Search the Collections

Ruth Asawa
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Norwalk, Calif.
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
San Francisco
A pioneering modernist artist best known for her looped mesh wire hanging sculptures and her delightful fountains, Ruth Asawa created metal sculptures in other forms, paintings, drawings and prints and was an advocate for the arts and art education. She was born in 1926 in Norwalk, Calif. (Los Angeles County), where her family had a truck garden. In February 1942 her father was arrested and sent to an internment camp in New Mexico. The following May, Asawa, her mother and her six siblings were confined at the Santa Anita Racetrack, where the children attended school and Japanese artists who had worked in the Disney Studios gave her drawing lessons. In September she and her family were sent to the Rohwer Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas, where she completed her high school education, which included art classes. Supported by a Quaker charity, Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), intending to become an art teacher. After completing three years of class work, she was not allowed to do student teaching because of her Japanese ethnicity and was denied a degree. Asawa was accepted for the 1946 summer program at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, which focused on art. Given a scholarship funded by a classmate, Lorna Blaine Halper (1924-2012), Asawa spent three years at Black Mountain, studying under Josef Albers (1888-1976), his wife (and textile artist) Anni Albers (1899-1994), dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) and architect R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). A 1947 summer trip to Toluca, Mexico to teach art introduced her to the crochet loop wire baskets made by the villagers. She used the technique to make sculptures after her return to Black Mountain, strongly influenced by Anni Albers’s textile weavings. She then met a new Black Mountain student, Albert Lanier (1927-2008), whom she would later marry. A painting by Asawa selected for a 1948 exhibition at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass. was praised in reviews by both Time Magazine and the New York Times. After completing her Black Mountain studies, she moved to San Francisco following spring to marry Lanier, who was working as an architectural draftsman. In 1950 a looped wire sculpture was accepted for the San Francisco Art Association Annual Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which included her sculptures in its “Four Artists” exhibition of 1954. That year that the Peridot Gallery in New York mounted its first solo show of her work, which garnered favorable press notices. Over the next several years the Peridot Gallery gave her two more solo exhibitions, a sculpture was exhibited in the 1955 São Paulo (Brazil) Bienal, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago included her work in group shows, major collectors began buying her work and her sculptures entered museum collections. In 1960 the de Young Museum held a solo exhibition of her sculptures and drawings. The gift of a desert plant inspired her to mimic the plant with a bundle of wires tied together as the stem, leading to a new form of sculpture. Asawa began receiving commissions from businesses for art for public spaces, including one for a Ghirardelli Square fountain. The resulting “Andrea” (1968), featuring a mermaid with frogs and turtles, has achieved great popularity. A 1965 Tamarand Lithography Workshop Fellowship enabled her to work for two months at the Los Angeles printer, which she created 52 lithographs. In 1968 Asawa co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, an artist-in-residence program, which has expanded to dozens of San Francisco public schools. Asawa received another fountain commission in 1970 for the plaza of San Francisco’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. More than 250 persons contributed figures depicting San Francisco scenes made with baker’s clay, which Asawa assembled and had cast as a circular bronze fountain. Asawa led a campaign that led to the creation of a public high school for the arts in San Francisco in 1982, which was named for her in 2010. Asawa received many appointments, including the San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council and an eight-year term as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums. When the new de Young Museum opened in 2005, she donated 15 of her hanging wire sculptures for the lobby of the Museum’s tower. A retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the de Young in 2006. Her honors include honorary doctoral degrees from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1998 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offered to award her an honorary doctorate; she chose instead to receive her (missing) Bachelor of Arts degree. Asawa died in her home in 2013. (TNB 3/2016) Selected bibliography: Cornell, Daniel, et al. The “Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. Exhibition catalog. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2006. Molesworth, Helen. with Ruth Erickson, et al. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957. Exhibition catalog. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.