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ARTIST DOSSIER: Ruth Asawa's Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity

11/27/2013 09:16 am ET
  • ARTINFO The online authority for art news and gallery reviews

In 1947, a 21-year-old Ruth Asawa spent a summer in the rural Mexican town of Toluca, where she saw looped wire baskets for sale in a local market. Fascinated by their form, she learned how to make the baskets and, over time, appropriated the technique to create a body of hanging sculptural works that are as much about negative space as about physical objects.

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Ruth Asawa/Courtesy of Christie's

"All my wire sculptures come from the same loop," Asawa once said. "And there's only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape." She often described her modernist wire works, with their emphasis on line, light, and shade, as "drawings in space." Light penetrating their chain mail-like surface casts intricate shadows on surrounding walls like ghostly doubles of the works themselves.

Asawa's passing in August at age 87 came on the heels of an explosive upswing in the market for her unique and long-undervalued works, especially the multilobed sculptures, examples of which sold for $374,500 and $278,500 at Christie's and Sotheby's, respectively, in 2012. Then, at Sotheby's contemporary art day sale on May 15 of this year, Asawa's Untitled S.566 (Hanging Five-lobed Continuous Form with Spheres Inside Each Lobe, Four of the Inside Lobes Contain Spheres Within Them), from 1954, sold for $1,025,000, more than tripling its $300,000 low estimate. That evening at the postwar and contemporary sale at Christie's New York, her Untitled (S.108, Hanging, Six-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form Within a Form), from the late 1960s, soared well past its estimate of $250,000 to $350,000 to realize $1,443,750-- the current record for the artist. To complement its May sale, Christie's presented "Ruth Asawa: Objects & Apparitions," a month-long exhibition and private offering of 48 sculptures and works on paper, her first New York solo show in 50 years.

Until recently, however, the San Francisco-based sculptor was not widely known beyond the West Coast, and her works commanded relatively little: $1,000 or so for pieces sold during the 1950s and '60s, up to $100,000 for the largest works sold at the turn of the millennium. A breakthrough moment for Asawa's commercial market came in 2006, when Daniell Cornell curated a retrospective of her work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. "Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space," he says. "This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art. Although a survey was long overdue, it was timely."

Born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, Asawa grew up on a vegetable farm in Norwalk, California, with six siblings. Shortly after Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, her family was sent to an internment camp on the grounds of the Santa Anita Race Track. There they lived for six months in converted horse stables along with several artists. Asawa would later recount that this was where her art education began. She later completed three years at the Milwaukee State Teachers College but was not able to undertake the required student-teaching year because schools in Wisconsin would not hire a Japanese instructor. This rejection prompted Asawa to enroll at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the summer of 1946. At that time, the faculty of the pioneering and experimental liberal arts school included Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Jacob Lawrence; Willem de Kooning was a visiting artist, and Robert Rauschenberg was a classmate. It was also there that Asawa met her husband and lifelong companion, architect Albert Lanier.

By the late 1940s, Asawa had joined the San Francisco Women Artists group at the urging of friend Imogen Cunningham to "raise the level of women artists," as Asawa would later recall in Daniel Belasco's 2007 book Between the Waves: Feminist Positions in American Art, 1949-62. While she was certainly conscious of gender inequality in the art world, she never specifically attributed feminist intentions to her craft.

In 1954 Asawa had her first New York solo show at the Peridot Gallery, the same space that had given Louise Bourgeois her first solo sculpture show in 1949. This was followed by two more solos at Peridot, inclusion in the Whitney Museum's annual survey of new art in 1955 (now the biennial), and an invitation to participate in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial. Despite these early successes, many critics were quick to characterize Asawa's output as "women's work" or "craft."

"Asawa's work was viewed as a variant of weaving or basket-making for a very long time," says Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group and a member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors. "An artist such as Rosemarie Trockel now uses those techniques to great advantage and effect. But in Asawa's time, the art world had just come through de Kooning and Pollock in the 1940s, and these were the gigantic personalities that drove the hypermasculine discourse of the 1950s."

In 1968 Asawa began to focus more on civic engagement than her own practice, joining the San Francisco Arts Commission, where she campaigned for arts education reform. She also cofounded the Alvarado Arts Workshop, an education program that brought professional artists and performers into 50 San Francisco schools. "She found the time and energy required to keep up a gallery reputation to be a distraction from her love of art and her efforts to expand the role of the arts in creating a progressive, inclusive society," explains Cornell, now deputy director for art and senior curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum. "Gradually her works fell out of favor and were stigmatized by the categories of design, craft, and community-based projects."

While Asawa enjoyed respect in the museum world, particularly on the West Coast, and had a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1973, she eventually abandoned commercial gallery shows in favor of making public sculptures. "Selling was not a focus of Asawa's from the mid '60s through the '90s," says Jonathan Laib, a senior specialist in postwar and contemporary art at Christie's, who curated the selling exhibition, noting that she did continue to make wire sculptures, including a single-lobed work around 1990 that looks like those from the 1950s.

Prior to Asawa's 2006 retrospective at the de Young, it was still possible to find and purchase a major hanging work from a private collection for $50,000 to $100,000. After 2006, however, prices rose as auction houses began to reconsider the categorization of Asawa's work. "We took Ruth out of the context of design and placed her in the context of the fine arts alongside other postwar masters, and doing this on an international platform helped to change her market overnight," says Laib. The first big jump in price came in 2010. A 1952 work, Untitled (Continuous Form Within a Form) went for $98,500 at a June sale at Wright in Chicago; four months later, Untitled (Hanging Six-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form Within a Form), from 1965-69, tripled its $180,000 high estimate to achieve $578,500 at Christie's. "That came a little bit out of nowhere," says Miety Heiden, senior vice president and head of contemporary private sales at Sotheby's. "You don't see her work that often at all at auction."

Today, "there is a huge demand for Asawa and a scarcity of available work," says Laib. "Anyone interested in Josef Albers and Black Mountain College has to have one; anyone looking to expand a collection past the predictability of today's blue-chip artists has to have one." The multilobed hanging works, particularly those done between 1955 and 1969, are very rare and the most sought after. Single- lobed works can be found for $70,000 to $250,000. The highest price for a smaller work was achieved at Christie's during its postwar and contemporary morning sale on May 16, when Untitled (S.082, Hanging Single Sphere, Five-Layer Continuous Form Within a Form) from the early 1960s sold for $255,750, more than triple its $80,000 high estimate.

The popularity of Asawa's signature looped wire sculptures has also brought attention to the tied-wire sculptures she began making in the early 1960s. These spindly tree branch-like pieces, which now start at $250,000, were going for as little as $18,750 in 2011. "There is a gap in pricing between the tied-wire and the looped-wire works," acknowledges Laib, but he predicts that gap will close in the coming years.

So far, Asawa's drawings, prints, and bronze sculptures have yet to achieve the lofty prices of the wire works. Prints from her 1965 residency at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop have sold for $3,500 to $3,800, while her drawings, which exhibit an early interest in the organic shapes found in her sculptures, have brought $3,000 to $6,000 at auction. Peter Loughrey, director of modern and contemporary art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions, has identified her lesser-known bronze sculptures from the 1970s as a good investment, saying, "there are some cast bronze pieces that are way undervalued."

"When we first started exhibiting Ruth's work, the most appreciative were the connoisseurs of this time period--largely dealers from New York who were aware and interested," says Rena Bransten, whose San Francisco gallery is currently working with a yet-to-be-named institution on a West Coast touring show of Asawa's lesser-known drawings. "Several key institutions that passed the work up in 2005 are [now] actively looking. In the eight years we have represented the work, the value has increased at least tenfold."

This rediscovery of Asawa's oeuvre, which comes in the wake of the reappraisal of other postwar design-art hybrids like Bertoia and Noguchi, will likely do much to secure the late artist's place among the important figures of the American avant-garde. At press time, however, it was unclear how many of her works have yet to enter the market. Bransten held the last show of pieces still owned by Asawa in 2009, after which the ailing artist gave her remaining works--thought to include quite a few large hanging wire pieces-- to her five children. Although Bransten had been Asawa's primary dealer for a decade, the children have maintained a close relationship with Laib, who has sold works privately for the family in the past. "I think the family is just waiting," Bransten says. "This last auction result of $1.4 million was enough to make them examine what they want to do and how they want to proceed. I wouldn't think a lot was going to be released at this time."

This article was published in the October 2013 issue of Art+Auction.

-Ashton Cooper, ARTINFO

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