Ruth Asawa. Untitled. 1965. Lithograph, composition: 20 × 26 5/8" (50.8 × 67.7 cm); sheet: 20 × 26 5/8" (50.8 × 67.7 cm). Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Inc., Los Angeles. Gift of Kleiner, Bell & Co.

“It doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things.”

Ruth Asawa

“It doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things,” artist, activist, and educator Ruth Asawa has said. “And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire give it a new definition.”1

Born on a farm in Southern California, Asawa began her arts education when she was a teenager and she and her family were among the thousands of persons of Japanese descent who were forcibly incarcerated by the US government during World War II. It was at the internment camp that Asawa began taking classes in painting and drawing. After her release, Asawa studied to be a teacher but was unable to get a license because of her Japanese heritage, so she enrolled at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina. Asawa took classes from and worked alongside fellow artists Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and R. Buckminster Fuller. Black Mountain was also where she met her husband, the architect Albert Lanier.

Asawa created Untitled (BMC.145, BMC Laundry Stamp) (c. 1948–49) while she was in charge of the student-run laundry facility. Moving in a pattern of rows and columns, she applied an inked laundry stamp with the college’s initials to a large portion of a bedsheet. “We were so poor that we were taking materials that were around us and using leaves and rocks and things that were natural rather than having good paper and good materials that we bought,” Asawa reflected on her experience at Black Mountain. “We had to scrounge around with things that were around us.”2

During her years at Black Mountain College, Asawa traveled to Mexico with Albers and his wife, Anni Albers, a fiber artist also on the faculty at the College. It was in a village outside Mexico City that Asawa learned to weave with wire. After settling permanently in San Francisco in the early 1950s, Asawa used this technique to create floating sculptures by looping wire with a dowel. Untitled (c. 1955) is an example of how Asawa’s innovative process created a new type of sculptural form, one which produced three-dimensional volume without interior mass. Moreover, this work, like her other wire sculptures, is installed hanging from the ceiling, giving it a greater sense of movement. She likened the weaving process to drawing in space, saying, “I was interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space.”3

Throughout her career, Asawa continued to experiment in different media. With its overlapping loops and circles, her print Desert Flower (1965) suggests a bird's eye view of one of her transparent wire sculptures. It is one of 54 lithographs that Asawa made in 1964 and 1965 at Tamarind Lithography Workshop, which was instrumental in bringing about a renaissance of printmaking in the US. In Aiko (1965), another work from this series, Asawa captures the likeness of one of her six children, creating a monochromatic profile of her daughter.

During her many years working in San Francisco, Asawa created and installed several large scale sculptures in public spaces. She also worked tirelessly as an advocate for art education in the city’s public schools. In all her endeavors, Asawa maintained a commitment to creativity and innovation. She once said, “I think the craft is important to a concept. I think to conceive that one works in dough and then that is made into bronze. There are many steps between the concept and the project. And I think that one should experience that. I think that that’s important.”4

Rachel Remick, 12-Month Modern Women's Fund Intern, Department of Painting and Sculpture

The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.

  1. Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, June 21–July 5, 2002, Smithsonian Archives of American Art,

  2. Oral history interview, Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

  3. Asawa, Ruth, and Stephen Dobbs, “Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa.” Art Education 34, no. 5 (1981): 14–17. doi:10.2307/3192471.

  4. Oral history interview, Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Wikipedia entry
Ruth Aiko Asawa (January 24, 1926 – August 5, 2013) was an American modernist artist known primarily for her abstract looped-wire sculptures inspired by natural and organic forms. In addition to her three-dimensional work, Asawa created an extensive body of works on paper, including abstract and figurative drawings and prints influenced by nature, particularly flowers and plants, and her immediate surroundings. Born in Norwalk, California in 1926, Asawa was the fourth of seven children born to Japanese immigrants. She grew up on a truck farm. In 1942, her family was separated when they were sent to different Japanese internment camps as a result of isolation policies for Japanese-Americans mandated by the U.S. government during World War II. At Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, Asawa learned drawing from illustrators interned at the camp. In 1943, she was able to leave the camp to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she hoped to become a teacher but was unable to complete her studies because her Japanese ancestry prevented her from obtaining a teaching position in Wisconsin. In 1946, Asawa joined the avant-garde artistic community at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied under the influential German-American Bauhaus painter and color theorist Josef Albers, as well as the American architect and designer Buckminster Fuller. At Black Mountain College, Asawa began making looped-wire sculptures inspired by basket crocheting technique she learned in 1947 during a trip to Mexico. In 1955, she held her first exhibition in New York and by the early 1960s, she had achieved commercial and critical success and became an advocate for public art according to her belief of "art for everyone". She was the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010. Her work is featured in collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Fifteen of Asawa's wire sculptures are on permanent display in the tower of San Francisco's de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and several of her fountains are located in public places in San Francisco. In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service honored her work by producing a series of ten stamps that commemorate her well-known wire sculptures.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Best known for her woven-wire hanging sculptures. During WWII, she and her family were held in internment camps for Japanese Americans, first at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles, then in Rohwer Arkansas. After the war Asawa attended Black Mountain College where she met her husband, the architect Albert Lanier. She donated fifteen of her iconic wire pieces to the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 2005. She was known for her commitment to public art projects and advocacy of art education.
American, Japanese-American
Artist, Graphic Artist, Sculptor
Ruth Asawa, Ruth Asawa Lanier
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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