Ruth Asawa was born in Norwalk, California, to Japanese immigrant parents. In 1942 the federal government initiated the Japanese American Internment, causing Asawa’s family of nine to be interned at a makeshift assembly center at the Santa Anita racetrack, before being relocated to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Shortly after, FBI agents arrested her father, and she would not see him for six years.
Asawa initially intended to become an art teacher, however despite being an American citizen her ethnicity made attending college on the California coast impossible. In the summer before her senior year at Milwaukee State Teachers College she travelled to Mexico where she took art classes at Universidad de Mexico. Her classmate, Cuban refugee and friend of Josef Albers, Clara Porset, advised her to apply to Black Mountain College, where Albers was teaching.
During her time at Black Mountain College Asawa began experimenting with commonplace materials, such as wire, under Albers’ tutelage. “I studied drawing and painting and we were encouraged to use whatever we could find”, said Asawa, “since we didn’t have anything to work with, we worked with the leaves.” Her early drawings were meanders of black ink; drawing on the calligraphy lessons she took at Japanese school in her childhood. Centrifugally repeating lines displayed an energetic exploitation of positive and negative space, which she would later translate into her sculptures. Asawa found the interdisciplinary approach at Black Mountain College nourished her artistic practice, and drew inspiration from fellow collegians such as choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, artist Willem de Kooning, and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. In 1947 she travelled to Toluca, Mexico, where she became a
student of the local basket weavers who used galvanized wire. This experience, along with her close friendship with Albers’ wife and textile artist, Anni, helped Asawa develop a rigorous understanding of wire’s material properties. Her crocheted-wire sculptures would become her most iconic works: bulbous, intersecting, organic, light weight, playful, complex.
Asawa’s work has been exhibited widely since the early 1950s. Peridot Gallery, New York, held solo exhibitions in 1954, 1956, and 1958. In 1965, Walter Hopps organized a solo exhibition of her sculptures and drawings at the Pasadena Art Museum (now Norton Simon Museum) in California. Other solo shows include San Francisco Museum of Art (1973); Fresno Art Museum, California (2001); de Young Museum, San Francisco (2006); Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas (2012); and Norton Simon Museum of Art, California (2014).
In 1949 Asawa married fellow student and architect Albert Lanier and settled in San Francisco where they both enjoyed art-world success. Committed to teaching art, in 1968 they started the first arts program in the San Francisco public schools. Before graduating from Black Mountain College Asawa wrote in a letter to Lanier, “I no longer identify myself as Japanese or American, but as a ‘citizen of the universe.’” (1)
(1) Ruth Asawa, quoted in Daniell Cornell et al., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 51.
© Copyright 2017 Hollis Taggart Galleries