“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 and...you give it a new definition.”1
Born on a farm in Southern California, Asawa began her arts when she was a teenager and she and her family were among the thousands of persons of Japanese descent who were forcibly interned 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
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.
Rachel Remick, 12-Month Modern Women's Fund Intern, Department of Painting and Sculpture
Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, June 21–July 5, 2002, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222.
408: Stamp, Scavenge, Crush
Oct 21, 2019–Sep 20, 2020 Collection gallery
Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
Apr 15–Aug 13, 2017
From the Collection:
Mar 26, 2016–Mar 19, 2017
Tamarind: Homage to Lithography
Apr 29–Jun 30, 1969
Recent Sculpture U.S.A.
May 13–Aug 16, 1959
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