Ruth Asawa - Artworks & Biography | David Zwirner
A sculpture by Ruth Asawa, called Untitled (S.175, Hanging Single-Lobed, Four-Layer Continuous Form within a Form), dated c. 1992.
Ruth Asawa

May 27–August 20, 2022

Citizen of the Universe is the first public solo exhibition in Europe of the work of Ruth Asawa. Focusing on a dynamic formative period in her life from 1945 to 1980, the exhibition gives audiences a unique experience of the artist and her work, exploring her legacy as an abstract sculptor crucial to modernism in the United States. The exhibition features her signature hanging sculptures in looped- and tied-wire and celebrates her holistic integration of art, education and community engagement, through which she called for an inclusive and revolutionary vision for art’s role in society.

Running parallel with the creation of her acclaimed sculpture, Asawa was committed to arts education. This aspect of her practice will be explored in the exhibition through a selection of her drawing and printmaking, as well as archival materials displaying her work as an arts activist for professional artists working in state schools. Key projects include her Milk Carton Sculptures which encourage children to playfully interrogate found materials to deepen their understanding of abstract mathematical thinking. Asawa was ardently committed to art education’s role in transforming and empowering both adults and children, and was dedicated to giving children the opportunity to work directly with professional artists.

Her lifelong philosophy of the “integration of creative labour within daily life” was nurtured during her studies in the progressive educational environment of Black Mountain College from 1946-49. Here she joined the courses of artist Josef Albers and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and formed a lifelong friendship with visionary inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller. As a result of her experience Asawa wrote in 1948 that she was “a citizen of the universe…I no longer identify myself as a Japanese or an American.” 

Her understanding that humanity and identity transcend race and class divisions enabled Asawa to overcome the discrimination that had shaped her early life. As a first generation Japanese American growing up on the eve of World War II, Asawa experienced extreme racial prejudice. Following the outbreak of the war, the United States government forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including Asawa and her family, to live in internment camps. Despite the extreme conditions, for Asawa, the internment was the first step on a journey to a world of art that profoundly changed who she was and what she thought was possible in life, spending most of her free time drawing and painting, learning from an animator from Walt Disney Studios who was among the internees.

Citizen of the Universe celebrates Asawa’s intricate suspended wire sculptures, explores her home life through photographic material, and displays drawings and archival material of her progressive education programmes and her time at Black Mountain College. For Asawa, living a full life meant being socially engaged, having a family, creating art with them, and fully participating in the life of her local community. Ruth Asawa chose to identify as a citizen of the universe, developing a sense of higher purpose grounded in making daily life better through art. Foregrounding these ideas, this exhibition is an affirmation of her timely relevance as a champion for the vital role creativity plays in daily life.

A still from an aerial drone panoramic video of Piazza San Marco featuring Doge's Palace, Basilica and Campanile, Venice, Italy.
 

Ruth AsawaNoah DavisBarbara KrugerAndra Ursuţa, and Portia Zvavahera are among the artists invited to the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Cecilia Alemani. Titled The Milk of Dreams, the exhibition will be on view from April 23–November 27, 2022, and takes its name from a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Tau Lewis, whose exhibition at 52 Walker opens this fall, is also among the artists featured. Learn more at La Biennale di Venezia

Among the national pavilions, Francis Alÿs will represent Belgium. The pavilion will be curated by Hilde Teerlinck, a curator at the Han Nefkens Foundation in Barcelona. Alÿs, whose work featured in the main exhibition at the Biennale Arte in 1999, 2001, and 2007, will present new work developed from his 2017 video Children’s Games #19: Haram Football. Learn more at the Belgian Pavilion

Stan Douglas has been selected to represent Canada. Douglas’s work has previously been exhibited at the Biennale Arte in 1990, 2001, 2005, and 2019. Learn more at the National Gallery of Canada.

Concurrently with the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, the Palazzo Grassi in Venice will present open-end, a major monographic exhibition dedicated to Marlene Dumas, opening to the public on March 27, 2022. It is the latest in a cycle of monographic shows dedicated to major contemporary artists, launched in 2012 and alternating with thematic exhibitions of the Pinault Collection.

The exhibition is curated by Caroline Bourgeois in collaboration with Marlene Dumas; it brings together over 100 works and focuses on her whole pictorial production, with a selection of paintings and drawings created between 1984 and today, including unseen works made in the last few years. The exhibition will remain open to the public from March 27, 2022–January 8, 2023. Learn more from the Palazzo Grassi.

Congratulations to all eight of our artists whose work will be featured in Venice in 2022. 

March 16–May 15, 2022

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum presents No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration, a focused, small-scale group exhibition guest curated by Genji Amino with Christina Hiromi Hobbs. 

The exhibition is organized to mark the eightieth anniversary of Executive Order 9066 (signed on February 19, 1942) which authorized the forced removal and mass incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II. Including a selection of works by Japanese American artists, some of whom were incarcerated and others whose lives were shaped indirectly by the widespread impact of the Executive Order, the exhibition represents an array of photographic and sculptural experiments following an event marking the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the twentieth century. 

It includes a small selection of works made by as yet unidentified Japanese Americans in the concentration camps. These works now reside in the collection of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, and circulate as part of the traveling exhibition and remembrance project Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection. They are presented alongside work by Leo Amino (1911–1989), Ruth Asawa (1926–2013), Joseph Goto (1916–1994), Hiromu Kira (1898–1991), Toyo Miyatake (1895–1979), Patrick Nagatani (1945–2017), Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), Kay Sekimachi (b. 1926) and Toshiko Takaezu (1926–2011). The exhibition presents a range of approaches to abstraction developed following the era of Japanese American incarceration.

Ruth Asawa united states postal service stamp set, dated 2020.
The United States Postal Service is honoring Ruth Asawa with a series of ten stamp designs featuring the artist’s signature wire sculptures, as well as a photograph of Asawa taken by Nat Farbman for Life magazine in 1954.

Born in rural California in 1926, Asawa is best known for her looped-wire sculptures, which challenge conventional notions of material and form. She began creating the light, transparent works in the late 1940s while a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she was influenced in particular by her teachers Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. “I found myself experimenting with wire,’’ Asawa explained: “I was interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space.... I realized that I could make wire forms interlock, expand, and contract with a single strand, because a line can go anywhere.’’

In addition to her wire sculptures, Asawa is well known for her public commissions, particularly in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area. These include the much beloved fountains in Ghirardelli Square (1968) and outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco (1973). Upon moving to San Francisco in 1949, Asawa, a firm believer in the radical potential of arts education from her time at Black Mountain College, devoted herself to expanding access to art-focused educational programs. She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in 1968 and was instrumental in the opening of the first public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010.
A photograph of Ruth Asawa by Imogen Cunningham, dated 1957.

Ruth Asawa is featured in "Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience," a new documentary celebrating the contributions of Japanese American artists to postwar American art and design. This is the first episode of the tenth season of Artbound, broadcast on the KCET and PBS SoCal in Southern California and streaming online at kcet.org/artbound. Asawa’s life and work is explored alongside those of other important Japanese Americans including George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi.

Narrated by curators, Asawa’s children, biographer Marilyn Chase, gallery director Jonathan Laib, with footage of the artist herself, the film illuminates in particular Asawa’s experience as a young Japanese American woman and as a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, where she was taught by Josef Albers, among others, and found her footing as an artist.

"She had the kind of energy that you really only see in immigrant children; it’s this relentless kind of labor that doesn’t stop," Asawa’s daughter Addie Lanier notes. After she was prevented from practicing teaching, “She had no longer any barriers between her desire to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a working artist," says Chase, whose biography of Asawa is slated to be published next year.

Image: Ruth Asawa, 1957 (detail). Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

A photo of Ruth Asawa in her studio, dated 1956. Photo by Paul Hassel.

Ruth Asawa was the featured artist in the Google Doodle, launched on the search engine’s homepage in the US, Ireland, Israel, and the UK. The special Asawa Doodle, drawn by Google staff artist Alyssa Winans, featured five of Asawa’s hanging wire sculptures, as well as a drawing of Asawa herself at work on a sixth, which forms the lowercase "g" of the Google logo. The Asawa Doodle remained live for 24 hours, and was seen by millions of people around the world.

Born in rural California in 1926, Asawa is best known for her looped-wire sculptures, which challenge conventional notions of material and form. She began creating the light, transparent works in the late 1940s while a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she was influenced in particular by her teachers Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. "I found myself experimenting with wire," Asawa explained: "I was interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space.... I realized that I could make wire forms interlock, expand, and contract with a single strand, because a line can go anywhere."

Image: Ruth Asawa in her studio, 1956. Photo by Paul Hassel

A video produced by the Archives of American Art drawing on a 2002 interview with Ruth Asawa has been published by ARTnews. Directed by Wes Miller, the video pairs excerpts from the conversation with the then seventy-six-year-old Asawa, which also features her husband, Albert Lanier, and the archive’s Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, with imagery including archival photographs of the artist and the wire sculptures for which she is best known. Asawa is heard discussing the question of modernism and her studies at Black Mountain College during the 1940s, among other topics.

Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, a major exhibition featuring some sixty sculptural works from throughout the artist’s career as well as twenty paintings, drawings, and collages, some of which date back to her time at Black Mountain College, is on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis through February 16, 2019. In a review of the exhibition for The Washington Post, Sebastian Smee asked, “Is this the most beautiful show of the year?”

An immersive monograph on the artist and her work is available from David Zwirner Books.

September 14, 2018–February 16, 2019

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis presented Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, a major exhibition featuring some sixty sculptural works from throughout the artist's career as well as twenty paintings, drawings, and collages, some of which date back to her time at Black Mountain College. This was also be the first major museum exhibition dedicated to Asawa outside California, where the artist was born and spent much of her life, having moved to San Francisco in 1949.

Curated by Tamara H. Schenkenberg, who lead a tour of the exhibition on September 15, 2018, the show explored how Asawa developed her unique approach to technique and form, and, as Schenkenberg observes, "the deep intelligence, probing nature, and, yes, work ethic, that informed her art." Organized in a loose chronological order, the exhibition’s starting point was Asawa’s studies during the late 1940s at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina that was renowned for its avant-garde aesthetic and progressive teaching methods espoused by Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, among others. As Asawa recalled in an interview in 2002, "Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards." Amid this unique environment and following a 1947 trip to Mexico, where she learned to make baskets using a looped-wire technique, Asawa began experimenting with the wire forms that were to become her primary means of expression. The works included in this show demonstrate the breadth and diversity of her looped-wire sculptures, from small spheres to long, elaborate "form within a form" compositions, in which nested shapes unfold from a single continuous line of wire. The artist’s lesser-known forms that were on view included hyperbolic shapes, suspended cones, and interlocking spheres.

Life’s Work also aimed to give due attention to Asawa’s practice, which many argue has not been fully considered as part of the modernist canon. "Ruth Asawa was one of the most rigorous and inventive artists of her day," states Pulitzer director Cara Starke. "With this exhibition we hope to shed light on how she came to create sculptures that are, in essence, transparent, voluminous yet light, and unique among the work of her peers." A preview of the exhibition in Artforum noted that "our modernist sculptural legacy [includes] the great artist of floating worlds, Ruth Asawa . . . whose biomorphic and figurative forms . . . trade the material and metaphoric opacity of iron, bronze, and steel for translucent architectures and spatial mapping."

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press with essays by writer and critic Aruna D’Souza, curator Helen Molesworth, and Schenkenberg. The artist’s life and work is also the subject of an immersive new monograph published in 2018 by David Zwirner Books

In Ruth Asawa, an immersive new monograph on the artist’s life and work, published by David Zwirner Books, Tiffany Bell begins her essay with an insightful anecdote:

In 1971, the renowned twentieth-century inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller wrote a letter of recommendation in support of Asawa’s application to the Guggenheim Foundation’s annual fellowship program. After noting that he had been writing these recommendations for various candidates for forty-three years, Fuller said: "I state, without hesitation or reserve, that I consider Ruth Asawa to be the most gifted, productive, and originally inspired artist that I have ever known personally." . . . He cited her wire mesh sculptures, with which he had been familiar since the late 1940s when he and Asawa were both at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Also featuring a text by Robert Storr, who discusses Asawa’s work in relation to mid-twentieth-century art, culture, and scientific theory, this publication illuminates the depth and importance of the artist’s practice in the context of modernism. The book’s extensive imagery includes installation views, works on paper, and detailed photographs revealing the intricacy of Asawa’s sculptures, as well as intimate archival portraits of the artist by her friend Imogen Cunningham. Its design is also directly inspired by its subject. Taking the elongated form of the hanging wire works as a starting point, the book’s designer, Michelle Nix of McCall Associates, has addressed the challenge of conveying sculpture on the flat surface of the page through a vibrant combination of inset images and full bleeds, varying indents, and a playful approach to scale. As Nix noted, "One of the advantages for the Ruth Asawa project was being able to view the work at [David Zwirner] before even thinking about the book. . . . Seeing the works in person helped me form a better understanding of the artist, learn the details of her process, and see how the works interacted with each other, the viewer, and the space." Unrestrained by linear narrative, the plates mimic the varied approach one takes when viewing the works in situ, while the lightness of the layout for the essays and illustrated chronology—the freedom to "roam," as Nix puts it—was inspired by an installation view of Asawa’s smaller hanging works that appears on pages 74–75.

As the first major monograph about Asawa’s work published since the catalogue accompanying a retrospective of her career at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2006 (where some of the artist’s works are permanently installed), this book provides a timely overview that many argue is overdue. "In her lifetime," Kaelen Wilson-Goldie wrote in an Artforum review of the gallery’s inaugural solo exhibition of Asawa’s work in the fall of 2017, "Asawa weathered storms of weak interpretation . . . that made too much of her positions as a wife and mother and not nearly enough of her contributions to modernism and abstraction."

Cover image: Ruth Asawa, 1950s (detail). Photo by Imogen Cunningham. © 2018 Imogen Cunningham Trust

April 15–August 13, 2017

A hanging looped wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa was included in the critically acclaimed group exhibition Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Presented at MoMA for the first time, Untitled (c.1955) is part of the extensive body of wire sculptures for which Asawa is best known. The sculpture is a promised gift to the MoMA collection.

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." The artist began making wire sculptures in the late 1940s following her enrollment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she absorbed the teachings and influences of Anni Albers (whose work is also included in Making Space), Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham, among others, and embraced her own vocation as an artist.

Read more: Holland Cotter's review of the exhibition in The New York Times

(New York & London) David Zwirner is pleased to announce that the gallery will exclusively represent the Estate of Ruth Asawa.

An influential sculptor, devoted activist, and tireless advocate for arts education, Ruth Asawa 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

As David Zwirner notes, "The gallery is proud to be entrusted with the extraordinary legacy of Ruth Asawa, who started her career at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers's tutelage. The intense focus of her work and the modesty of the materials align her closely with Yayoi Kusama, both of whom in the 1950s foreshadowed the reductivist and minimalist tendencies of the 1960s. I am pleased that Asawa's work is gaining the recognition it deserves. It is surprising that it has taken this long for her work to be widely understood and appreciated. I think her story, if properly told, should afford her a place amongst the great artists of the twentieth century."

Born in rural California to Japanese immigrants barred from land ownership and American citizenship, Asawa and her family were detained in internment camps during the Second World War. Originally housed for five months in the stables of the Santa Anita Park racetrack, they were eventually relocated to Rohwer, Arkansas, where Asawa graduated from the camp's high school in 1943. It was during her internment in Santa Anita, however, that Asawa discovered professional artists, learning to draw from Walt Disney animators who were likewise interned.

Following her release in 1943, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College, 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. It was at Black Mountain that Asawa began to explore wire as a medium, inspired by a 1947 trip to Mexico during which local craftsmen taught her how to loop baskets out of this material.

In addition to her wire sculptures, Asawa is well known for her public commissions, particularly in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area. These include the much beloved fountains in Ghirardelli Square (1968) and outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco (1973), the latter of which comprises hundreds of clay images molded by local schoolchildren, friends, and other artists cast in bronze. Upon moving to San Francisco in 1949, Asawa, a firm believer in the radical potential of arts education from her time at Black Mountain College, devoted herself to expanding access to art-focused educational programs. She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in 1968 and was instrumental in the opening of the first public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010. Asawa believed that "Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader."

1 Ruth Asawa quoted in Douglas Martin, 'Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87," The New York Times (August 17, 2013).

Above: Ruth Asawa, 1957. Photo: Imogen Cunningham © 2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa

Artist Biography

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January 31–May 29, 2016

An installation of hanging wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa was included in the group exhibition Architecture of Life at The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

Featuring more than 200 works in different media, Architecture of Life was the inaugural exhibition in BAMPFA's new visual arts building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Organized by BAMPFA Director Lawrence Rinder, the exhibition explored how architecture—as concept, metaphor, and practice—illuminates different aspects of life experience, and aimed to present rarely seen works in ways that suggest new connections and meanings.

Read more: the exhibition was reviewed in Art in America

In 2005, in celebration of the opening of the redesigned de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Ruth Asawa donated 15 sculptures to the museum for a permanent installation. This grouping was personally selected by Asawa to exemplify the range of her sculptural forms. In keeping with the artist's belief that art should be readily accessible to all, these works are housed in the Education Tower, where there is no charge for visitors.

Asawa was actively involved with the community in San Francisco. Upon moving there in 1949, the artist devoted herself to expanding access to art-focused educational programs. She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in 1968 and was instrumental in the opening of the first public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010. Asawa believed that "Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader."

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