Skip to main content

Conversations Across Collections: Ruth Asawa in Crafting America

Guest viewing basket woven hanging sculpture

Welcome to Conversations across Collections. This entry is the fifth in a collaborative series between the Archives of American Art and Crystal Bridges where we share the archival backstory on objects from each of our collections. In this blog, Jen Padgett, associate curator and co-curator of Crafting America, examines the intersection of art and craft through the work of renowned artist Ruth Asawa. Once you’ve read this story, hop over to the Archives of American Art and read more about Ruth Asawa’s time at the Ankrum Gallery in 1962.

 

Our current exhibition Crafting America (open through May 31) explores craft within the broad context of American art. It includes numerous loans from artists, galleries, museums, and collectors across the country, presenting a range of new work at the museum.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled
Ruth Asawa (1926 - 2013), Untitled(S.028, Hanging Four-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form), 1960. Iron wire, 86 1/2 in. × 32 in. × 32 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.8.

One of these is Untitled (S.028, Hanging Four-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form) (1960) by Ruth Asawa. Made from a single line of looped iron wire, the sculpture hangs from the ceiling. Its rhythmic shapes cast dramatic shadows as light passes through the open structure. Asawa’s work is now acclaimed internationally, prized in museum collections, and even immortalized on USPS postage stamps. But that wasn’t always the case. For decades she received attention within her San Francisco community and eventually along the West Coast, but did not have acclaim further afield.

This lack of attention may be in part because she was associated with craft, working in a way considered outside of the mainstream of the contemporary art world. Artificial divisions between “art” and “craft” have sometimes limited how people understand rich histories of making and materials across creative practices. Asawa herself wasn’t concerned with a distinction between the two, as she explained in a 2002 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art: “It doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things. And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire and you make it, you give it a new definition.”

Asawa didn’t worry about dividing lines between art and craft. Instead of imagining these as separate categories opposed to each other, we can think about how they overlap and inform each other. By seeing Asawa’s work through the lens of craft—drawing attention to skilled making, exploring her interest in transforming an ordinary material—we can gain better understanding not only of her work but also the complex and global story of modern art.

Attention to making was important to Asawa. Responsiveness to material and the importance of hand and eye working in coordination were both lessons emphasized during her time at Black Mountain College, the experimental school in North Carolina that included instruction across a variety of media. There she studied with Josef Albers, the artist and educator from Germany who emphasized rigorous experimentation and learning by doing.

Anni Albers, Untitled
Anni Albers (1899 - 1994), Untitled, 1950. Cotton and bast, 25 1/2 × 15 in. Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Josef Albers, Black Wall: Variant
Josef Albers (1888 - 1976), Black Wall: Variant, 1948-1955. Oil on board, 23 3/4 x 34 3/4 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2009.13.

Anni Albers, a masterful weaver and Josef’s wife, also taught at Black Mountain College. Her weaving is included in Crafting America.

Work by Josef Albers is currently on view in our Modern Art Galleries. Josef and Anni visited Mexico frequently, crossing paths with Asawa there in the summer of 1947. Josef began his Variant series that year, drawing inspiration from adobe buildings he saw during those travels.

Asawa developed her hanging sculptures based on a technique of looping wire she saw in rural Mexico. While traveling to the small town of Toluca in 1947, she saw functional wire baskets and learned the basic looping technique from a local maker. Asawa took a simple skill and turned it into something remarkable, driven by her interests in form and volume, light and shadow, line and space, interior and exterior.

While much has been written about Asawa’s work, what about those Mexican wire baskets? They themselves were a modern innovation. Mastery of basket weaving in the Toluca region goes back to ancient times, as makers used (and continue to use) sedges, reeds, and other plant fibers to weave containers. Unlike these organic materials, metal wire is an industrial product. It demands an entirely different approach to construction. The resourcefulness and innovation of the makers Asawa met—using a modern material in an innovative way—suggest a broader story. By thinking more deeply about making and exploring how skilled knowledge is transmitted, we can begin to ask new questions and uncover more complex histories.

Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2
Ruth Asawa and Her Wire Sculpture 2, 1951. Gelatin silver print 24.1 x 18.4 cm. Photo: Imogen Cunningham © 2020 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa; Courtesy David Zwirner.

There’s More to the Story:

Want to learn more? Read the Archives of American Art blog about Ruth Asawa’s time at the Ankrum Gallery in 1962.

 

Written by Jen Padgett, associate curator.

 

Special thanks to:

Archives of American Art Smithsonian