Ruth Asawa, 1926-2013


Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American sculptor based in California’s Bay Area, died early on Aug. 6 at the age of 87. She had suffered from lupus since 1985, and, according to her website, declining health had caused her to cut back on public engagements since 2002. In a 2007 A.i.A. article, Leah Ollman wrote “her status in the Bay Area, where she has lived since 1949 and been active in arts education and civic arts initiatives, and where she has made several prominently placed works of public art, verges on mythic.” 

Asawa is known for her delicate looped wire sculptures, woven into airy, organic shapes that cast intricate shadows when hung from the ceiling, as well as her public art works. The artist was in the news earlier this year when plans to construct a new Apple store threatened the existence of her Hyatt on Union Square Fountain, a bronze fountain that has graced the stairs outside San Francisco’s Hyatt Hotel since 1973.

Asawa was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk on Jan. 24, 1926. Her parents were Japanese immigrant farmers, and in 1942 her father was arrested by the FBI and separated from his wife and children for six years. The rest of the family was sent to internment camps, first at a temporary site in Los Angeles and then to Rohwer, Ark., where Asawa graduated from high school. Lingering anti-Japanese sentiment frustrated her attempt to get a degree as an art teacher, so Asawa instead studied art at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller.

There she met architect Albert Lanier, whom she married in 1949. The mixed-race couple moved to San Francisco, drawn by the city’s vibrant arts community and its reputation for tolerance. Asawa began exhibiting her work, and eventually gained recognition for her crocheted wire sculptures.

Asawa was committed to arts education, and co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop for schoolchildren in 1968. In 1973, she helped organize the Music, Art, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival, an annual youth event in San Francisco. Asawa also opened the San Francisco School of the Arts with her husband in 1983. A public high school for the performing arts, the school was renamed in her honor in 2010. Asawa’s advocacy also included serving on the San Francisco Arts Commission from 1968-72 and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977.

Her public commissions include Andrea Mermain Fountain (1968) in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, the Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture (1994) outside the Federal Building in downtown San Jose, and San Francisco State University’s Garden of Remembrance (2002).

Exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York, Asawa has had major solo retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1973), the Fresno Art Center (1978 and 2001), the Oakland Museum (2002), the de Young Museum in San Francisco (2006) and the Japan Society in New York (2007). The lobby of the museum’s observation tower features a permanent installation of 15 of Asawa’s hanging wire sculptures, donated by the artist to the museum in honor of its reopening.