Ruth Asawa, Untitled (study of triangles), black and purple ink on tracing paper, 1946-1949.
Excerpt from my visual-material analysis:
“At first glance, Untitled (Study of Triangles) appears like a sea of geometric objects. Each triangular organism follows closely after another, swimming vertically across the paper in upstream and downstream motions. However upon closer observations, it is clear that these triangles are merely illusions created by individual, fine, crisp lines. Ultimately, Asawa draws these continuous vertical marks not as geometric shapes, but as merely zigzag lines. By positioning the elongated zigzag lines in a precise manner next to each other, they come together creating a pattern of angular silhouettes. The entire composition is formed by this relationship between lines and suggested shapes.
Nonetheless, although this relationship allows the connection of individual lines to form a collective whole, it also creates two different visual experiences. One perspective is a composition consists entirely of lines, while the other is one of triangular shapes. As the viewer alternates his or her focus between lines and shapes, the visual experience also vacillates between one dimensional lines and two dimensional shapes. The result is a spatial movement caused by the visual transformation of lines into shapes and shapes back into lines. It is an oscillation between the one dimensional and two dimensional worlds. This phenomenon is made especially apparent with the purple line. The only marking throughout the entire drawing that is done with purple ink is the vertical zigzag line in the middle. Although it runs weakly from one end to another, its difference in color powerfully de-contextualizes the existence of lines from a sea of triangular shapes. Yet simultaneously, this purple line also exists as part of the collective whole. It is a building structure for shapes. Hence, the new linear sensitivity expedites the transition and movement between the two dimensions, producing in a spatial flexibility.
Additionally, the ambiguous figure-ground relationship also plays an important role in developing the visual motion within Untitled (Study of Triangles). Of the many concepts Asawa studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, the principle of figure-background is most evident in this drawing. Figure-background perception is one’s ability to “separate an object from its surrounding visual field” (“figure-background perception”). Hence, the figure is the object on which one’s attention is focused, while the background is mentally blurred. Usually there exists a distinct outline between figure and background (Wenger 41). In the case of a dominant figure-background relationship, the figure is “distinctly outlined against” the background. However, if the figure and background compete for focus, the line no longer functions as a visual cue for figure identification. Rather, it becomes a means through which the two images exchange places. The figure becomes the background, the background becomes the focus, and back again. There is a perpetual visual motion between the two perspectives depending on the focus of the eye. In Untitled (Study of Triangles), Asawa presumably first draws the vertical zigzag outlines, and then proceeds to alternatively fill certain rows of triangular shapes with black ink. However, the transparent whiteness of the tracing paper between the black rows becomes a color and forms additional rows. Depending on the visual focus, sometimes the black triangular shapes are the figures while the white ones fade into the background, and at other times, vice versa. Similar to the movement between lines and shapes, black and white perspectives also creates a visual and spatial motion. In this situation, the interaction between the two views creates a movement between two dimension and three dimension, resulting in an optical illusion”