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  • "I was interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space.... I realized that I could make wire forms interlock, expand, and contract with a single strand, because a line can go anywhere."
    — Ruth Asawa

    Ruth Asawa, c. 1951. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham. Photo © Imogen Cunningham Trust;, Artwork © 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner.

    Utilizing a process she compared to “drawing in space,” Ruth Asawa created Untitled (S.045 Hanging Five-Lobed Continuous Forms Within a Form, with Spheres Suspended in the First, Second and Third Lobes) using taped fingers to loop wire around a wooden dowel.i Her wire constructions, transparent and suspended from the ceiling, subverted conventional conceptions of sculpture—indeed, when she first exhibited one in 1950, its very classification as sculpture was challenged.

     

    Having remained in the artist’s family collection for decades following its creation, Untitled (S.045) arrives on the market at an auspicious moment in Asawa’s recent institutional and commercial “rediscovery.” The first major museum survey of Asawa’s work in over 10 years was presented at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis in 2018-2019, and Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe will open next year at Modern Art Oxford before travelling to the Stavanger Kunstmuseum in Norway. Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, a landmark biography by Marilyn Chase, was published earlier this year, while sculptures by the artist have been consistently achieving record-breaking prices.

     

    John Yau on Asawa’s Untitled (S. O45)

     

    John Yau is a poet and art critic who has written extensively on modern and contemporary art, and specifically on the work of Ruth Asawa. His monograph on the Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong will be published in spring 2021.

     

    Asawa was born to Umakichi Asawa, a truck farmer, and his wife, Haru Asawa, in Norwalk, California, a farming community outside Los Angeles. The fourth of seven children, she grew up working on her family’s plot of rented land when she was not attending public school or a community-run Japanese school, where she studied calligraphy and kendo, a form of fencing. That Asawa would rise from this humble beginning to become one of America’s most innovative sculptors is an inspiring story of single-minded determination.

     

    In February 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor, her father was arrested by the FBI and sent to an internment camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico. In May 1942, Ruth and the rest of her family were relocated to the Santa Anita Racetrack, where she studied with Japanese artists who were also interned there. In September 1942, she and her family were transferred to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, where she resumed her study of art and served as the art editor of the yearbook produced by the internment camp’s high school. After graduating in 1943, Asawa enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College, which had an affordable tuition, with the intention of becoming an art teacher.

     

    The identification card issued to Ruth Asawa upon her August 1943 departure from Rohwer concentration camp. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the children of Ruth Asawa.

    Sponsored by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, a Quaker organization, Asawa moved to Milwaukee, earning credits toward her degree until 1946, when she learned that she would not be able to devote her fourth year to practice teaching because no school in Wisconsin would hire a person of Japanese descent. Undeterred by this rejection, she decided to go to art school, applying to the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, founded in 1933, which she had heard about from a friend.

    "At once vulnerable and magisterial, [Asawa's sculptures] are suffused with the history, heritage, and humanity of a uniquely American artist."
    — John Yau
    Asawa arrived at Black Mountain as a shy 20-year-old who had not yet defined herself or her passion. By the time she left in 1949, she had completely transformed herself into a woman brimming with determination and possessing remarkable poise.

     

    Ruth Asawa at Black Mountain College, 1946-1949. Photographed by Clemens Kalischer.

    While at Black Mountain, Asawa befriended Josef Albers, who along with his wife Anni, were relatively unknown outside a small artistic circle at the time. Josef, who had previously taught at the Bauhaus, was engaged with painting, design, typography, and handicrafts, while Anni was a textile artist and printmaker. Each of them opened Asawa’s eyes to different processes and untraditional materials.

     

    In the summer of 1947, under the sponsorship of the Quakers, Asawa returned to Mexico and worked as a volunteer teacher in the town of Toluca. While there, she learned about the wire loop, which the locals used to make wire baskets. The act of making a loop, or bundling wires together and tying them with a knot, soon became central to her work. The loop, done in profuse repetition, gave her the freedom to make a range of transparent forms that contain other transparent forms within them. Many of these works she suspended from the ceiling. Conceivably they could grow to any size, limited only by the dimensions of the room in which they were suspended.

     

    Ruth Asawa, c. 1951. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham. Photo © Imogen Cunningham Trust, Artwork © 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner.

    "It is as if Untitled (S. O45) is a model for cells undergoing a transformation, a generative organism releasing spores or giving birth."
    — John Yau
    Through the act of weaving, the artist transformed metal wire—an industrial material—into a cellular structure, something both microscopic and organic. Paradoxically, the structure is also a kind of armor, at once protective and vulnerable, with inside and outside visible at the same time.

     

    Untitled (S. O45 Hanging Five-Lobed Continuous Forms Within a Form, with Spheres Suspended in the First, Second and Third Lobes)  is an elongated, continuously changing tubular form whose stem swells at the top, bottom, and twice in the middle to accommodate smaller spherical forms cocooned inside. It is as if the sculpture is a model for cells undergoing a transformation, a generative organism releasing spores or giving birth. 

    Asawa said about her work, “All my wire sculptures come from the same loop. And there’s only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape. That shape comes out of working with the wire. You don’t think ahead of time, this is what I want. You work on it as you go along. You make the line, a two-dimensional line, then you go into space, and you have a three-dimensional piece. It is like drawing in space.”ii 

     

    Asawa’s drawings in space such as Untitled (S. O45)—buoyant structures of woven wire, light, and shadow—are like nothing else in modernist art, before or since. At once vulnerable and magisterial, their formal inventions are suffused with the history, heritage, and humanity of a uniquely American artist.

     

    Cut from the Archives: Excerpts from Ruth Asawa: Of Forms and Growth

     


    Collector’s Digest

     

    • Asawa’s work has been a subject of renewed commercial interest, mirroring the international institutional attention it has received since David Zwirner announced its representation of the artist’s estate in 2017.

     

    • In the last year alone, the world auction record for Asawa has been broken twice and hammer prices have dramatically outperformed estimates—with five works achieving over $2,000,000. 

  • [left] Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes), circa 1953-1954. Achieved $5,382,500 in 2020 [right] Untitled (S.267, Hanging Six-Lobed, Four Part, Discontinuous Surface with Interior Forms in the Third, Fourth and Fifth Lobes, 1952. Achieved $4,255,00 in 2020
    [left] Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes), circa 1953-1954. Achieved $5,382,500 in 2020 [right] Untitled (S.267, Hanging Six-Lobed, Four Part, Discontinuous Surface with Interior Forms in the Third, Fourth and Fifth Lobes, 1952. Achieved $4,255,00 in 2020
  • i, ii Ruth Asawa, quoted in Jacqueline Hoefer, “Ruth Asawa: A Working Life,” The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Berkeley, 2006, p. 16.

    • Provenance

      The Artist
      Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco
      Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above in 2007)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013

    • Exhibited

      San Francisco, Rena Bransten Gallery, Ruth Asawa: Shapes and Shadows, November 29, 2007 – January 12, 2008

    • Artist Biography

      Ruth Asawa

      Born in the California countryside just before the Great Depression, Ruth Asawa was an American artist known for her intricate, ethereal sculptures made from crocheted wire. Asawa’s brilliantly layered hanging artworks simulate biomorphic forms and are beloved for their delicate atmospheric presence and gentle interaction with their environments, which often cast shadows as graceful and elaborate as the artworks themselves.

      A promising artist since childhood, Asawa enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina after coming of age in the Japanese internment camp at Santa Anita, California. At Black Mountain, she studied under Josef Albers who introduced the young artist to the use of wire as an artistic material. Having learned of a wire crocheting technique used by the indigenous people of Toluca, Mexico to weave wire baskets on a class trip, Asawa elaborated on the process Albers introduced her to and applied it to the creation of her famed hanging sculptures. Liberated by the “economy of a line,” which enabled her to create artworks that existed in space and enclosed light without blocking it, Asawa relied on this practice for the majority of her artistic career and employed it in her most acclaimed works.

      Asawa’s work is featured in the collection of major arts institutions worldwide such as the de Young Museum, San Francisco and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. She was the subject of a major 2017 retrospective at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, which represents her estate. Asawa passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

       
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Property of an Important Texan Collector

5

Untitled (S.045, Hanging Five-Lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form within a Form, with Spheres in the First, Second and Third Lobes)

copper and brass wire
72 x 14 x 14 in. (182.9 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm)
Executed circa early 1960s.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $3,539,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

[email protected] 


 

20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020