Published: June 22, 2004
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was one of the Twentieth Century’s preeminent and critically acclaimed sculptors. Through a lifetime of creative experimentation, his prolific career yielded achievements not only for his sculpture, but also his gardens, furniture and lighting designs, paintings, ceramics, architecture and set designs. His work – subtle yet bold, traditional and modern – set a new standard for artistic development worldwide.
A special exhibition of more than 100 works by the virtuoso artist inaugurates the Isamu Noguchi Museum’s reopening, the first large-scale Noguchi exhibition in New York City in nearly 25 years, marking the centennial year of the artist’s birth.
“Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design,” on view through October 4, conveys Noguchi’s restless brilliance in crossing disciplines and cultures; he is revealed as a protean and prolific creator whose Japanese and American heritage and world travels profoundly influenced his work. The exhibition highlights the artist’s refusal to confine himself to a single style, discipline or movement, and demonstrates his conceptions and linkages between art and design, sculpture and objects for everyday living, and Eastern and Western cultures.
Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of 13, when he moved to Indiana. While studying premedicine at Columbia University, he took evening sculpture classes on New York’s Lower East Side, and found a mentor in sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon became an academic sculptor.
In 1926, his direction was profoundly changed upon seeing a New York exhibition of works by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a central figure of the modern movement and pioneer of abstraction. With a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Noguchi went to Paris, and from 1927 to 1929, he worked in Brancusi’s studio. Inspired by the older artist’s reductive forms, Noguchi turned to modernism, infusing his highly finished pieces with a lyrical and emotional expressiveness.
Working in wood and stone, Noguchi’s conceptions broadened significantly and he later came to define sculpture in these terms: “Sculpture may be anything and will be valued for its intrinsic sculptural qualities. However, it seems to me that the natural mediums of wood and stone, alive before man was, have the greater capacity to comfort us with the reality of our being. They are as familiar as the earth, a matter of sensibility. In our times we think to control nature, only to find that in the end, it escapes us. I, for one, return recurrently to the earth in my search for the meaning of sculpture – to escape fragmentation with a new synthesis, within the sculpture and related to spaces. I believe in the activity of stone, actual or illusory, and in gravity as a vital element. Sculpture is the definition of form in space, visible to the mobile spectator as participant. Sculptures move because we move. They say in Japan that the end interest of old men is stone – just stone, natural stone, readymade sculptures for the eyes of connoisseurs. This is not quite correct; it is the point of view that sanctifies; it is selection and placement that will make anything a sculpture, even an old shoe.”
Noguchi’s work was not recognized in the United States until 1938, when he completed a large-scale sculpture symbolizing freedom of the press, commissioned for the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center, the first of what would become numerous celebrated public works worldwide reflecting his belief in the social role of sculpture. In 1942, Noguchi set up his Greenwich Village studio, having spent much of the thirties based in the city.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the backlash against Japanese Americans in the United States eventually propelled Noguchi into activism. In 1942, he started Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese American patriotism. He asked to be placed in an internment camp in Arizona, where he lived for nearly seven months. Following the war, he spent time in Japan, where his observations and discoveries reflected the work of his time, particularly the delicate slab sculptures included in the 1946 exhibition “Fourteen Americans” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Though he did not belong to any particular movement, he collaborated with artists working in a range of different media and schools. He created stage sets as early as 1935 for dancers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, George Balanchine and composer John Cage. In the 1960s, he worked with stone carver Masatoshi Izumi on the island of Shikoku, Japan, in a collaboration that would also continue throughout his life; during the same period, he worked with architect Louis Kahn on playground design.
His earlier works include a Bakelite intercom for the Zenith Radio Corporation; furniture designs for the companies Herman Miller, Inc and Knoll, and the widely popular paper lamps made from washi paper and bamboo, known as Akari light sculptures, for which Noguchi had been particularly passionate. “It was a logical convergence of my long interest in light sculptures, lunars and my being in Japan,” Noguchi said. “Paper and bamboo fitted in with my feeling for the quality and sensibility of light. Its very lightness questions materiality, and is consonant with our appreciation today of the less thingness of things, the less encumbered perceptions.”
As a landscape architect, Noguchi designed the gardens at Keio University in Tokyo, UNESCO headquarters in Paris and Lever House in New York City. He later designed two bridges in Hiroshima and the sculpture gardens at the National Museum in Jerusalem.
In 1968, the first retrospective of Noguchi’s work was conducted in the United States at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He received the Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts in 1982, the National Medal of Arts in 1987 and the Order of Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government in 1988. He died in New York City in 1988.
The Noguchi Museum, occupying a renovated industrial building dating from the 1920s, was founded and designed by Noguchi to house his work and archive. Maintained by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, it comprises ten indoor galleries and the internationally celebrated outdoor sculpture garden.
Founded in 1985, the museum has exhibited a comprehensive selection of the artist’s works, with more than 200 pieces in its permanent collection. A few pieces not to be missed include “The Mountain,” a heart-shaped stone carving of red Persian travertine completed in 1964, a pensive terra-cotta bust of the artist’s “Uncle Takagi” completed in 1931 and “Le Lai Chian (Ri Ko Ra),” an abstract Shigaraki glazed stoneware piece done in 1952.
Beautiful in their simplicity of form is “Leda,” a quiet, alabaster piece done in 1942, and his “Peking Brush Drawing,” a figure drawing of ink on paper, dated 1930. The permanent collection will be on view every summer.
“Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design” brings together many strands of Noguchi’s career. On view are stage sets, including the sinister-looking bed for Martha Graham’s 1950 production of Night Journey, based on the myth of Oedipus; a portrait bust of George Gershwin; lamps and furniture pieces; and plans for landscape and public sculpture projects in Detroit, Miami and at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
“It’s going to turn a lot of heads, it’s very theatrical,” said Museum Curator Bonnie Rychlak of the exhibition. “What one sees is how the ideas overlap; furniture is sculpture, sculpture is furniture. There is a thread that pulls all of what he did into a concise way into this exhibition.
“Each room in the exhibition has its own character, no natural light,” Rychlak said, adding, “One room is all black with a number of Graham dance sets with accompanying dance music.” Another room, The Earth Room, hosts furniture and lamps and the background aura of a cocktail party with sounds of glasses clinking and people talking. “In one of the more interesting rooms, the floor is covered in aluminum plates – it’s all very reflective. Some of his portraits, models, a wonderful mix.”
Wilson’s installation, occupying four distinct spaces, both confounds traditional approaches to the display of Noguchi’s work and broadens the associations to the work. Lighting and other elements – bales of hay, shards of pottery, raked gravel and a subtle audio track – allude to the artist’s tactile, sensual qualities in his work and the heightened importance of space and environment, which he held to be as essential to the work as the object itself.
Following the exhibition, the museum will open a special gallery dedicated to Noguchi’s work in interior design while also continuing its effort at presenting an active roster of temporary exhibitions, including “Noguchi and Graham,” November 2004-May 2005; “The Imagery of Chess Revisited,” October 2006-March 2006; and “Noguchi: Sources and Influences,” October 2006-March 2007, exploring the myriad inspirations that influenced his work.
“In demonstrating Noguchi’s creativity and virtuosity as he moved through a variety of mediums and techniques, it will serve as a touchstone for future exhibitions at the museum that examine various aspects of the artist’s career,” said museum director Jenny Dixon. “It’s the perfect show to inaugurate the museum’s new program of temporary exhibitions.”
The Isamu Noguchi Museum is open Wednesday-Saturday. For information, 718-545-8842 or www.noguchi.org.
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