Becoming Reacquainted With Ruth Asawa, the Groundbreaking Artist Who Integrated Her Work and Her Life

Ruth Asawa was born in Norwalk, California, in 1926 to immigrant parents. She and her siblings dutifully worked on the family’s vegetable farm—one of Asawa’s jobs was to string up green beans every year—until the family was separated and imprisoned in 1942 following the signing of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps across the U.S. during World War II. Asawa was 16 years old when she was first interned at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California. At the camp, she took art classes with Disney animators who were also imprisoned there.

After five months at Santa Anita, Asawa, along with her mother and siblings, was sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, where she spent another year. She was able to secure an early release for college and enrolled at Milwaukee State Teachers College, studying to become an art teacher. In her fourth year, she was told that due to lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, working in a school to fulfill her student-teaching requirement would be too dangerous. Blocked from finishing her degree, she made the pivotal decision to follow two Milwaukee friends to the legendary Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, to study art. She arrived in the summer of 1946.

Experimental in nature, Black Mountain College encouraged interdisciplinary learning within the arts and a subversion of teacher-student hierarchies. The school drew such luminary creatives as Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Willem de Kooning as teachers. In many ways, Asawa was the “ideal student” and the embodiment of the 20th-century avant-garde that Black Mountain fostered, Helen Molesworth, the organizer of the David Zwirner show, said at an exhibition preview last week.

Asawa’s teachers at Black Mountain, especially Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, proved formative in both aesthetics and philosophy. Albers brought principles of the Bauhaus—the influential German art school that emphasized formalism, repetition, and handiwork—into her creative process. “The thing that really impressed me most about both Bucky and Albers is that they made a lifetime commitment—they weren’t interested in ideas that were solved. They were only interested in ideas that didn’t have a shape yet,” Asawa said in a 1978 documentary.

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