An influential sculptor, devoted activist, and tireless advocate for arts education, Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) is best known for her extensive body of hanging wire sculptures. Intricate, dynamic, and sinuous, these remarkable works, begun in the late 1940s, continue to challenge conventional notions of sculpture through their emphasis on lightness and transparency. Explaining her fascination with wire as a material, Asawa said, “I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”¹
Born in Norwalk, California to Japanese immigrants, Asawa enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College in 1943, but was unable to receive her degree due to continued hostility against Japanese Americans. In 1946, Asawa began to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, renowned at the time for its progressive pedagogical methods and avant-garde aesthetic milieu. Here, Asawa absorbed the vital teachings and influences of Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, among others, and embraced her own vocation as an artist.
Asawa has exhibited widely throughout the world since the early 1950s. In 1965, Walter Hopps organized a solo exhibition of the artist’s sculptures and drawings at the Pasadena Art Museum (now Norton Simon Museum) in California, where the artist completed a residency at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop the same year. Other solo presentations include those held at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1973); Fresno Art Museum, California (traveled to Oakland Museum of California; 2001-2002); de Young Museum, San Francisco (2006); Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas (2012); and Norton Simon Museum of Art, California (2014).
Work by the artist has been included in a number of major group exhibitions, including the Annual Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1955 and 1958); the São Paulo Biennial (1955); and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1959), among others. Most recently, her work was featured in the critically acclaimed traveling group exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. In 2015, her work was on view as part of America is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building. Other recent group exhibitions include Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles; Black Mountain College: Shaping Craft + Design, Black Mountain College Museum Arts + Center, Asheville, North Carolina (2013); The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2010).
The artist’s work is represented in prominent museum collections, including the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Jose Museum of Art, California; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, among others. Asawa has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards.
¹ Ruth Asawa quoted in Douglas Martin, “Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87,” The New York Times (August 17, 2013).