The eminent 20th-century artist Ruth Asawa is best known for her airy looped-wire sculptures (featured on a set of U.S. Postal Service stamps released in 2020). Less commonly exhibited is her extensive oeuvre of drawings, which spans decades. In fact, she repeatedly asked galleries and museums to focus on her works on paper but was often denied. Ruth Asawa Through Line, on view now to January 15, 2024, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, brings overdue attention to the artist’s work beyond her mesmerizing wire sculptures.
The exhibition, grouped into eight sections such as “Rhythms and Waves” and “Curiosity and Control,” illuminates Asawa’s lesser-known processes and materials, like her use of stamping tools made out of potatoes, leaves, and fish, or her dimensional folded-paper works. No matter the medium, the influence of the natural world, with both its repetitive linearity and its organic, imperfect forms, is clear.
With this renewed attention on Asawa, ARTnews looked back on the artist’s life and career. Below is a guide to major events in her artistic development and milestones in her practice.
From an early age, Asawa creates artworks.
Born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, Asawa was the fourth of seven children. Her parents, Umakichi and Haru Asawa, had immigrated to America from Japan and worked as truck farmers. Discriminatory laws prohibited Asawa’s parents from owning land of their own in California or becoming American citizens. Asawa worked on the family farm before and after school. She once said, “I used to sit on the back of the horse-drawn leveler with my bare feet drawing forms in the sand, which later in life became the bulk of my sculptures.”
Asawa and her family are detained in U.S. internment camps during the 1940s.
In 1942, Asawa’s father was arrested and interned in a camp in New Mexico, while she and the rest of her family were detained in Santa Anita, California. While incarcerated, Asawa took drawing classes from Disney animators who were also interned there. The artist was released from an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, in 1943, upon which Ruth enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College. There she experienced racism and xenophobia, which ultimately caused her to leave school in 1946 without her degree; the school had refused to place her in a teaching position, which was required to graduate. Asawa subsequently moved to North Carolina to study at Black Mountain College, which was founded in 1933 as a bastion of the avant-garde and had served as a refuge for some artists who fled Nazi Germany and war in Europe.
The artist develops her practice at Black Mountain College.
Asawa worked closely with her instructors—among them artist Josef Albers (the first art teacher to be hired at the institution), designer Buckminster Fuller, dancer Merce Cunningham, and mathematician Max Dehn—at Black Mountain, and it was there that she met architecture student Albert Lanier, whom she would marry in 1949. The college’s emphasis on an interdisciplinary education influenced her early work, where one can see inspiration from dancers’ movements, as in Untitled (BMC.56, Dancers), on display in the Whitney exhibition. An early painting by Asawa, Untitled (BMC.95, In and Out), circa 1948–49, hints at the rhythmic geometry that would come to define her sculptural practice. The work features abstract, arrow-shaped forms that seem to dance across the red canvas in an inexorable linear choreography.
Asawa begins showing her work publicly following her move to San Francisco.
In 1949, after a year apart, Asawa joined Lanier in San Francisco, where the couple went on to have six children in the next decade. It was during this period that the artist started exhibiting her hanging looped-wire sculptures—inspired by the wire baskets she saw on a 1947 trip to Mexico—at venues including Peridot Gallery in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and elsewhere. Asawa also presented work at the 1955 Bienal de São Paulo. Of her first sculptural experimentations, which often featured buoyant forms that cast undulating shadows, the artist once said, “My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”
In the 1960s her sculptures become increasingly intricate.
In the early 1960s, inspired by a dried desert plant she was given, Asawa began creating tied-wire sculptures, reminiscent of the branching forms of trees and corals. These works, which now rank among her most famous, feature star-shaped centers made of bundles of wire, divided and subdivided as they expanded outward. In 1965 curator Walter Hopps, formerly of Ferus Gallery, organized a solo show of Asawa’s sculptures and drawings at California’s Pasadena Art Museum, (now known as the Norton Simon). During this decade the artist also began taking on public commissions in San Francisco, starting with her sculptures of nursing mermaids in a fountain in the city’s Ghirardelli Square. She joined the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1968, and with architectural historian Sally Woodbridge she cofounded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop and worked to bring arts education to schools in San Francisco.
Asawa focuses on arts education opportunities for students in San Francisco.
In 1982 the artist’s efforts to establish a public high school dedicated to the arts were realized with the opening of the School of the Arts. The audition-based institution was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010, and it now serves as a space where “promising young artists and thinkers collaborate with teachers, professional artists, and their community to explore and develop their personal identity through art, insight, and movements that reflect and influence the world around them,” according to its website.
In the early 2000s, she takes on a large-scale public project and receives a major retrospective.
The last public commission of Asawa’s career was the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University, a memorial to recognize Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. “I thought it would be nice if we could do something that told the story but not in a bitter way and not just as a Japanese story,” Asawa said of the project, which was unveiled in 2002. “This is a story about liberty and freedom.” Working with two landscape designers, Asawa placed 10 boulders symbolizing American internment camps in the garden, along with a bronze marker that honors the families of the 19 SFSU students forced to withdraw from the institution in 1942 and detained in internment camps. In 2006, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presented a retrospective of her work titled “Contours in the Air,” featuring 54 sculptures and 45 works on paper.
Today, Asawa is one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century.
Asawa died in 2013, but her monumental legacy lives on in the art world. Her iconic works can be found in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the de Young Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco; and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, among many other institutions. The artist’s estate has been represented by David Zwirner since 2017, and in 2018 the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis mounted Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work, the first major museum show of her work in more than 10 years. In 2020, Christie’s sold her 1953–54 sculpture Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres Within Two Lobes) for $5.38 million, and Zwirner presented an exhibition of her work at its London space. In 2022, her art was included in the 59th Venice Biennale and Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe, the first international museum exhibition of the artist’s work, travelled to Modern Art Oxford and Stavanger Museum in Norway. After its run at the Whitney, Ruth Asawa: Through Line will travel to the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, where it will be on view from March 22 through July 21.