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 in a new series called Artbound, broadcast on the KCET network based in Southern and central California. 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
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.
Through these pages, Asawa emerges as one of the key figures of Black Mountain College and the radical artistic experimentation that came out of it. As the artist 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." While she was still a student under the tutelage of Josef Albers, Asawa began to develop her signature wire works that she continued to explore over the course of her more than sixty-year career. The looped-wire sculptures she executed in a number of complex, interwoven configurations range 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 include hyperbolic shapes, suspended cones, and interlocking spheres.
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."
Renewed attention to Asawa, whose intensely focused work with modest materials foreshadowed Minimalist tendencies of the 1960s, was evinced also in her inclusion in two recent exhibitions in New York: Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today at the Museum of Arts and Design (2015) and Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at The Museum of Modern Art (2017). These major thematic exhibitions highlight a broader institutional imperative to address the practices of women artists whose legacies have been overlooked. The MoMA show, which featured an untitled hanging wire sculpture by Asawa from circa 1955, led The New York Times critic Holland Cotter in his review to assert "the reality that work by women, feminists or not, was the major inventive force propelling and shaping late-20th-century art."
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
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."