculpture, a medium for which she quickly became known.

A trip to Mexico in 1947 implanted further creativity in Asawa. She applied the traditional crochet techniques of Mexican basket makers to her interest in sculpture. The looped-wire Mexican baskets inspired Asawa to create a series of hanging mobiles constructed of thin, yet durable metal wires. A continuous thread of wire was woven together to construct biomorphic, organic forms, an aesthetic widely used by designers in the post-war era as an antidote to the inhumane atrocities of war. Asawa considered her sculptures as three-dimensional drawings; the looped wires acted as lines drawn in space. The painstaking effort of weaving an unmalleable material is barely apparent as the form evokes the softness of a pliable textile.

Untitled, S. 446 is an exceptional example of Asawa’s hanging orbs completed during the 1950s. The seven-lobed sculpture of crocheted brass wire was produced shortly after her influential trip to Mexico and exemplifies her unique understanding of form. The hollow, transparent shape challenges the traditional idea of sculpture as a solid mass as light permeates through the looped wires and transforms the space surrounding the object. The undulating and irregular shapes, whose curvature resembles the female form, varies in appearance according to the viewer’s position. Asawa’s wire sculptures were widely celebrated during her career; she received her first solo show at New York’s Peridot Gallery in 1954 and would later find inclusion in the Whitney’s annual exhibitions.

Cover image: Ruth Asawa, American, 1926–2013. Untitled (S. 446, Hanging, Seven-Lobed Single-Layer Continuous Form), c. 1952. Looped brass wire, 78 x 14 x 14 inches.