With their intricate, delicate construction and fascinating shapes, Ruth Asawa’s sculptures and works on paper enthrall visitors who encounter them firsthand. Asawa, in turn, felt it was important to share her art and process with the public. Through both displaying her artworks in our galleries and working directly with the artist’s family to create products visitors can take home with them, we continue to support this vision.
I think the craft is important to a concept. One works in dough and then that is made into bronze. There are many steps between the concept and the project. And I think that one should experience that. I think that that’s important.
Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976), Untitled (Ruth Asawa on bed kneeling inside looped wire sculpture), 1957. Gelatin silver print, 197 x 191 mm (7 3/4 x 7 1/2 in.). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2006.114.4
Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), Untitled, sketch of drawings from p.3, ca. 1954. Pencil on paper. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Artist, 2007.28.81.30
In 2006, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air — the first complete retrospective of San Francisco’s beloved artist — at the newly reopened de Young. Encompassing Asawa’s intricate wire sculptures, colorful works on paper, and other important materials, this exhibition not only showcased her innovative art, but also celebrated her as a Bay Area artist, community arts advocate, and dedicated de Young supporter. In keeping with Asawa’s desire to share her art with the public, the Museum Stores offered expressive merchandise that allowed visitors to take home a piece of her art. Working directly with Asawa and her daughter, Aiko Cuneo, we selected artworks for reproduction on exhibition keepsakes, including postcards, notecards, magnets, and an exhibition poster — now a collector’s item.
The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air exhibition poster, 2006
Seventeen years later, time has seen Asawa’s passing in 2013 at the age of 87, but it has also seen greater recognition of her artistic achievements. There have been a multitude of new exhibitions and publications about her work and life since 2006. The number of museum collections containing and exhibiting Asawa’s art has also grown significantly. Along with increased visibility came additional acknowledgment of the barriers Asawa broke in the art world — both as a Japanese American who experienced prejudice and incarceration as a young girl during WWII and as a woman abstract artist within a field and during a time dominated by white men.
Hamon Observation Tower lobby, de Young, featuring Ruth Asawa’s sculptures, 2019. Photograph by Henrik Kam
In 2020 as the Fine Arts Museums, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, committed to being an anti-racist institution, the Museum Stores sought to bring greater representation of women artists of color in support of the Museums’ DEIA goals. Ruth Asawa was a natural focus given the compelling installation of 15 wire sculptures she personally selected and gifted, on view in the lobby of the de Young’s Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Tower, as well as her long-standing relationship with the Museums. In addition, store visitors consistently asked for products featuring Asawa’s artwork. With nothing on hand to offer since 2006, the Museum Stores reached out to the Ruth Asawa Estate and inquired if they would be interested in once again partnering with us to create products featuring Asawa’s works.
Ruth Asawa Untitled Sculptures Poster, 2023.
We worked with Henry Weverka, Asawa’s grandson and president of her estate, on the project. Weverka was separately conducting research into possible merchandising opportunities and, given the Museum Stores’ experience with his grandmother’s previous exhibition products, it was a perfect fit. We decided to create a new program with works from the collection that hadn’t been featured before, but in similar two-dimensional product types. Together, we chose signature works to be reproduced as store products. These were then designed by our Graphic Design department. Highlighting both sculptures and works on paper, the new Ruth Asawa collection debuted on January 24, 2023, on what would have been the artist’s 97th birthday. The response to the collection’s release was overwhelmingly positive, not only with our members and visitors, but also with the artist’s family — who happily collected the new treasures.
Ruth Asawa Boxed Notecards, 2023.
The Fine Arts Museums have benefited from an exceptionally close professional and personal relationship with Asawa and her family for decades. Working with the third generation of Asawa’s family was an honor and a privilege, just as it was working directly with Ruth Asawa. Together, we continue to share Asawa’s art with everyone, celebrating the extraordinary life and work of one of this country’s great artists.