PhD candidate Jason Vartikar on "Ruth Asawa’s Early Wire Sculpture and a Biology of Equality" in American Art
Estate of Ruth Asawa/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy The Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner.
PhD student Jason Vartikar’s first peer-reviewed article, “Ruth Asawa’s Early Wire Sculpture and a Biology of Equality,” was recently published in the spring issue of American Art, vol. 34, no. 1. Vartikar argues that the artist’s biomorphic sculptures engage midcentury biological science and its expanding rhetoric against racial hierarchies. The article’s opening epigraph is a quote by Asawa: “The web of an insect . . . looked more modern than the modern things of that time. And we were forced to go back to natural things.”
Following a wide-ranging exploration of the historical and cultural context that informed Asawa’s woven-wire forms, Vartikar ends with this: " . . . Asawa’s early wire sculptures seem like vivid reminders of primordial beings, evolutionary processes, and the universal biological materials common to the story of humankind. In such a way, their biomorphic contours suggest the repeated forms in nature from which all humans emerge as equal kin."
In a fundamentally new interpretation, this article examines how the artist Ruth Asawa’s early wire sculptures engaged the poetics of biology as a metaphor for racial equality. Asawa’s overlooked personal papers attest to her ruminations about race and biology while she was a student at Black Mountain College, from 1946 to 1949. There, Asawa’s earliest wire works proliferated from diagrams in her biology class textbooks—The Invertebrata and Winchester Zoology. Over the next decade, and indeed for the remainder of Asawa’s life, the artist’s biomorphic experiments evoked dividing cells and primordial invertebrates—the biological processes and precedents that constitute all life-forms—gesturing to midcentury scientists’ particular notions of racial equality at the biological level. Asawa’s biological gesture thus seems to be an explicit exfoliation of racial hierarchy, and a rebuttal to the mid-century’s racializing characterizations of her art—like one critic’s description of them as “Eastern yeast.”
Image: Untitled (S.461, Hanging Single-Lobed, Five Layers of Spheres), ca. 1954. Iron wire, 15x21x21 in. Collection of Jack and Shirley Silver. Artwork © 2020 Estate of Ruth Asawa/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy The Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner. Photo: Dan Bradica.