Ruth Asawa
Through Line @ Whitney Museum of American Art, September 16th, 2023 - January 15th, 2024


How one turns a line into a moving body is an evolution in sight; it is the ability to see the lifespan of a line from its first inception as a single point to its unfolding in directions unpredicted. Or, rather, it is the curiosity and fearlessness to carry this unfolding through to its many potentialities. It is mutual trust between eye and hand through the exploratory traversal of contours, where seeing becomes feeling and looking becomes touch, even without touching. Like a kind of inverse perspective, the eye takes in forms from outside its glassy window rather than projecting its beam outward on the world like a lighthouse. It is an empathic sight-touch that see-feels forms as more than the sum of their parts – the rugged mechanical ridges of a bicycle pedal unfold into latticework on paper, spilled ink becomes a knotted old tree, and the shadows from a paper's folds begin to breath with the arch of a dancer's back.

As some artists choose to expose the procedures and properties of their creative process, for Asawa, it is her sight that is left exposed. Through her line, one sees a seeing body — the dreamy fatigue of a mother whose baby has finally fallen asleep and the tracking of her eyes over the basket-weave pattern of the child's clothes, the folds of which create craters and hills that extend for miles, becoming the entire landscape that encompasses both.

The current exhibition, Through Line, at the Whitney Museum of American Art traces Ruth Asawa's evolution of sight from her student years at Black Mountain College to her later years as an arts advocate and educator in San Francisco. However, this evolution is less an unbroken and progressive trajectory and more a sensitive attunement to her environment and adaptability of sight and line to an unfolding life. The importance of learning to see, of the labor of observance, and in the interconnectedness that underlies all forms were lessons that Asawa held dear and carried with her throughout her career. Her Black Mountain mentors, in particular Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, would play a central role in her artistic development as they emphasized these tenets of art and encouraged her exploration of them.

These lessons, however, were not so much new as they were affirmations of previously gleaned knowledge for Asawa, who was taught traditional Japanese calligraphy as a child and received further instruction in drawing from artists and fellow detainees within the Japanese internment camps. The traceability of a common thread, a through line, is an idea and practice that spoke deeply to Asawa and, perhaps, is one that allowed her to find meaning within trauma, to reconcile experiences of both loving embrace and violent othering. Through the enduring labor of observance and in recording the continuous touch of one's sight along the many nuances of the forms it beholds, it becomes possible to find deliverance from life's seemingly intractable contradictions.

One can see this embrace of the universality of Line most distinctly through her renderings of growth patterns. Her large contour drawing of an endive reveals delicate, fine folds and bends in the crinkled leaves radiating outward from a central point. At the center, the birth of new leaves continues to flow like a fountain. An unbroken line traces the organic fractal of expanding life, like the fundamental particles in a growing galaxy – form begets form, begets form, and on and on, even in a humble vegetable.

Another idea of great significance for Asawa, and one well explored throughout the show, is the relationship between positive and negative space: the space that composes the main subject and that that fills the composition around it. Both types of space are of importance, and the training of one's mind and hand in the rendering of one and the other simultaneously means having to accept negative and positive, absence and presence, the self and the other as simply separate states of the same energetic force, a shared anima mundi, if you will.

In Asawa's Untitled (MI.153, Seven Thonet-Style Bentwood Chairs), seven chairs are formed almost exclusively through the rendering of their negative space. The shapes and curves of the chair are echoed repeatedly through layers of checkered lines, rippling outwards like water after a stone's splash until they merge or abut with neighboring ripples. The checkered lines evoke what one would imagine the woven cane pattern of chairs' rattan webbing to look like – underscoring negative space's descriptive and resonant potential.

Another splash of a stone disturbs the water, and the ripples march outward like energy waves from a beacon. This time, their procession forms the auratic vision of a Bentwood rocking chair. Like the seven Thonet-style Bentwood chairs, the checkered lines of its cane webbing become the beacon's waves that resonate out from the chair's insinuated presence made of more densely concentrated lines. Here, there is no stark divide between positive and negative space, just gradation.

Perhaps this spatial reimagining was informed by Asawa's own experience of being made negative space, in other words, as the fictive other to an ideal of normative White society. Despite the violence of othering, Asawa chose to adopt a more inclusive and empathic vision. She rejected the identities of Japanese-American and woman and instead embraced a more universalizing sense of self. Through her individual work as an artist and her collective work as an activist and educator, Asawa sought to transcend categorical divisions of the human collective and to break down the binary of individual and community. She understood that the empty space surrounding the subject was precisely what gave the subject its form, that it was defined by its negation, by what it was not, or, rather, by what it hoped to wrest from itself (its guilt, fear, and shame) and transfer onto others (their savagery, violence, and vulgarity). This inextricable connection, however, also meant that if empty space rejected its emptiness, it could, in turn, dispel the delusion of the subject – the ignis fatuus of superiority.

Out of this negative space comes a meandering line. It meanders through the garden and fastidiously charts every contour of its flowers, from the prickly stems to the fleshy petals. Closer to its heart, the line caresses the faces that surround it. This line records the loving touch that was Asawa's sight – a scribe on a pilgrimage toward true accord with life through both its misery and mirth.