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The Japanese-American Sculptor Who, Despite Persecution, Made Her Mark

By Thessaly La Force

Nat Farbman/The Life Picture Collection/Getty ImagesRuth Asawa as a young artist in 1954, surrounded by several of her wire sculptures, which she began making in the late 1940s.
Ruth Asawa as a young artist in 1954, surrounded by several of her wire sculptures, which she began making in the late 1940s.

IN 2009, THE New York City auction house Christie’s received an unsolicited query: A woman named Addie Lanier had a painting by Josef Albers, the midcentury abstract artist who pioneered modern arts education. Could Christie’s help her sell it? It wasn’t uncommon for a major auction house like Christie’s to get cold calls. News generated by large sales can create curiosity and spark interest; people often approach auction houses in the hope of confirming that they have been sitting on priceless works of art. Jonathan Laib — then a senior vice president and senior specialist of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s — was excited to hear of an Albers.

The details surrounding the painting, from Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series, intrigued Laib. Like many artists, Albers was fond of trades and frequently gave artworks away. Rarely, though, did he gift a painting as substantial as this one. In some respects, the series was his masterpiece; for 26 years, Albers repeatedly nested three to four superimposed squares of varying hues, a cumulative expression of his life’s work in revealing how perception could be manipulated by the arrangement of form and colour. Lanier also possessed a signed note from Albers, verifying the painting’s authenticity. It was surprisingly affectionate: “Dear Ruthie, This is just for revenge, And it is yours for the promise not to acknowledge receiving it. Love, A.” Lanier attested that her mother, a woman named Ruth Asawa, and Albers had been friends.

Imogen Cunningham; © The Imogen Cunningham Trust. From “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa,” by Marilyn Chase, published by Chronicle Books, 2020Asawa in 1951, reclining and holding one of her sculptures. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.
Asawa in 1951, reclining and holding one of her sculptures. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

Laib began a correspondence with Lanier, learning more about her mother, a San Francisco-based artist, who was then 83 years old and bedridden with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. The family was in need of money to provide the round-the-clock care that Asawa required. The eventual sale of the Albers brought in over US$100,000 (S$137,000), but it left Laib wondering if there was more to Asawa’s story. She had been a student of Albers at Black Mountain College in the 1940s. Her own art incorporated many of the principles Albers espoused: the use of negative space, beauty in repetition and a deep awareness of the material at hand. Asawa often worked with coiled lines of metal wire that she wove into undulating, biomorphic shapes that hung from the wood rafters of her house in Noe Valley. She had shown these pieces in a New York City gallery, Peridot, where she was represented for six years beginning in 1954, placing works with top collectors including the Museum of Modern Art, the architect Philip Johnson and Mary Rockefeller, the first wife of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. It was surprising to Laib that Asawa’s name was not as well known as those of her contemporaries, such as Eva HesseLouise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama. Asawa’s last show with Peridot was in 1958. Less than a decade later, she had all but disappeared from the New York art world.

Today, Asawa has returned as a subject of rediscovery — someone who has finally been given the kind of international recognition that was owed during her lifetime, and whose legacy reflects both her own contributions as an artist as well as the singular path she forged for herself as the child of immigrants, a woman and an Asian-American. This past April, the United States Postal Service announced that 10 different works of Asawa’s would be featured on a series of postage stamps, out next month. Also in April, the first comprehensive biography of Asawa, “Everything She Touched” by Marilyn Chase, was published by Chronicle Books. She is now routinely included in comprehensive group shows alongside artists such as Anni AlbersSheila Hicks and Bourgeois. Laib, who took the original call from Asawa’s daughter, eventually moved from Christie’s to the David Zwirner gallery and is responsible for several lauded solo shows of her work, resulting in sales of her sculptures for well over a million dollars.

Imogen Cunningham. © The Imogen Cunningham TrustThe artist with one of her hanging looped-wire sculptures in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.
The artist with one of her hanging looped-wire sculptures in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

In a culture of acknowledging those who were previously overlooked, when artists and their earliest champions are finally getting their dues, there is a satisfaction in witnessing the record be corrected. Yet a purely revisionist approach ignores the ways in which Asawa’s art is still remarkably contemporary, how it is a clear articulation of midcentury art’s engagement with spatial abstraction. I have stood in a gallery hung with Asawa’s wire sculptures, where the movement of my own body has caused them to sway, the shadows of the woven wire dancing against the floor. For a moment, I was quietly transported elsewhere — to the deep sea, to a forest or maybe to someplace altogether unearthly.

In interviews, Asawa chose her words carefully. I suspect she would have resisted ever being portrayed as a victim. But there are the plain facts of her existence — that she was incarcerated as a teenager in a Japanese-American concentration camp; that she overcame incredible prejudice and racism to be an artist. How much is different from today, as people of Asian descent encounter new levels of racism, as the federal government continues to unjustly detain immigrants based on where they are from? Asawa’s biography is, ultimately, one with a happy ending. But it is also a painful reminder that the struggles she faced are not novel, and that history repeats itself. What, exactly, can we learn from her life?

ASAWA WAS BORN in 1926 in Norwalk, Calif. Her father, Umakichi, had worked as a tofu vendor, leaving Japan in 1902 to avoid conscription in the Russo-Japanese War. Her mother, Haru, was a Japanese picture bride — one of the thousands of Japanese women who, at the beginning of the last century, agreed, through the exchange of black-and-white portraits, to marry a Japanese man living in the United States in the hopes of a better life. By the time Ruth was born, the family was leasing an 80-acre farm in what would later become greater Los Angeles, unable to own property as immigrants because of the California Alien Land Law of 1913. Eventually, the Asawa family would grow to include seven children. Ruth was the fourth oldest.

Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth AsawaLeft: Asawa's mother, Haru (center), with her sister Ura (left) and their mother in Japan. Right: Asawa at age 13.
Left: Asawa's mother, Haru (center), with her sister Ura (left) and their mother in Japan. Right: Asawa at age 13.

Life on the farm was tough and unsparing, with long days and little time for idleness. The family lived in a board-and-batten house, covered by a paper ceiling and a tin roof, that Umakichi built himself. Asawa’s mother, as Chase describes in “Everything She Touched,” woke at around 3 a.m. each day to begin cooking the family’s rice; her father rose an hour later to check the gopher traps. Onions, broccoli and cauliflower were harvested every winter, strawberries every spring, and tomatoes and melons in the summer. They recycled the wooden crates down to the nails, which Umakichi would re-flatten with a hammer. “In my home we had virtually no materials,” Asawa said in a 1981 interview, “just a set of encyclopedia and a player piano. All the children wanted to play music but we didn’t have any money for lessons.” Umakichi was a truck farmer, and after the farm’s produce had been packed, he would drive to the Los Angeles farmer’s market to sell it. In the economy of the 1930s, a box of tomatoes cost a nickel, two dozen melons cost 10 cents and a crate of cabbages cost 35. Umakichi was often ripped off by buyers, which Asawa credited to the family’s own naïveté. As a result, school was a welcome haven for Asawa — even then, she loved to draw — but the children were still expected to finish their chores.

In December 1941, when Asawa was 15 years old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to declare war on Japan. Afraid of what could be construed as evidence against them, Ruth’s father burned the ikebana books one of her older siblings had brought back from a trip to Japan. In February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which would result in 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry being evicted from across the West Coast and held in American concentration camps scattered throughout the country. Umakichi was arrested that same month: “It was a Sunday, I guess, in February,” Asawa recalled in an interview with the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1970s, “that we were working in the field and two FBI men came. They went and found my father in the field and marched him back into the house. He had lunch and then they took him away.”

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the children of Ruth Asawa. Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David ZwirnerThe identification card issued to Asawa by the War Relocation Authority, the main government agency created to oversee the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The identification card issued to Asawa by the War Relocation Authority, the main government agency created to oversee the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

By April of that year, with Umakichi already imprisoned in New Mexico, Asawa, her mother and her siblings — with the exception of a younger sister who had been living in Japan on an extended visit, where she would remain throughout the war — had been told to pack up their lives and join the thousands of other Japanese-Americans at Santa Anita, one of two local detention centres, where they were assigned to wait until they received a permanent camp location further inland. There, they lived in the stables of the converted racetrack. “Hair from the horse[’s] mane & tail were stuck between cracks of the walls. The heat of the summer accentuated the odour of recent tenants,” remembered Asawa. Family units were broken up. Privacy was limited. While incarceration was an undignified experience, it also, paradoxically, set in motion Asawa’s career. She had more free time in Santa Anita than on the family farm and was introduced to three Walt Disney artists — Tom Okamoto, Chris Ishii and James Tanaka — who had begun teaching art. With the paper, charcoal and ink donated by the same men who had worked on “Snow White” and “Pinocchio,” Asawa began to take her own talent more seriously.

Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David ZwirnerAsawa standing before trellised beans at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas in 1943.
Asawa standing before trellised beans at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas in 1943.

After five months, the Asawa family was ordered to pack up again, heading now to the bayous of Arkansas and the Rohwer War Relocation Center, where Asawa would live for the next year. She recalled of the journey there: “The Louisiana swamps were just as I imagined them to be … enchanting, beautiful, and weird.” Cypress trees grew in the bayous and creeks snaked through large swaths of farmland, which were worked by sharecroppers, whose own poverty was often bleaker than that of those in the camps. In freshly erected barracks where the soil turned to black muck when it rained, Asawa and her family were imprisoned with over 8,000 other Japanese-Americans. (I visited Rohwer earlier this year and I was shocked by its flatness and disappointed that almost nothing remained of the camps except a smokestack, a gymnasium that now sat on private property and the beautiful cement tombstones that Japanese-American prisoners made for themselves.)

Like nearly everyone around them, the Asawas had lost their way of life and their security for the future. Still, there were small moments of relief: The gardens the families planted thrived in the Arkansas soil. They flew paper kites against the open blue sky. Asawa’s mother got her hair permed for the first time and socialised with the other women at the camp, activities her hardscrabble farm life never allowed.

In the spring of 1943, Asawa became eligible for early release as a high-school graduate (on the condition that she attend a college in the country’s interior, which was considered less of a national security threat, and that she find a financial sponsor). One of her teachers handed her a catalogue for the Art Institute of Chicago. She couldn’t afford it and instead chose the Milwaukee State Teachers College, where a semester only cost $25 (roughly $360 today). Leaving behind her mother and her younger siblings, Asawa said goodbye to Rohwer and took a train north.

FREE FROM THE prison of Rohwer, Asawa found Milwaukee was still a disappointment in many respects. Her tuition was paid for by a Quaker scholarship, but she earned her living expenses working as a live-in maid for a local family. During her third year of study, with the modest aim of becoming an art teacher, Asawa was told her race was a liability — as a Japanese-American, she would not be able to graduate with a teaching certificate, and without that, she would be unable to be hired as a teacher. Two of her friends from Milwaukee, both artists, Ray Johnson and Elaine Schmitt, were planning to attend a summer course at a school called Black Mountain College and urged Asawa to join them. After first arriving for a summer session, Asawa finally enrolled as a full-time student in the fall of 1946.

Hazel Larsen Archer. © Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer, by permission of Erika Archer-Zarow. From “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa,” by Marilyn Chase, published by Chronicle Books, 2020Asawa at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she first enrolled as a student in 1946, staying for three years.
Asawa at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she first enrolled as a student in 1946, staying for three years.

Situated along rolling meadowlands of the Great Craggy Mountains of North Carolina, Black Mountain College was a creative paradise whose pedagogical practices would go on to influence America’s liberal arts education in every way imaginable — even if it was a relatively short-lived experiment, dissolving in 1957. It was radically open-minded, a place for personal and creative discovery that couldn’t have been any more different from the Teachers College in Milwaukee. Founded in 1933 by a pedagogue named John A. Rice, the school embraced a holistic, interdisciplinary curriculum. Students weren’t given grades and could choose when to graduate. The art program was run by Josef Albers, who had fled Hitler’s Germany that same year with his wife and fellow artist, Anni Albers. The couple had fallen in love at the Bauhaus school, where Anni had been a precocious weaving student and Josef a teacher. The Bauhaus itself was a radical moment in German design, combining fine arts with crafts and emphasising a more democratic relationship between practicality and aesthetics. Black Mountain, as a result, was a rare amalgamation of European modernism, American individualism and of Albers’s old-world rigour. It also possessed an undeniably romantic atmosphere, in which students and teachers were equals, eating, living and socialising together. In a letter to Wassily Kandinsky upon their arrival, the Albers wrote: “Black Mountain is wonderful, deep in the mountains, the same height as the Harz [a mountain range in northern Germany] I think, but everything lush. The woods are full of wild rhododendrons, as big as trees, we go out without coats and sat in spring sunshine this morning.”

Courtesy of the Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts CenterJosef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College.
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College.
Mary Parks Washington, courtesy of the Estate of Ruth AsawaAsawa and a fellow student, Ora Williams, at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1946.
Asawa and a fellow student, Ora Williams, at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1946.

It is a common assumption, given the tactile nature of Asawa’s wire sculptures, that she studied weaving with Anni Albers. Anni, in fact, initially rejected Asawa, telling her it was impossible to teach a summer student weaving in just six weeks. Instead, it was Josef Albers who had an outsize influence on Asawa — his economical drawing classes helped discipline her mind and her hands. And the couple’s courage and tolerance — Josef, wary of elitism, came from a working-class family in a coal-mining town in West Germany; Anni was of Jewish descent (a good friend and colleague of the couple’s from the Bauhaus, Otti Berger, was killed at Auschwitz) — was a ballast for someone whose life was so marked by prejudice. (After Black Mountain admitted its first Black students in 1944, Albers suggested the school should admit more Asian students as well.) In many respects, Black Mountain was a place where sexuality, race and gender were treated with a startling impartiality for the times. Asawa blossomed under Albers’s tutelage. He showed people how to see, she later explained. To think critically and creatively. To use humble materials. For the first time in her life, Asawa finally saw herself as an artist.

Imogen Cunningham; © The Imogen Cunningham TrustThe artist forming a looped-wire sculpture in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.
The artist forming a looped-wire sculpture in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

THE SUCCESS ASAWA achieved in her lifetime was not unremarkable. Had she remained with Peridot or some other New York City gallery, there is reason to believe that she would have risen alongside her contemporaries. Peridot, which opened in 1948, was a small, successful Upper East Side gallery run by Lou Pollack, who, as Hilton Kramer wrote in his obituary in 1970, was a “sweet, soft‐spoken, courageous man” (Pollack died suddenly while vacationing in Corsica, after which the gallery changed name and ownership). Kramer described Pollack as having “a firm sense of that other art world, light-years removed from the hucksterism and fashion-mongering that make the headlines and collect the (blue) chips, where the aesthetic transaction exists primarily as a private pleasure and a spiritual need.” Other artists on Peridot’s roster included Philip Guston, Bourgeois, James Rosati and Costantino Nivola. The partnership between Asawa and Pollack eventually ended, in part because Asawa found it too costly to ship her wire sculptures across the country, especially as she had to assume the financial burden for any damages. Peridot’s ceilings were also only eight feet high — too short for her more ambitious and larger works.

But with hindsight, it is easy to see how Asawa was dismissed. Vogue magazine featured her artwork in 1952 alongside fashion models, who posed in front of the sculptures as if they were accessories. A positive 1955 review of two separate exhibitions by Asawa and Isamu Noguchi in Time magazine referred to Noguchi as a “leading U.S. sculptor” and Asawa as “a housewife.” Orientalism, too, infused the language around Asawa’s work — it wasn’t uncommon for an article about her to make reference to “ancient” traditions or her “far Eastern patience,” ignoring the distinctly European influence of Albers as well as Asawa’s own American origins. Her sculptures, made of wire and by hand, were also often labelled “craft,” a term that today may carry more positive associations but was still limiting for a woman moving in the same circles as Abstract Expressionists, postmodernists and conceptualists.

Imogen Cunningham; © The Imogen Cunningham TrustAsawa at work in her home studio, surrounded by her children, in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.
Asawa at work in her home studio, surrounded by her children, in 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

Asawa, who eventually became a mother of six, didn’t neatly fit into the categories that then defined the politics of feminism. An Asian-American woman, married with children, was never going to be seen as defying the patriarchy — even if her own interracial marriage was illegal in many states when she wed in 1949. As the artist Suzanne Jackson, who became a friend of Asawa’s while serving on the California Arts Council in the 1970s, explained: “For some of us, there was a kind of cultural attitude expressing — there were no bras to take off. No pedestals to fall from. No privilege to abandon.” Nevertheless, after Asawa’s children entered the California school system, beginning in 1968, she turned to activism and teaching. She garnered a prestigious profile as an educator and advocate for San Francisco’s public schools, bringing her other Black Mountain mentor, Buckminster Fuller, and his environmental thinking to classrooms. All of this meant time outside of the studio.

Most crucially though, there was no lexicon to explain or understand Asawa’s own trajectory from a dusty farm of Norwalk to being incarcerated during World War II to being in the same room as near mythological figures such as Robert RauschenbergMerce Cunningham and Willem de Kooning. For six weeks in 1948, while still a scholarship student at Black Mountain, Asawa rejoined her parents near Los Angeles to help them rebuild their lives as farmers after the war. Her own sense of responsibility to her family contradicted the notion of the selfish artist so espoused by her peers. And Asawa was not one to highlight her own experience with injustice to score points. In what remains of her several applications for a Guggenheim fellowship throughout the 1950s, for which she was repeatedly rejected (she continued to apply through the 1990s), Asawa never once mentions her own incarceration.

© Terry SchmittAsawa with masks she liked to make of friends and visitors who came to her house and studio in the Noe Valley neighbourhood of San Francisco, 1988.
Asawa with masks she liked to make of friends and visitors who came to her house and studio in the Noe Valley neighbourhood of San Francisco, 1988.

GROWING UP IN the Bay Area, I was familiar with Asawa’s work before I knew her name — my parents liked to take me to the Ghirardelli chocolate factory in San Francisco, where her second public commission, a bronze fountain featuring two mermaids, one of whom is breastfeeding (1968), still stands. Whatever divide I had to mentally cross to understand that this artist was the same one who deserved to stand alongside others such as Frida Kahlo and Bourgeois happened much later, when — as art has the capacity to do — I was struck by the acute simplicity of an Asawa sculpture (“S.270,” 1955) hanging in the window of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015, the West Village cramped and alive behind me, the patina of the sculpture’s wire evocative of a time now lost. It is unfortunate to me that women who enter the pantheon of great artists are often close to dead or, like Bourgeois, old enough that they seem to be eclipsed by their own careers — so that their story of genius is always one of overcoming, of wise, womanly perseverance. I am reluctant to see Asawa as anything more than what she was: a remarkable individual with a story that is so American in its triumph against adversity that it’s impossible to imagine it going another direction, as it did with thousands of Japanese-Americans of her generation who were promised a better life, as it did with her parents, who were forced to start over, who never fully regained what they painstakingly built for themselves as immigrants.

© Terry SchmittA detail from Asawa’s 1994 Japanese American Internment Memorial, in San Jose, California.
A detail from Asawa’s 1994 Japanese American Internment Memorial, in San Jose, California.

Only much later in Asawa’s life, when she was in her 60s, did she confront her experience in the camps with a 1994 commissioned bronze bas-relief memorial for the city of San Jose. In it, she fastidiously depicts scenes of Santa Anita and Rohwer — as well as those of the imprisonment of the larger Japanese-American community and of their struggle for justice afterward. Its literalness is uncharacteristic of her more abstract work. But the piece was also a reflection of the larger gestures she had begun to make as an educator and an activist, actions that finally addressed, as directly as possible, not just her own experience as a teenager but what happened, on a whole, to three generations of Japanese-Americans. In a letter to a friend written not long after the memorial’s unveiling, she explained: “I had to dig deep into my past to find the common threads with other Japanese immigrants who endured the struggle and am glad I was part of it.” The exhumation of her own experience was necessary. Even if Asawa always maintained that art — and its ability to offer us a way to think critically about the world — was what actually saved her. In a 1980 interview, she put it as such:

Well I don’t think that art by itself is important. I think that the reason the arts are important is because it is the only thing that an individual can do and maintain his individuality. I think that is very important — making your own decisions. If you count everything that we fight for — better schools, better health care, more social awareness — we are letting other people make the decisions for us. We are not taking our lives into our own hands and making those decisions for ourselves.

Imogen Cunningham. © The Imogen Cunningham TrustAn undated photo of Asawa by Imogen Cunningham.
An undated photo of Asawa by Imogen Cunningham.

This past December, I visited the Noe Valley house where Asawa died in 2013. Perched on a slanted hill, the house could be what Donald Judd’s former home in SoHo is today, a preservation of the artist’s space that is so complete that it is nearly a work of art itself. Judd’s home underwent a costly rehabilitation, and it requires a professional staff to maintain. For now, Asawa’s youngest son, Paul, and his wife, Sandra, live there with their children. The front doors, six hulking slabs of redwood, were hand-carved and burnished by Asawa with the help of her husband and children. The cobblestones that pave the pathway through the front garden were carried up by the family from a nearby beach. A ume plum tree that Asawa planted still stands in a the verdant garden, now overgrown with oxalis and nasturtium.

Laurence Cuneo, courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner. Artwork © Estate of Ruth AsawaSculptures by Asawa hanging from the Douglas fir rafters in the living room of her Noe Valley home in 1995.
Sculptures by Asawa hanging from the Douglas fir rafters in the living room of her Noe Valley home in 1995.

San Francisco is a city of heights and fog and light — crossing a street can sometimes feel like stepping from darkness into pure blue sky. Standing in her living room, flooded by the midday sun, the city unspooling below, I was able to conjure a black-and-white 1995 photograph that depicted how Asawa’s most important sculptures were hung in her home (many have since been placed in prominent museums and collections). Her children told me anecdotes, collected over the years: Asawa was fond of pointing at her sculptures, constellations in her own universe, and remarking that “this one is a seminal piece,” “that one should go to a museum.” “Somehow,” Addie Lanier told me, “She knew that the works would get there.” The children are now middle-aged and parents themselves; they had devoted years to caring for their parents at the end of their lives. I sensed how overwhelmed they had been by what had been left behind — they told stories of uncovering lesser artwork stuffed into basement crawl spaces, of painstakingly cataloguing scores of photographs of their mother by her friend the photographer Imogen Cunningham that had never been published. It made me think of my own parents, of the duty a child feels to her elders, of the abundance of life and then the quiet that comes after death. Their mother, they said, used to hang her feet off the side of her father’s horse-drawn leveller, creating undulating patterns in the dirt that would eventually be repeated in her work. They were protective of their mother’s legacy. They understood what was at stake as custodians. They told me how, after she had taken a class with Albers, their mother told him she didn’t want to paint what he wanted her to paint. She wanted to paint flowers instead. “Fine,” Albers had replied. “But make them Asawa flowers.” The clarity of her own existence was obvious.