Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play – 鲁思:阿萨瓦和第039号的皮影戏

Feature - 18 Apr 2018

Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play

How the late artist's transparent sculpture rethinks the relationship between figure and ground

By Ann Reynolds

Transparency excited Ruth Asawa. ‘You can see right through most of my sculpture,’ she claimed, ‘so that no matter what you see, you can always also see through it.’ The majority of Asawa’s three-dimensional hanging wire works, for which she is now best known, are, indeed, transparent, their woven wire loops loosely catching one another to produce a relatively open, and somewhat uneven, mesh.

Initially, these works gave structural form to many of the images in Asawa’s drawings, which themselves were exercises in the fluctuating relationships between figure and ground: one shape often overlaps, without entirely obscuring the others, through a simple economy of means. Ultimately, the wire works’ transparency was fully manifested in the most magical and beautiful ways when Asawa grouped two or more pieces together and illuminated them, so that their overlapping organic forms cast delicate, also overlapping, two-dimensional shadows onto the surroundings walls. Later, she built a doubling, tripling and, even, quadrupling shadow effect into these works by using a single continuous piece of wire to generate nested shapes, in which the outer surface of one form became the inner surface of the next, with each shape arising, she noted, ‘from the capacity of the technique and the way in which they grow’. Her goal throughout was always to encourage the viewer to truly see – as if for the first time.

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Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play - 鲁思:阿萨瓦和第039号的皮影戏

Ruth Asawa with hanging sculpture, 1952. Courtesy: Imogen Cunningham Trust, the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, New York/London; photograph: Imogen Cunningham

Asawa’s artworks, regardless of medium, have been viewed through a number of lenses and as representative of a variety of categories, such as drawing, sculpture, textiles, weaving, craft or interior decoration. Asawa herself used different verbs to describe the process of making her wire works – including drawing, weaving, crocheting and knitting – each of which, conventionally, has been associated with a discrete medium and technique. The chameleon-like potential of Asawa’s pieces to be interpreted in so many ways has not always been beneficial to her career. Classifying her work as craft or interior decoration, for example, enabled some critics to dismiss it as an assembly of ‘baskets and fish traps’, as Otis Gage wrote in Art & Architecture in 1955. But John Yau has more recently suggested that the fact that Asawa’s work was made by  hand with simple tools – rather than welded or industrially  produced, for example – at a time when craft was in-creasingly viewed as obsolete, posed a direct challenge to contemporary categories of art, conventions of taste and the assumed gender identity of the artist in the 1950s and ’60s, even if this challenge was never directly acknowledged at the time.

In other respects, critics have tended to see right through Asawa’s art when comparing it to the work of more familiar, celebrated artists, such as Eva Hesse. Subtle formal differences and individual points of reference risk falling away in these instances, as Asawa is subsumed into the stories of others or added to conventional art-historical narratives. Her identity as a Japanese-American woman who was mother to six children, her incarceration along-side other Japanese-Americans in a US internment camp during World War II, her postwar experience as a student at Black Mountain College as well as her dedication to public art and education programmes have also inflected the writing about her work to varying degrees. Whilst these facts have rarely provided the primary lens through which Asawa’s work has been appraised, they have sometimes served as a partial qualifier that risks reifying her experience in terms of broader social, gender or racial characterizations.

Most artworks and artists are subject to these interpretive approaches – one more assimilative, the other more essentialist – especially if the artist is  a woman and/or identified with other sexual or racial  minorities. Articulating relationships between personal experience or artistic intention and broader categories of art, identity or historical events requires a delicate balance – especially if an artist operates within a variety of insti-tutions and for diverse audiences throughout her lifetime. Asawa’s interest in transparency seems key here, both in terms of presenting a particular visual experience and as a historically inflected conceptual approach to art. Instead of seeing through Asawa’s work to something else, which is assumed to be already known and outside it, how might her art’s transparency actively incorporate and transform its immediate – and, potentially, historical – surroundings to encourage viewers to perceive them differently?

Asawa felt that her explorations of form, especially through wire, seemed ‘to express the time in which I live […] with a material and method indicative of a technology which has so recently made this possible’. She also believed that her chosen technology made the concepts she worked with – ‘interpenetration, transparency, the illusion of more with less, the ratio of minute weight to apparent volume, durable fragility and the implication of movement where none exists’ – more widely relevant to her moment.

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Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play - 鲁思:阿萨瓦和第039号的皮影戏

Ruth Asawa, Dancers (BMC.52), c.1947–48, oil on paper, 58 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Asawa learned how to make her transparent wire forms from local craftspeople while she was in Toluca, Mexico, during the summer of 1947. She began by copying their wire baskets – exhibiting several at Black Mountain College in Spring 1948 – before developing her larger, more complex hanging wire sculptures. So, while the wire technique may have been new to Asawa, in reality its origins were traditional. On the other hand, the descriptive language she developed for her practice – in particular, her list of working concepts – was explicitly modernist, reflecting her training at Black Mountain College and, especially, her studies with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. Yet, she engaged with each concept, including transparency, in ways that were totally her own.

Transparency is considered to be one of modernism’s most salient qualities, particularly in architecture. But, in their 1963 ‘transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’, the architectural historian Colin Rowe and the painter and architectural theorist Robert Slutzky felt that its descriptive utility had become compromised by an abundance of diluting synonyms and a failure to distinguish between what they termed literal and phenomenal transparency. Literal transparency refers to an inherent quality of certain materials, such as glass, and the concomitant experience of seeing through them without impediment. Phenomenal transparency, which Rowe and Slutzky initially describe in terms of developments in modern painting, refers to an intrinsically ambiguous experience of spatial organization. whereas literal transparency ‘tends to be associated with the trompe l’oeil effect of a translucent object in a deep, naturalist space […] phenomenal transparency seems to be found when a painter seeks the articulated presentation of frontally displayed objects in a shallow, abstracted space’. One proffers a single, unambiguous image of space, while the other produces a continuous, unresolvable oscillation among various possible images of space within a single painting.

In the case of architecture, this tension is produced by disparities between the physical realities of a three-dimensional built space and the various spatial ‘images’ it presents to viewers as they move toward and through it. Rowe and Slutzky describe this as an experience of ‘a  continuous dialectic between fact and implication’. Such experiences are subtle, even as they dislocate and de-familiarize the spatial experiences of viewers who are paying close attention. Paradoxically, this is a transparency that manifests by calling attention to itself. It requires constant attention: a looking through that is, in fact, also a thinking through of what is actually seen.

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Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play - 鲁思:阿萨瓦和第039号的皮影戏

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.089, Hanging Asymmetrical Eleven Interlocked Bubbles), c.1958, galvanized brass and iron wire, 66 × 56 × 43 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, New York/London

Asawa’s wire works are literally transparent in the manner that Rowe and Slutzky describe; you can see right through them. But, as you truly begin to see them, you realize that they are also phenomenally transparent because, as in almost all of her work, Asawa engages with an irresolvable dynamic between figure and ground. First, regardless of the fact that they are physically three-dimensional, her wire pieces are all frontal. Little more can be learned by observing them from diverse viewpoints: they do not  articulate their three-dimensionality as translucent objects in a deep, naturalist space. Rather, the space they articulate is quite shallow and stratified by distinct, yet overlapping layers, which do not easily resolve into a single image or a sense of what is figure and what is background within the work itself. The shadows, when present, further complicate such distinctions by adding another spatial layer and another image. It can be difficult to discern which is the material work and which is its cast image, especially in photographic reproductions that only heighten these ambiguities by juxtaposing them on a flat picture plane. Finally, despite the large scale of many of these works and their biomorphic shapes, they suggest weightlessness and a freedom from gravitational pull; they resemble life forms or bodies in space, but do not materially act like them. All of these paradoxes and ambiguities imply a conceptual transparency that defies reductive categorization, as does Asawa’s personal refusal to succumb to embedded notions of what an artist does or does not do. Her embrace of transparency’s ambiguities, no matter how subtle they might be, allows for no easy identification or quick categorization. It just requires close attention.

Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) was born in Norwalk, California, USA. This autumn, the Pulitzer Foundation in St Louis, USA, will present the first museum survey of the artist’s work since 2006, and a monograph of her work will be published by David Zwirner Books. In 2017, her work was the subject of a solo show at David Zwirner, New York, USA, and was included in ‘Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Shadow Play.

Main image: Ruth Asawa, 2018, exhibition view at David Zwirner, New York. Courtesy: the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner, New York/London

Ann Reynolds

Ann Reynolds is the author of Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere (2003). She is the 2017–18 Allen W. Clowes Fellow at the National Humanities Center, Durham, USA, where she is working on her latest book, In Our time, a history of intergenerational relationships among New York artists c.1940–70.

Ruth Asawa
Ann Reynolds
David Zwirner
New York
The Pulitzer Foundation
St Louis

Issue 195

First published in Issue 195

May 2018


特色- 18 APR 2018鲁思Asaaa&039;皮影戏后期艺术家的透明雕塑如何重新思考由雷诺兹-透明的人物和地面之间的关系激发Ruth Asawa。“你可以看到我雕塑的大部分,”她声称,“所以不管你看到什么,你都能看穿它。”阿萨瓦的三维挂线作品的大部分,她现在是最为人所知的,实际上是透明的,他们的编织线松散地循环了。相互之间产生一个相对开放的、有点不均匀的网状物。最初,这些作品给阿萨瓦绘画中的许多图像提供了结构形式,它们本身是在gure和地之间的浮动关系中的练习:一个形状经常重叠,而不完全遮蔽其他,通过简单的经济手段。最终,当Asawa将两个或两个以上的碎片组合在一起并照亮它们时,电线作品的透明度完全表现在最神奇和最漂亮的方式上,这样它们重叠的有机形式将精致的、重叠的、二维的阴影投射到周围的墙壁上。后来,她通过使用一个连续的线材来产生嵌套形状,其中一个表单的外表面变成了下一个内表面,每个形状都出现了。它们生长的技术和方法。她的目标始终是鼓励观众真正地看到——仿佛是在第一次。WebjCunim010ZCMYK.JPG Ruth Asawa's Shadow Play - 鲁思:阿萨瓦和第039号的皮影戏 Ruth Asawa悬挂雕塑,1952。礼貌:伊莫金坎宁安信托,鲁思的房地产和David Zwirner的财产,新约克/伦敦;照片:Imogen Cunningham Asawa的作品,无论媒介,已被视为通过多种镜头,并代表了各种类别,如绘画,雕塑、纺织品、编织、工艺或室内装饰。Asasa自己用不同的动词来描述她的线作品的过程——包括绘画、编织、钩编和编织——每一个传统上都与一个离散的媒介和技术联系在一起。阿萨瓦作品中的变色龙般的潜力在很多方面都被解释,但她的职业生涯并不总是如此。例如,将她的作品分类为工艺品或室内装潢,使得一些批评家将其视为“篮子和陷阱”的集合,正如Otis Gage 1955在艺术与建筑中所写的那样。但John Yau最近提出,Asawa的作品是用简单的工具手工制作的,而不是焊接或工业生产的,例如,在手工被认为过时的时候,对当代艺术的C类提出了直接挑战。20世纪50年代和60年代艺术家的品味和假设的性别身份,即使这个挑战在当时还没有被直接承认。在其他方面,批评家们倾向于正确地看待Asawa的艺术,将其比作更为著名的艺术家,如伊娃黑塞。在这些例子中,微妙的形式性和个别的参照点风险逐渐消失,因为Asawa被包含在其他故事中,或者被添加到传统艺术的历史叙述中。她是一位日裔美国妇女的身份,她是六个孩子的母亲,在二战期间在美国的一个收容所露营期间,她被关押在其他日本裔美国人的身边,她作为黑山学院的一名学生的战后经历以及她对公共艺术和教育项目的奉献精神。也在不同程度上对她的作品进行了写作。虽然这些事实很少提供AsaWa的作品被评价的主要镜头,但它们有时作为一个部分的质量标准,在更广泛的社会、性别或种族特征方面可能会使她的经历变得危险。大多数艺术品和艺术家都受这些解释方法的影响——一种更具同化性,另一种更为本质主义——尤其是当艺术家是一名女性和/或与其他性别或种族少数族裔认同时。明确个人经验或艺术意图与更广泛的艺术、身份或历史事件之间的关系需要一种微妙的平衡——特别是如果一位艺术家在各种各样的灌输和各种各样的受众中贯穿一生。阿萨瓦对透明度的兴趣在这里似乎是关键的,无论是在呈现特定的视觉体验方面,还是作为一种历史上屈折变化的艺术概念方法。而不是把Asawa的作品看做其他的东西,而这些作品被认为是早已知道的,在她的作品之外,她的艺术作品的透明度如何能积极地融入和改变它的直接的、潜在的、历史的环境,以鼓励观众以不同的方式看待它们。阿萨瓦感觉到她对形式的探索,特别是通过电线的探索,似乎是用一种材料和方法来表达我生活的时间……这是一种最近使这成为可能的技术。她还相信,她所选择的技术使她所设计的概念——“渗透性、透明性、更多的幻觉、更少的重量、明显的体积、持久的脆弱性和没有任何意义的运动的含义——与她更广泛相关。”时刻。WebE.BMC.JPG WPA6022602IMG Ruth Asawa,舞者(BMC。52),C.1947 - 48,纸上的油,58×30厘米。礼貌:圣·Francisco Asawa的美术博物馆在1947夏天在墨西哥托卢卡时学会了如何让当地的工匠们做透明的电线。她开始抄袭他们的金属篮——在1948春季的黑山学院展出几件,然后发展出更大、更复杂的挂线雕塑。因此,尽管有线技术对AsaWa可能是新的,但实际上它的起源是传统的。另一方面,她为她的实践而开发的描述性语言,特别是她的工作概念列表,显然是现代主义的,反映了她在黑山学院的训练,尤其是她与约瑟夫·亚伯斯和Buckminster Fuller的研究。然而,她与每个概念,包括透明度,完全是她自己的方式。透明度被认为是现代主义最突出的品质之一,尤其是在建筑方面。但是,在他们的1963个“透明度:文字和现象”,建筑历史学家柯林·罗和画家和建筑理论家Robert Slutzky认为,它的描述效用已经受到丰富的稀释同义词和未能区分什么是被称为文字透明和现象透明。字面透明度是指某些材料的内在质量,如玻璃,以及伴随的经验,透过它们而不受阻碍。现象透明性,Rowe和SLUZZKY最初描述的现代绘画的发展,指的是一种内在模糊的空间组织体验。而文字透明度往往与深邃的自然主义空间中半透明物体的TROMPE L'OEIL效应相关联[…]当一个画家在浅抽象空间中寻求正面显示物体的清晰呈现时,就会发现惊人的透明度。'.一个是一个单一的,明确的空间图像,而另一个产生一个连续的,不可分辨的振荡之间的各种可能的空间图像在一个单一的绘画。在建筑的情况下,这种张力是由三维建筑空间的物理现实和在向它们移动并通过它时向观众呈现的各种空间“图像”之间的差异而产生的。Rowe和斯鲁茨基把这描述为“事实与含蓄的连续辩证法”的经验。这样的经验是微妙的,即使他们脱色和熟悉观众的空间体验,他们正在密切关注。矛盾的是,这是一种通过唤起对自身的关注而表现出来的透明性。它需要不断的关注:通过观察,事实上,也是对实际看到的事物的思考。WEBYASARU0100SHIDWOWCYMYK.JPG WPA60260602IMG Ruth Asawa,无标题(S.089A,悬挂不对称十一个互锁气泡),C.1958,镀锌黄铜和铁丝,66×56×43厘米。礼貌:Ruth Asawa和David Zwirner,纽约/伦敦AsaWa的电线工厂的字面上是透明的方式,Rowe和斯鲁茨基描述;你可以看到他们通过。但是,当你真的开始看到它们时,你会意识到它们也是非常透明的,因为在她几乎所有的作品中,Asawa都参与了一种不可分辨的图形和背景之间的动态。首先,不管它们在物理上是三维的,她的线材都是正面的。通过从不同的角度观察他们,可以学到更多的东西:他们不把他们的三个维度表述成一个深邃的自然主义空间中半透明的物体。相反,它们所表达的空间是非常浅的,分层的是不同的,但重叠的层,它们不容易分解成一个单一的图像,或者是一个什么是图形,什么是工作本身的背景的感觉。当存在阴影时,通过添加另一个空间层和另一个图像进一步使这些区别复杂化。很难辨别哪一个是材料工作,这是它的投射图像,特别是在摄影复制品中,只有在平面图像平面上把这些模糊度叠加起来,才能提高这些模糊性。最后,尽管大量的这些作品和它们的生物形态,他们建议失重和自由。


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