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Collections Browse Isamu Noguchi

Collections Browse Isamu Noguchi

Name
Isamu Noguchi
Nationality
American
Life Dates
1904–1988
Gender
Male
Holdings (12)
7 sculptures, 2 models, 1 drawing, 1 book, 1 miscellaneou

Wikipedia About Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi was a prominent Japanese American artist and landscape architect whose artistic career spanned six decades, from the 1920s onward. Known for his sculpture and public works, Noguchi also designed stage sets for various Martha Graham productions, and several mass-produced lamps and furniture pieces, some of which are still manufactured and sold. In 1947, Noguchi began a collaboration with the Herman Miller company, when he joined with George Nelson, Paul László and Charles Eames to produce a catalog containing what is often considered to be the most influential body of modern furniture ever produced, including the iconic Noguchi table which remains in production today His work lives on around the world and at the Noguchi Museum in New York City. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Isamu Noguchi, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Isamu Noguchi had a generous and expansive artistic vision. His considerable body of work encompasses not only sculpture, his main medium, but also interior design, landscape architecture, and public spaces. His peripatetic life encompassed numerous conflicts and dilemmas, and yet, he maintained an indefat-igable pursuit of his utopian idealism.

Born to a Scottish-American mother and a Japanese father who was a renowned poet and literary scholar, Noguchi grew up shuttling across the Pacific. He spent part of his childhood in Japan and returned to the United States to attend school. After receiving initial artistic training in New York, he traveled to Paris in 1927 on a Guggenheim fellowship and worked as an apprentice in Constantin Brancusi’s studio. From 1930 to 1931, he was again on the road, first to Paris, and via Moscow, on to China and Japan, where he studied ink painting and pottery. Back in New York, he made a living by making portrait sculptures, and at the same time developed his interest in art for public spaces, though many of his early proposals were not realized.

Noguchi, at this time, was inclined toward political activism, and it sometimes rendered him vulnerable to critique. A particularly egregious attack was made by critic Henry McBride on the occasion of the young artist’s 1935 one-person show at the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York. The critic’s comment on Noguchi’s figurative work Death, an ad hominem denunciation rather than art criticism, greatly affected the young artist: “The gruesome study of a lynching with a contorted figure dangling from an actual rope, may be like a photograph from which it was made, but as a work of art it is just a little Japanese mistake.”1 Such prejudice would soon impact the artist‘s very freedom. In the wake of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing a forcible evacuation of Japanese-American citizens in the western states into a handful of internment camps. Though he was residing in New York at the time and thus was exempt from the order, Noguchi chose to enter the camp in Poston, Arizona, with the intention of starting an art program. He soon found himself frustrated with the camp’s bureaucracy and realized that his idealism faced insurmountable obstacles in harsh wartime reality.

After seven months, Noguchi returned to New York, vowing to dedicate himself exclusively to his art. A series of interlocking sculptures made from marble and slate sheets emerged out of intense work in seclusion, and some of them were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1946 exhibition 14 Americans. With evocative titles such as Gregory-Effigy and Kouros, his sculptures from this period maintain a liminal relationship with both figuration and abstraction and give form to the paradoxical notion of transformation in which stability and fragility are in strange coexistence. The easy construction and dismounting of these formally inventive works was also noted by the popular press.2Avatar and Cronos, both from 1947 and in the Walker Art Center collection, were made during this important period of transition and maturation in the sculptor’s life and career. Crafted from pink Georgia marble and later cast in bronze, Avatar employs the same principle of construction as other interlocking sculptures. The joints carved into its compositional planes allow them to be quickly assembled into a whole. Cronos, carved out of balsa wood, an especially light material, consists of a set of rather turgid parts shaped like a boomerang, a bone, and an orb, which intersect, overlap, and penetrate one another, all suspended on a large central horseshoe-shaped support. Describing this work christened with the name of Zeus’ father in Greek mythology, Noguchi wrote, “The image was that of the falling tears, or the limbs, of his sons devoured by the Titan.”3 The biomorphism of both works clearly links the new phase in Noguchi’s art to Surrealism, which had been brought to New York by mostly French émigré artists. The ambiguous and richly suggestive curves, punctuations, and protrusions invite bodily and psychoanalytic readings, also highly relevant to Surrealist art.

The formal language developed in his sculpture from this period manifested itself in other fields as well. The permutable and recombinable shapes are found in the famed “Noguchi table,” commissioned by George Nelson of the Herman Miller Furniture Company. Stage design was another major part of Noguchi’s work. He collaborated with Merce Cunningham, Ruth Page, George Balanchine, and most prominently, Martha Graham, for whom he created more than twenty sets. “Holofernes’ Tent,” conceived for Graham’s 1950 work Judith, is a simple architectonic construction that consists of forms of a ferocious animal and archetypal symbols such as a phallus or a spear.4

Toward the end of this critical period, Noguchi felt that “the winds of imagination by now blew on me with force from the East.”5 He was awarded a Bollingen Foundation grant to write a book on lei-sure, which allowed him to travel to Western Europe, Egypt, India, and Southeast Asia. He arrived in Japan in 1950, his first visit in twenty years, returning as something of a cultural hero and herald in a country still under U.S. occupation. Exceptional opportunities awaited him. Solo exhibitions of his new works opened to considerable fanfare, and to his great personal fulfillment, he created a memorial lounge and a garden dedicated to his father at Keio University, where the elder Noguchi had been a respected professor. At the invitation of Kenzo Tange, the architect in charge of the memorial park in Hiroshima, he designed a bridge for the site. During this period he also created the Akari paper lanterns that are still in production today. In 1952, Noguchi built a studio in Kita Kamakura near Tokyo. There, he created an idealized country living space while working closely with master potter Kitaoji Rosanjin on a remarkable set of ceramic works.

Later that year, Noguchi’s striking, sublime proposal for a sculpture to be called Hiroshima Memorial for the Dead was rejected for dubious reasons, since Tange had personally invited him to submit a design.6 The episode highlighted the fact that Noguchi’s place in postwar Japan was anything but secure, and made him recognize that his biracial identity cut both ways. Just as he had been deemed suspect in his own country, he could never quite be Japanese enough in his father’s country. Despite such setbacks, his relationship with Japan and its cultures, material and aesthetic, would nevertheless deepen and last for the rest of his life.

Two works from this later period in the Walker collection, Mortality (1959) and Shodo Hanging (1961), show another stylistic turn taken by the artist. The formal ambiguity of the earlier biomorphic sculptures yields to a more restrained and austere balance, in which constancy and movement are suggested in vertical lines and masses. After establishing a studio in Shikoku in 1966, Noguchi split his time between New York and Japan for the next two decades.

The integration of sculpture with the landscape and the totality of environment had always been preoccu-pations in Noguchi’s art. In the later period, his growing prominence enabled him to realize gardens and urban plazas around the world. Some of the better known examples include Unesco Garden, Paris (1956–1958), Sunken Garden for Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (1960–1964), and Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, New York City (1961–1964). The monumental stainless steel Horace E. Dodge Fountain at Philip A. Hart Plaza at Detroit Civic Center (1972–1979) is another celebrated public project.

Covering nearly the entire span of the twentieth century, Noguchi’s life mirrored, often dramatically, the changing worlds in which he lived. Travel and exile, the representative tropes of the time, characterized his artistic passage. By nature and design, he was not confined in one culture, one place, or one country. What makes his art remarkable are not simply the specifics of his personal background but how he translated them into a rich and coherent body of work, a kind of holistic modernism in which tranquility and grandeur, ambition and delicacy, and utopian future and archaic past coexist in not so paradoxical ways.

  1. Reprinted in Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 23.

  2. “Japanese-American Sculptor Shows Off Weird New Works,” Life magazine, November 11, 1946, 12–13, 15.

  3. A bronze cast of a balsa original, Theater set element from Judith (1950/1978) is installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

  4. Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 29.

  5. For a detailed examination of Noguchi’s years in Japan, see Bert Winther-Tamaki, Art in the Encounter of Nations: Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000).

Chong, Doryun. “Isamu Noguchi.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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