Artists Video

‘Art Was at a High Level and Living Was Very Difficult’: Ruth Asawa on Black Mountain College, the Art-Craft Divide, and More


On the first Monday of each month, through June, in a partnership with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, ARTnews will be sharing a film directed by Wes Miller from a series that the AAA produced about its collections.

Today’s selection is devoted to the trailblazing artist Ruth Asawa, who was interviewed for the Archives in 2002, at the age of 76. Asawa, who is best known for her bewitching wire sculptures, discusses how she thinks about the notion of being modern, shrugs off the difference between art and craft, and delves into her time at the storied Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, where the young artist arrived in 1946. “Art was at a high level and living was very difficult,” she says of that avant-garde hothouse. “We lived in crude beds and we were so poor we had to scrounge around with leaves and rocks. We were forced to go back to natural things rather than having good paper and good materials that we bought and I think that was very good for us.”

Asawa, who died in 2013 in San Francisco, where she lived and worked, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis titled “Life’s Work.” The first museum show of her work beyond the West Coast, it runs through February 16.

In addition to its materials related to Asawa, the AAA also holds the papers of a number of other key Japanese-American artists and designer, including George Nakashima, Ray Yoshida, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Kay Sekimachi, and Patti Warashina.

Here’s more from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art on its work, and the film project:

The Archives of American Art is a living collection, evolving with the changing world of art and artists and continually growing with new acquisitions each year. What is new is always exciting, but scholars, artists, and others continue to revisit material that is decades or even centuries old, bringing new interpretations, new framing, and new ideas to letters, diaries, oral histories, and the wide range of other materials that the Archives preserves.

In 2017, the Archives began a collaboration with filmmaker Wes Miller to produce a series of short films on important documents in its collections. The oral history, letters, and poem at the core of each film provide a glimpse of the range of historical evidence the Archives of American Art safeguards and brings into vivid detail artists’ inspirations, motivations, and the art communities in which they lived. These personal accounts preserve moments in time in a way no textbook ever can, adding richness and depth to our understanding of the American art world.

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