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From wire to weightlessness: Ruth Asawa, Untitled

Ruth Asawa's 1958 sculpture, Untitled, is a biomorphic form made of wire, suggesting seed pods or embryos. The sculpture's weightless and delicate appearance contrasts with the durable nature of wire. Asawa's work, influenced by her time at Black Mountain College and her experiences as a Japanese-American, challenges traditional definitions of art.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Allison] We're here in the galleries of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a sculpture by Ruth Asawa called Untitled from 1958. This is a type of sculpture that the artist made for many years. These biomorphic forms made out of wire. - [Beth] This suspended sculpture consists of looped wire and forms within forms. - [Allison] They suggest to me something like a seed pod or the embryo in a womb. - [Beth] The sense I get also is dropping an oil into water with a dropper. This sense of motion where the oil penetrates the water but also collects on the surface in these spherical forms. - [Allison] So there is a sense almost of unfolding time here. - [Beth] There's an interesting tension that's created. Wire itself is malleable to a certain point but here it has a sense of weightlessness. It seems very light and airy and the sculpture seems delicate. - [Allison] When you think about wire, you think about about something - [Beth] that's tough and durable. - [Allison] And hard on the hands, too. And I think she had to wear gloves when she worked with it. So this is a mundane and even ugly material that she's transformed into something - [Beth] that's beautiful and weightless. - [Allison] While we're looking at the sculpture here in the galleries, we see the shadows that it creates on the wall behind it. We see these circles within circles overlapping one another. - [Beth] One of the things that's really interesting about Asawa's practice is that she studied under Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. - [Allison] In the 1940s and 1950s, Black Mountain College was this amazing hub of artistic creativity. This is an experimental college in North Carolina and you have emigrates, people coming over like Albers from Europe. People are fleeing Nazi persecution and setting up shop here. - [Beth] What Black Mountain did different is focus on experimentation. The goal was not to train artists to sell artwork or to fill galleries. People like Albers were joined by Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Jacob Lawrence, who was actually an artist in residence at that time. Robert Rauschenberg was studying at Black Mountain. So Asawa comes out of this larger modernist tradition that is rooted in experimentation. - [Allison] So we're talking about this period during and immediately after the Second World War. And when we think about the Second World War we often think about Europe and the rise of Nazi Germany. But there is another theater for World War II and that's in the Pacific. Asawa grows up on the West Coast as a Japanese-American and often art historians see her use of wire as being part of her experience in an internment camp here in Arkansas. Asawa was one of more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were forcibly removed from their homes and their jobs on the West Coast and relocated, basically imprisoned, in internment camps. - [Beth] There was this hysteria around Japanese-Americans and this fear that they were a danger to national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. - [Allison] And the internment camp where she lived was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. - [Beth] Often when we're talking about artists that are marginalized, so artists that happen to be women, artists of color, art history tends to explain artworks through the lens of their biography. And quite often, histories of trauma are mapped onto these artists' practices. And while Asawa did spend time at two different internment camps, one in California and one here in Arkansas, the real foundation for this work is a summer she spent in Mexico, teaching students. So she was teaching art in Mexico and she learned how to make woven wire baskets from villagers. - [Allison] We're seeing this sculpture today in the gallery by itself but these were often seen together in groups as an inspiration. - [Beth] The artist actually preferred to have her sculptures grouped together. - [Allison] Often we think about going to a museum and looking at paintings on a wall or bronze sculptures we can walk around. That's our definition of art. But in the mid century in the United States, that definition began to change. - [Beth] That shift in the mid-twentieth century is asking the viewer to be in the space with the objects. So museum-going becomes a much more immersive experience. - [Allison] A much more participatory experience. - [Beth] Absolutely. - [Allison] And in my mind, that makes it all the more pleasurable. (jazzy piano music)