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Ruth Asawa and Her Lightly Wired Art

The Lighting Doctor sheds some illuminating information on the wire sculptures of Ruth Asawa.

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Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
Ruth Asawa was a wire sculpture artist. Her work can be seen in the Guggenheim and Whitney museums in NY.

Light and shadow work hand-in-hand. Together they add texture and dimension to a space, or in this case a particular type of art. I want to talk about an amazing artist, Ruth Asawa, who is a master at wirework. Her woven metal pieces pair seamlessly with accent lighting.

Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
Monopoint LED fixtures, with a color temperature of 3000K and a CRI of 90, project light through the wire sculpture and onto the wall. This creates a shadow image of the piece, adding volume and dimension.

First off, here is a little information about her. She was an American artist, born in 1926 and passed away in 2013. Her work is featured in the collections at the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums in New York City, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and many other museums across the country and throughout the world. She is most famous for her wirework sculptures but has also done other metal work as well.

I want to concentrate on her hanging pieces because they’re the ones that benefit the most from being illuminated. The shadows that they cast are almost as important as the artwork themselves. They add dimensionality and sense of floating that makes these pieces even more successful.

Her work has been described to appear as if they are “swimming in air”. Thessaly La Force said it best when she talked about her experience of looking at Ruth Asawa’s sculptures at an exhibition. She said “I’ve stood in a gallery hung with Asawa’s wire sculptures, where the movement in my own body 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 someplace altogether unearthly.”

Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
When this sculpture is illuminated from above the light project a luminous after-image of the piece on an adjoining wall.

Her work is definitely evocative of mid-century modern when much of it was created, but her pieces really transcend time. Only recently, has her work been getting the recognition it deserves. Her Japanese heritage was an obstacle in the art world.

Ruth was a native Californian, born in Norwalk, a town near Anaheim. However, her father was sent to an internment camp in 1942 and she did not see him again until 1948. Ruth herself, along with her siblings and mother, were interned at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, CA. While there, she found a group of artists from Walt Disney studios who were also interned at the time. Later they were shipped by train to Rohwer Relocation Center, where they were incarcerated until 1946. Remember, they were US citizens. 

Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
These pieces are most successfully illuminated when they are next to a light colored wall so that the shadow image is visually strongest. A dark wall would absorb much of the impact.

Ruth obtained a teaching degree but was prevented from being hired due to her Japanese ancestry. She went to Black Mountain College in North Carolina on scholarship and stayed there for three years where she met her future husband, Albert Lanier. In the early 1950s they moved to San Francisco where the atmosphere was a bit more open to an interracial couple. Among the people who became her friends and supporters were Imogene Cunningham, Paul Hassel, Joseph Albers and Buckminster Fuller.

Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
Accent lighting at a high 45 degree angle creates a second sculpture on the wall, allowing the viewer to experience the interplay of light and shadow.

During the 1960s she had both group shows and solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the 1980s through the early 2000s she focused her energy on building a public high school for the arts in San Francisco. In 2010 the school was renamed for her and is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

In 2006 the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco had a major retrospective of her work, entitled ‘Contours in the Air’. Finally, curators across the world started to recognize her contribution to post-modern American Art.

Ruth Asawa, The Lighting Doctor
Ruth Asawa


Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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