Ruth Asawa drawing at home, Noe Valley, CA, 1990. Photo: Bob Turner.
CAST YOUR MIND, if you can bear it, back to the disorienting first year of the pandemic. Late in the summer of 2020, a crackling moment of possibility broke through the leaden mood, albeit briefly, when all of a sudden it seemed as though one extraordinary woman might be poised to save not only the United States Postal Service but the practice of voting and democracy itself. Ruth Asawa’s commemorative stamps launched in San Francisco on August 13. In place of in-person events, a handful of online festivities and formalities heralded their arrival. Often described as an artist’s artist, Asawa has attracted a resurgence of interest in recent years. Her stamps proved hugely popular, prompting many to hoard them, and then, in an unexpectedly dramatic turn, to use them for posting mail-in ballots in the presidential election.
Ten designs, repeated on a sheet of twenty stamps, showcase in dramatic fashion the conical, lobed, interlocking, and cascading forms of the artist’s intricately made, seemingly weightless tied- and looped-wire sculptures. Photographed in black-and-white and faintly tinted brown or burgundy, the sculptures, which Asawa began making as a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, throw a few playful shadows on the walls behind them. The pictures are cropped close, creating equally mesmerizing forms in the negative spaces around and between artworks; two of the images include multiple sculptures hanging side by side. The selvage panel to the left of the stamps features a glamorous black-and-white portrait of Asawa shot for Life magazine in 1954. She sits at a table, one hand cradling the side of her face, the other holding a pencil to a sheet of paper that is itself placed atop a massive line drawing—theatrically extended through the depth of field—of the same undulating forms as her delicately mind-blowing sculptures.
Sheet of United States Postal Service Ruth Asawa commemorative stamps, 2020.
ASAWA DIED IN 2013 at the age of eighty-seven, and initially her family had wanted the stamps to represent a broader range of her output, such as the floral watercolors she was making later in life as well as her paintings from the 1940s and ’50s, mainly untitled geometric abstractions with, for example, allover patterns of arrows, potato prints, fabulous whirling and spiral forms she called “meanders,” replicating circles she called “dancers,” or shocks of color in the shape of stems and dogwood-tree leaves. “We never want her pegged as just a sculptor,” Asawa’s youngest daughter, Addie Lanier, told me last fall. Over fifty years, Asawa’s looped-wire sculptures have experienced periods of high visibility, but she worked in a crowded constellation of artmaking modes, creating drawings, paintings, lithographs, ceramic face masks, and public art. Even her sculptures were more diverse than one might have imagined. She experimented with bronze casts and patinas, dunking copper wire for months in a chemical tank until it took on a texture like coral.
Ruth Asawa, Stem with Leaves, ca. 1948–49, watercolor on paper, 19 3⁄4 × 16". © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
In the ’50s, the Peridot Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York gave Asawa two group shows and three solo exhibitions. The Whitney and São Paulo biennials feted her work, as did the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Her early success tapped into the post–World War II revival of crafts, which elevated weaving and ceramics to modernist art forms, at once abstract and fashioned from functional materials. To that end, one of the early group exhibitions in which Asawa participated, held in 1954 at the precursor to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was titled “Four Artist Craftsmen.” It put forth Asawa’s sculptures alongside weavings by Ida Dean Grae, jewelry by Merry Renk, and ceramics by Marguerite Wildenhain, showcasing the work of four women, despite the title, who were connected in one way or another to the pedagogical experimentation of the Bauhaus.
View of “Four Artists-Craftsmen: Ruth Asawa, Ida Dean, Merry Renk, Marguerite Wildenhain,” 1954, San Francisco Museum of Art. Photo: Blair Stapp.
According to Asawa’s arrangement with Peridot, she covered the costs of shipping her work, and paid the price if it didn’t sell and was returned to her damaged. That happened often enough that after 1960, Asawa amicably ended her relationship with the gallery and gradually withdrew from the East Coast art scene in which her work had been circulating. To a certain extent, she also withdrew from the wider world. She didn’t have another solo show outside of California until 2012. She showed almost nothing internationally for decades.
Asawa worked in a crowded constellation of artmaking modes.
That has changed in recent years. Seven of Asawa’s sculptures are included in Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” at the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale. Later this month, the UK’s Modern Art Oxford, in collaboration with the Stavanger Art Museum in Norway, will open “Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe,” the first survey in Europe dedicated to the artist’s work. The show’s subtitle—evocative of expansion like so many of her exhibition titles in the past few years, such as “All Is Possible” and “A Line Can Go Anywhere”—comes from a letter Asawa wrote to Albert Lanier in 1948. Lanier had turned up at Black Mountain College that year to study architecture. He didn’t stay long. But he and Asawa fell in love, and they married in 1949. Asawa’s wedding ring was designed by Buckminster Fuller, Lanier’s mentor and a lifelong family friend. It was made of three silver bands in the shape of three interlocking letter A’s, for the vowels of her last name—her own name—wrapped around a polished river stone.
Ruth Asawa’s 1949 wedding ring. Design: R. Buckminster Fuller. Fabrication: Mary Jo Slick Godfrey.
In Asawa’s letter to Lanier, she alludes to what racism had already done to her family. Her parents immigrated to California from Japan (her father arrived in 1902, and her mother, a picture bride, followed in 1919). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father was arrested and she, her mother, and five of her six siblings were rounded up and scattered among internment camps all over the country. One of her sisters had been visiting Japan and was stranded there until the end of the war. “I no longer want to nurse such wounds,” Asawa writes and then pivots to her hands, at work on her sculptures. “I now want to wrap fingers cut by aluminum shavings, and hands scratched by wire.” She warns Lanier of the prejudice and violence they may face. “This attitude has forced me to become a citizen of the universe,” she writes, “by which I grow infinitely smaller, than if I belonged to a family, or province, or race.”
Ruth Asawa, Happy Birthday Adam, 1989, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, sheet size 18 × 24". © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Such a self-image—that of a single person becoming tinier and tinier in a world so vast and expansive as to obviate markers of familial, national, or racial identity—is an important clue to what Asawa imagined her work could do. The levity of her drawings, paintings, and sculptures, whether suspended from the ceiling, fixed to the wall, or freestanding, combine with the intensity of her work ethic and the ruggedness of her materials—including iron, copper, brass, and steel—to iterate again and again the productive tensions that define her art: between figure and ground, line and form, mobility and stasis, lightness and weight, inside and outside, and positive and negative space. By holding all of those formal opposites in tension, Asawa’s work outlines another, more experiential binary, between freedom and constraint.
Ruth Asawa at Rohwer Relocation Center, Rohwer, Arkansas, ca. 1942–43.
ASAWA WAS BORN IN NORWALK, California, in 1926. She grew up on a rented farm her father had tilled for forty years, harvesting fruits and vegetables, from broccoli and spring onions to strawberries and sweet melon. Her childhood was organized around Japanese school on Saturdays, including origami and calligraphy lessons as well as language study; a Quaker church on Sundays; and hard work in the fields throughout the week. Besides shattering her family life and cultural grounding, Asawa’s internment displaced her first to a Los Angeles racetrack and then to a camp in Arkansas. And it lasted for years. She was eventually granted permission to leave the camp to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she trained to be an art teacher, putting herself through school thanks to anonymous (largely Quaker) scholarships and jobs as a domestic servant or live-in maid. When she was nearly finished with her teacher training, she learned that she would be unable to complete her service requirement because (it was assumed) no schools at the time would allow a Japanese American student teacher into their classrooms. That was the break that led her to Black Mountain College.
Ruth Asawa, Basket, 1948–49, copper wire, 4 1⁄2 × 7 1⁄2 × 7 3⁄4". © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Founded in 1933 by classics scholar John Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier, a physics professor who was also the nephew of the Bauhaus patron Katherine Dreier, Black Mountain College was one of several pedagogical experiments in the United States during the postwar period in which the principles of the Bauhaus were extended but also subtly altered. At the time of the Bauhaus’s creation, in 1919, Walter Gropius had called for the elimination of class divisions and category distinctions between artists and craftspeople and insisted on the elevation of craft to the level of the fine arts. At Black Mountain, the Bauhaus-trained artists, designers, and architects who had immigrated to the US en masse in the 1930s and ’40s helped to give new life to local and regional craft traditions that had fallen into decline during the Great Depression, fundamentally altering the dynamic between the fine and applied arts in America. This moment gave rise to the fiber-arts movement of the ’60s and ’70s, a legacy of the Bauhaus often overshadowed by the school’s more famous associations with architectural high style.
Asawa was ambivalent about craft. Without question, her most important teacher at Black Mountain was Joseph Albers, a painter above all, who uttered endless aphorisms such as “Art is never wrong.”
The origin story of how Asawa came to perfect the technique of her looped-wire sculptures draws on several sources. One of the earliest, from the artist’s childhood and elucidated by the late curator Karin Higa in the essay “Inside and Outside at the Same Time,” was the recycling of laths and the coiling of string to grow lima beans, which mimicked the act of weaving. Another, posited by the scholar Krystal Reiko Hauseur in her dissertation “Crafted Abstraction,” suggests that handicrafts had been a major element of arts education in the internment camps and that Asawa’s first exposure may have occurred there and been subsequently repressed. However, the most direct and compelling account involves Asawa’s visit to Mexico with her sister Chiyo in the summer of 1947. The pair came to teach art and English to rural families as volunteers for a Quaker-sponsored public-health program. According to Asawa’s biographer Marilyn Chase, a schoolteacher in the town of Toluca, grateful to the Asawa sisters for the time they spent with his students, taught the duo a local weaving technique for making containers for carrying eggs. Asawa returned to Black Mountain and made her first looped-wire vessel later that year, which was followed by lobed and spherical forms. These continued to evolve in complexity and beauty over the next two decades.
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, ca. 1948–49, oil and water-based paint on blotting paper, 12 × 19". © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
But it’s important to stress that of all craft techniques, Asawa’s for her looped-wire sculptures most closely resembles knitting, not weaving. She was close to several women from the Bauhaus and Black Mountain, among other experimental schools in the same tradition, including the weavers Kay Sekimachi and Trude Guermonprez, who taught Addie Lanier how to weave, and Wildenhain, the ceramicist, who gave pottery lessons to Asawa’s son Paul. Her proximity to this lineage of women is an important but overlooked aspect of her life and work when measured against the tendency to legitimate her art through proximity to a lineage of men: Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and so on. It’s worth noting, all the same, that Asawa herself was ambivalent about craft. Without question, her most important teacher at Black Mountain was Albers, a painter above all, who uttered endless aphorisms such as “Art is never wrong” and made Asawa’s future husband promise never to stop her from doing her work—and by all accounts he kept his vow.
Ruth Asawa, Aurora, 1984–86, stainless steel fountain. Installation view, Bayside Plaza, San Francisco. Photo: Hudson Cuneo. © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
There’s reasonable speculation, however, that Asawa’s status as a woman, a wife, and a mother may have limited her career in a patriarchal art world. Emma Ridgway, who curated the Modern Art Oxford show, suggested in a conversation on Katy Hessel’s Great Women Artists podcast, for example, that had Asawa only refrained from mentioning so enthusiastically her marriage or her children, she might have been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship she repeatedly applied for and never received. And as Tamara Schenkenberg, who organized Asawa’s first solo museum survey beyond California, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis in 2018, explained, “According to the logic of the canon, it’s a disadvantage to be a woman and to work in craft-based media. Ruth Asawa is a great example of how myopic that is.”
Ruth Asawa, Andrea, 1966–68, bronze fountain. Installation view, Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco. Photo: Rob Corder/Flickr. © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
When Asawa pulled back from the East Coast in the 1960s, she threw herself into intensely local community initiatives. She did a handful of high-profile public-art projects in San Francisco, garnering the nickname “the fountain lady” for pieces such as her 1968 sculpture of frogs and mermaids at Ghirardelli Square and for the more abstract Aurora, 1984–86, located along the waterfront and based on the origami techniques Asawa had learned as a child. While the former, in particular, may appear populist in its imagery, in the context of Asawa’s multiple modes of artmaking, the folkloric, storybook appeal of the nursing mermaid is just one vocabulary among many.
Ruth Asawa teaching, San Francisco, ca. 1973. Photo: Laurence Cuneo.
Asawa advocated for the arts and civic engagement, served on committees, volunteered as a gardener outside school buildings, and worked with kids, showing them how to make “baker’s clay” from salt and flour, so that even those with very few resources could create. (Asawa used baker’s clay herself to make designs later cast in bronze for her fountains.) She developed a program for bringing artists into public schools that in 1982 evolved into a stand-alone high school for the arts, which now bears her name.
“[My mother] was a very beloved person to a very small number of people,” said Addie Lanier. Asawa carved waves into the doors of her studio in a pattern similar to her meander paintings. Over a period of thirty-four years, she made 233 cast-clay face masks of the people in her life, which, until they were acquired by the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University, which also owns her archive, hung on the outside of her house. Made in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the life casts done by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres in the South Bronx, though lacking the names and identifying details of their work, Asawa’s masks pay homage to regular folk while reiterating her idea of each person as a tiny figure in an expanding universe.
Exterior walkway of Ruth Asawa’s home, San Francisco, date unknown. Photo: Laurence Cuneo. © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
FOR THE COMMEMORATIVE STAMPS, Asawa’s family eventually agreed to show only the sculptures. But the issue of which media to emphasize is one that virtually all curators have faced when organizing exhibitions of Asawa’s work. Daniell Cornell at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Schenkenberg at the Pulitzer, Helen Molesworth at David Zwirner, and Ridgway at Modern Art Oxford have each devised brilliant ways of diversifying the kinds of objects on view. Doing so has allowed scholars such as Jason Vartikar to take interpretations of Asawa’s art in different directions, with an eye toward the scientific, the biological, and the cellular. Questions of how much to show, of what, and whether to bring in the biographical aspects of family life and community engagement seem, on one hand, mainly reserved for women artists, and, on the other, essential to grapple with for the sake of not simply adding a few austere modernist objects to the canon but rather breaking the thing open to see if something more interesting and inclusive can be done with its parts. In this way, the revival of interest in Asawa’s art has much in common with recent treatments of complex, direction-changing, multidisciplinary artists such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Beatriz González, and Huguette Caland.
All her life Asawa was trained by refugees.
At Modern Art Oxford, the educational aspects of Asawa’s life and art are of special interest. In addition to her work with schools in San Francisco, Asawa embodied the progressive legacy of Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus. But that points to a few as yet underexplored themes in her work. One is the sense in which Asawa was always international, even when her place or her movements were restricted. As Addie Lanier explained it, all her life her mother was trained by refugees. When Asawa was taken to the Santa Anita racetrack with her mother and five siblings, she took drawing lessons from fellow Japanese American internees who had until then been working as animators for Walt Disney. When she was able to leave her second internment camp, in Arkansas, her teachers at the college in Milwaukee were German Quakers. She befriended Dutch refugees at Black Mountain. And Black Mountain itself was a sanctuary for the teachers and students of the Bauhaus who had been forced to flee the Nazis. As a citizen of the universe, Asawa brought these multitudes of international experience into her own way of being in the world. She internalized everything those refugees had brought with them and shared with her and transmitted it through her art.
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, ca. 1948–49, oil on paper, 14 × 12". © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The circulation of Asawa’s work continues to challenge the oppositions in the world that are reflected in its formal tensions. “Because she was exposed to racism at a really critical point as a teenager,” said Lanier, “and because of her internment, she was very much set free from parental authority. At seventeen, she was off on her own and didn’t see her parents again for five or six years. She had become an artist with an identity” beyond nationalism, culture, or gender, Lanier explained. “She was never isolated or alone in her studio. She was wild and free in a different universe.” Asawa’s art is shaped by discrete cultural traditions, whether Asian origami or Central American weaving or European painting. But it also transcends and moves beyond those traditions. It’s in a state of exile, unmoored from cultural heritage and family ties. It pulls from different places and in doing so becomes something new and unique—not as an expression of “genius” but as one profound singularity amid countless others.
To that point, Ridgway’s exhibition, postponed and reorganized multiple times because of the pandemic, came to revolve around questions such as “What concepts of freedom can we have in relation to citizenship?” and “What political freedoms do we feel as individuals?” and “In the face of intolerable abuse, what aspects can we take hold of to shift things?” Whether sculptures or drawings or paintings or civic engagements or advocacy for the arts in education, Asawa’s work answers to crises of citizenship because it was made in response to crises of citizenship. As Ridgway put it, “Ruth’s story brings a lot home to our generation.”
“Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe” is on view at Modern Art Oxford, UK, from May 27 through August 20.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.
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