Learn more about the seminal 20th-century Asian American artists who blazed trails across mediums.
08/02/2022 Latest News, News and Film, 20th Century and Contemporary Design
Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.237, Hanging Six-Lobed, Interlocking Continuous Form), c. 1958 | Hanging sculpture–enameled copper and brass wire, 72 x 15 x 15 inches | Courtesy of David Zwirner
Now considered one of the preeminent sculptors of the 20th century, Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) only received her acclaim at the beginning of the 21st, toward the end of her life. A student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in the 1940s, Asawa was equally preoccupied with sculptural form and the negative space it left behind—giving rise to her now-iconic undulating wire sculptures.
Asawa’s legacy is perhaps most keenly felt in San Francisco, where she was deeply involved in arts education activism and founded an arts workshop for children and a public arts high school that is now named in her honor. But it’s her sculptural work that continues to captivate audiences and collectors alike; her intricately weaving of galvanized wire helped bridge the worlds of contemporary art and craft, and exist in a space all Asawa’s own somewhere between abstraction and figuration.
Though Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011) was born and died in Hawaii, she spent much of her later years in Franklin Township, New Jersey, where her home studio allowed her ample space to create the large-scale ceramic forms for which she is best known.
She also created functional ceramics, but Takaezu’s most celebrated works—which she called “moonpots”—shifted her work from the realm of craft to art. More transcendent than utilitarian, Takaezu’s moonpots are rounded, closed forms, into which she would sometimes drop a clay marble prior to firing so as to produce a rattle when the work was moved.
With a deep interest in both traditional Japanese pottery forms and Zen Buddhism, Takaezu took a holistic approach to her work; among her celebrated sculptures are variations of garden stools, meant to be used, lived among, and kept outdoors. Her public works also withstand the elements, including Bell (1986), housed in the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among a series of Takaezu’s works inspired by Japanese temple bells.
Leo Amino, Composition #25, 1952 | Wood and polyester resin, 12 x 17 1/2 x 1 1/8 inches | Courtesy of David Zwirner
Despite exhibiting alongside some of his better-known contemporaries—like Asawa and Isamu Noguchi—Leo Amino’s legacy is still being written. The sculptor (1911–1989) was one of the first American artists to work with plastics, manipulating polyester resin as early as the 1940s to create dynamic works that ranged from geometric explorations of color to abstractions that call to mind animal and plant forms.
Amino leaves a lasting mark on 20th-century artistic production; he taught briefly at Black Mountain College and for more than two decades at the Cooper Union, influencing such students as the eminent American painter Jack Whitten. In Amino’s own work, one can see the threads of such wide-ranging influences as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, and the interplay of color and form in European constructivism.
Isamu Noguchi at the Noguchi Garden Museum, New York City | ©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
A cross-disciplinary artist who defied categorization, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) danced between the worlds of art and design throughout his six-decade-long career. Celebrated as much for his public sculptures and stage designs as well as photographs and ceramics, Noguchi’s influence can be felt throughout the world, including at the museum bearing his name in Long Island City, New York.
Noguchi—alongside Asawa, Takaezu, and Amino—was one of the thousands of Japanese Americans incarcerated in American internment camps during World War II. An exhibition at the Noguchi Museum earlier this year, No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration, highlighted the work of all four artists, among others, and abstraction more generally as a response to violence.
Noguchi bravely and controversially elected to enter an Arizona internment camp in 1942, joining fellow Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated there by force. He aimed to help improve conditions in the camp—including by initiating an arts program—but found it exceedingly difficult to change such a brutal system from the inside, and struggled to leave the camp after nearly a year.
Against the odds of violence and hostility aimed at Asian Americans during World War II and beyond, Noguchi and his peers found ways, through art and design, to transform tragedy into beauty—and leave a lasting legacy of brilliance.