Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; photography by Joseph McDonald; © FAMSF.
Two museums exhibitions – one in San Francisco and one in Brooklyn – attest to the pliability of metal and how that material can be resilient, refined, and even shape-shifting. Compared to Mark di Suvero’s commanding industrial-scale steel beams or Richard Serra’s imposing sheets of weatherproof steel, two other artists have taken on metal for its ephemerality rather than its endurance.
On view now at the de Young Museum in the Hamon Tower lobby is an ongoing installation of fifteen works by the San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa (American, born California 1926) who crochets and weaves brass or monel wire into hanging mobiles. Currently at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4 is a retrospective of the Nigerian artist El Anatsui (African, born Ghana 1944) whose hanging curtains and floor pieces of found metal materials — bottle caps, tin can lids and copper wire — are positioned with cascading folds to feature the flexibility and maneuverability of the material during creation and installation.
Asawa’s wire sculpture began in 1949 following a period earlier in that decade when she was Josef Albers’ student at Black Mountain College, the experimental art school in North Carolina. Through the 1950s and 1960s, she created organic pieces that floated alongside and above the viewer. These lacy biomorphic wire works evoke nature but they are also investigations of how wire can be used as a medium to make undulating layered forms. Because of the open, woven surface, we can see into Asawa’s sculpture where additional layers of forms create a shape within a shape.
Since their creation over fifty years ago, Asawa’s wire sculptures have been part of a hoary debate circling around process and materials: what distinguishes between a craft project and a sculpture? Asawa’s process of weaving and knitting with wire was reminiscent of artisan techniques, but these delicate, buoyant wire objects are in league with the work of sculptors Alexander Calder or Harry Bertoia. In a 2002 interview with the Archives of American Art, Asawa discussed the craft versus art dispute and found it unimportant: “It doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things… It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire and you make it, you give it a new definition. That’s all.”
El Anatsui uses wire for structural durability and connectivity in his work. Close examination of his wall reliefs and his floor sculpture finds copper wire threading through row on row of metal shards, such as colorful liquor bottle caps or condensed milk tins, to weave fragments together into a vast tapestry of sparkling, saturated color. The artist twists and turns throwaway metal pieces from a bottle distillery in his current hometown of Nsukka. His rise to global art world star began around 1998, when he inaugurated his series of boundless metal hangings, sometimes stretching thirty feet across. The artist taught sculpture at the University of Nigeria from 1975 to 2010 when he became professor emeritus. He has also created work in wood and clay, although the metal pieces now in Brooklyn are the reason to visit the exhibition to appreciate rapturous spans of hammered found objects.
Anatsui has added a dimension of inconstancy to this work: each installation of these metal sheets will yield a new formal presence. Pleats and ridges on view at one venue may disappear at the next showing. It is an unlikely consequence for a material known for its staunch presence. The artist told Art 21, the PBS documentary series: “My work has been about change, the idea of regeneration. Giving form to new life, bringing about new hope.”