Ruth Asawa

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Biography

American sculptor, educator, and arts activist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) is known for her extensive body of wire sculptures that challenge conventional notions of material and form. Born in rural California, Asawa began to make art while detained in internment camps for Japanese Americans in Santa Anita, California, and Rohwer, Arkansas, where she was sent with her family in 1942-1943. Following her release, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College, eventually making her way to Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1946, then known for its progressive pedagogical methods and avant-garde aesthetic milieu. Asawa's time at Black Mountain proved formative in her development as an artist, and she was influenced there in particular by her teachers Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, as well as the mathematician Max Dehn.

Asawa has exhibited widely throughout the world since the early 1950s, including solo exhibitions at Peridot Gellery, New York in 1954, 1956, and 1958. 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, Pasadena, California (2014).

In 2018-2019, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis presented Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, the first major museum exhibition of the artist’s work since 2006. A catalogue published by Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Yale University Press accompanies the show with essays by Aruna D’Souza, Helen Molesworth, and Tamara H. Schenkenberg.

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 2015-2017 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 in New York. Other recent group exhibitions include Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (2016); Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (both 2017).

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 Baker 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.

The artist’s work is represented in prominent museum collections, including Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; 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; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. Asawa has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards.

Since 2017, the Estate of Ruth Asawa has been represented by David Zwirner. The gallery’s inaugural solo exhibition of the artist's work took place the same year at its New York location. A catalogue accompanying the exhibition was published in 2018 by David Zwirner Books and includes texts by Tiffany Bell and Robert Storr.

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