February 23, 2014


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Lot 236: Ruth Asawa

Lot 236: Ruth Asawa

Untitled S.437 (Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Two-Part Continuous Form within a Form with Two Small Spheres)

Custom commission, 1956
Looped brass and steel wires
Retains tag "S.437/50 ((c))"
103" x 18.5" largest diameter
LAMA would like to thank Aiko Cuneo for her assistance in cataloguing this work

Together with The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air exhibition catalogue
Provenance: Private Collection, Santa Barbara, California (acquired directly from the artist)
Illustrated: Cornell, Daniell. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. Berkeley: University of California, 2006. p 129.
Estimate: $300,000 - $500,000
Price Realized: $1,430,000
Inventory Id: 9235

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LAMA effectively tied the world auction record for any work by Ruth Asawa in the February 23, 2014 Modern Art & Design Auction. The record was set with a complex hanging sculpture from 1956 (Lot 236), which realized $1,430,000.

Photograph captions: The artist in her studio, California. Untitled S.437 is pictured far right. Photograph by Paul Hassel. © Ruth Asawa; June Lane Christensen with daughter, Katherine, 1956, Santa Barbara

The renowned Japanese-American artist and educator Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) constructed intricate, multi-lobed wire sculptures that explore a complex relationship between object and space. Her diligence to her craft, her pioneering experiments in wire sculpture, and her comprehensive output in other mediums including public sculpture, painting, and printmaking have established Asawa as one of the most influential modernists of the 20th century.

Born to Japanese immigrants in Norwalk, California, Asawa was the middle child in a family of seven boys and girls, and she learned the importance of hard work each day on her family's vegetable farm. On Saturdays, however, Asawa practiced Japanese calligraphy – a welcome respite from farm life – where she received her first lesson in empty space. In 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Asawa and her family were forcibly relocated to internment camps. Fortunately, she spent her time learning how to draw from Japanese artists from Disney Studios, including Tom Okamoto. She immersed herself in drawing and painting classes, and in 1943 she graduated, earning herself freedom from the camp and a government stipend to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was accepted, but the tuition and fees were too expensive, forcing her to enroll at the Milwaukee State Teachers College. After three successful years in Milwaukee, Asawa went on a trip to Mexico in the summer of 1945. There she met Clara Porset, a friend of Josef Albers, who recommended that she enroll at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This chance meeting and the promise of a robust art scene ultimately changed the course of her life.

One year later in Josef Albers' Basic Design and Color course, Asawa was beginning to understand her abilities: "She sensed that she was learning about herself, how her eyes worked, and that she was increasing her general consciousness." Black Mountain's supportive community and its faculty of practicing artists quickly awakened a desire to break from her family's tradition and to focus on the necessary skills required for a life of creating art. Of the instructors she recalls, "They were the most competent people I have ever known. They performed with distinction." In 1948, during her final year at Black Mountain, Asawa was encouraged to experiment, so she chose sculpture, an unfamiliar medium for the young artist. Inspired by a crochet loop basket weaving technique she had learned on a second trip to Mexico, she proposed to create a sculpture out of wire, whatever type of wire she could find in the studio: brass, copper, bailing wire. Asawa's e loop technique was not only simple and inexpensive, but offered a multitude of possibilities. Asawa referred to the resulting sculptures as "drawing[s] in space," punctuated by an overall nature of "transparency." She said, "It was Albers' word. I liked the idea, and it turns out my sculpture is like that. You can show inside and outside, and inside and outside are connected. Everything is connected, continuous."

In the early 1950s, Asawa found time to work on her wire sculptures amidst significant life events, including her marriage to architect Albert Lanier and the birth of her children. She submitted a sculpture to the San Francisco Art Association Annual at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), her first show outside of Black Mountain. Throughout the next five years, Asawa showed more regularly at local and national galleries and museums, culminating in a piece at the Bienal de São Paolo in Brazil. It was around this time in 1953-54 that June Lane Christensen commissioned Untitled S.437 (Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Two-Part Continuous Form within a Form with Two Small Spheres) for her dance studio in Santa Barbara. In early 1956, Ruth Asawa completed the hanging sculpture and personally installed the work in June's studio, where June and her husband taught dance, music, and the arts to children. June studied dance in the late 40s and early 50s at Black Mountain College where she came to know Ruth Asawa. June then moved to New York to study with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Martha Graham, ultimately bringing modern dance into the awareness of the Santa Barbara dance community. The sculpture hung in the dance studio for nearly 20 years and has continued to serve as an inspiration and muse to June and her work since retiring three years ago at the age of 85.

On November 13, 2008 the Montecito Tea Fire erupted, destroying homes and buildings in the foothills of Santa Barbara. June's dance studio was one of those buildings burned by the fire. While the property was burning, and her current residence evacuated, the family had very little time to gather their belongings, but they made sure to save the Asawa sculpture. Now after 57 years, the sculpture will save them. Proceeds from the sale of the sculpture will go to rebuilding the property and studio, continuing June's legacy of teaching arts to children through dance, movement, and music.

Cornell, Daniell. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of California, 2006. Print.
Nordland, Gerald. Introduction. Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1973. Print.