I love this photo of sculptor Ruth Asawa by Imogen Cunningham.
I love this photo of sculptor Ruth Asawa by Imogen Cunningham. Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum

In Imogen Cunningham's "Ruth Asawa, Sculptor," (1952) the Japanese-American sculptor is front and center.

Asawa's serious gaze is focused somewhere off-camera, with her body almost blending into the black background. She delicately holds one of her looped-wire sculptures in front of her, which bends over her shoulder and out of view. I'm used to seeing Asawa's pieces hanging from the ceiling, slowly dancing as the air in the gallery shifts when people walk by. But in this staged photo, the floppy, organic nature of the wire piece comes through.

The picture is part of Imogen Cunningham's retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum, organized by the J. Paul. Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition, composed of over almost 200 photographs, covers Cunningham's illustrious seven decades-long career—from her early Pictorialist-style photos to her sensual up-close botanical shots to her more experimental double exposures. Cunningham is perhaps best known for her bold portraits, particularly of great 20th-century female artists like painter Frida Kahlo, writer Gertrude Stein, and dancer Martha Graham.

But it's her photographs of Asawa and her work that I find the most compelling and the best part of the exhibition. The artists met one another in San Francisco in 1950 just after Asawa graduated from college. Despite their differences in background and age (Cunningham was 40 years Asawa's senior), the two forged a friendship.

After spending years imprisoned in Japanese internment camps with her family, Asawa studied at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Her mentor was renowned painter Josef Albers, whose obsession with form and pattern bled into Asawa's artistic practice of wire crocheted together into both rigid and sumptuous shapes. Mostly working on the West Coast, Asawa never got the widespread recognition that her contemporaries like Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama received.

Only in the past several years has her work been reassessed on an international scale and placed among the other great modernist artists of her time. But Cunningham already understood Asawa's brilliance. In the photo above, she positions Asawa deep in the center of her own work. Asawa looks resolute, a master of form and material. As one of the first professional female photographers in the country—and all the hardships that entails—it's no wonder Cunningham took an interest in Asawa's artistry. Their careers became deeply entwined with one another, with many photos of Asawa and her work taken by Cunningham ending up among their best-known pieces.

Five of Asawa's sculptures are hanging in <em>Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective</em>.
Five of Asawa's sculptures are hanging in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Courtesy of Natali Wiseman/Seattle Art Museum

The exhibition also includes several other photos of Asawa's work. In the diptych "Looped-Wire Sculpture by Ruth Asawa" (1956), Cunningham focused on one of Asawa's wire pieces folded in on itself on the floor. Also included is Cunningham's shot of Asawa's work for the cover of the June 1952 edition Arts & Architecture magazine. She pasted together four separate gelatin silver prints of the hanging pieces into one trippy image.

Aiding viewers in the exhibition are six of Asawa's biomorphic sculptures gently twisting from the ceiling. Some are short and spiky, resembling a nervous system or some sort of sea sponge. Others are long and bulbous, stretching almost to the floor with their curvy bodies. Almost as delightful as looking at fastidious patterned sculptures themselves is the way the light plays with them. Scattered on the floor and the walls behind each piece are their silhouettes, splintering off in different directions.

Asawa's sculptures are a perfect complement to Cunningham's photographs, which display a similar interest in light and shadow. In fact, the sculptor almost steals the show.

I love the way Asawa's sculptures' shadows spill out onto the floor.
I love the way Asawa's sculptures' shadows spill out onto the floor. JK

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective is up at Seattle Art Museum until February 6, 2022. Find more information here.