Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was a Japanese-American artist who, like so many women artists of her generation, was largely, criminally overlooked until it was almost too late. Asawa enjoyed her first blush with fame a decade or so ago, when financial hardship forced her to sell a painting by Bauhaus giant Josef Albers — he was a friend and gave it to her decades before — to pay for medical treatment. She was 83. The Albers sale, brokered by Christie’s in New York, led to a short, late-life twirl in the limelight. She would die a few years later at the age of 87.
Asawa lived to see only a few of the accolades associated with her late-life discovery. Her works landed in important collections like the Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art, plus there was a spellbinding exhibition of her ghostly, sinuous wire works — one of very few solo shows — at the Pulitzer Foundation in 2018.
Just last month, Asawa was given perhaps her largest platform yet, with 20 of her works featured on US postage stamps. Aside from joining the likes of Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, and Andrew Wyeth as American artists to grace the front of our envelopes, Asawa’s arrival here, in one of the most seen spaces for American visual culture, is a story layered with significance.
Part of the tale being recovered here is Asawa’s status as a bystander to the story of 20th-century art. She studied with Albers at the legendarily free-flowing Black Mountain College in the 1940s and had a brief moment of recognition in the 50s, with her works being collected by the likes of architect Philip Johnson and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Asawa’s personal history is also entwined with the country’s shameful record on race, once again front and center of the national consciousness. Born in California, Asawa learned her intricate wire-weaving craft during World War II when she was a teenager at the Rohwer internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Arkansas. She defied America at its worst to become a creative force — America at its very best.
It’s impossible not to draw a straight line from a teenage Asawa locked up for no crime but her ethnic background — remember, she was born an American citizen — to the thousands of migrants kept in cages at the southern border, and the politics of fear and resentment that fueled both. We know what’s happening at the post office, with leadership-induced slowdowns threatening what’s sure to be an election year year of record-breaking mail-in voting for the November election is this pandemic-ridden year. The good news is ballots are soon to be available almost everywhere. Asawa’s stamps already are. If you happen to be somewhere that doesn’t issue your absentee ballot postage-paid — and there remain many, despite best efforts to the contrary — do her art, and her memory, this honor: Vote early, and put an Asawa stamp on it.