Published: February 22, 2011
One of the most original artists of the Twentieth Century, Isamu Noguchi (1904‱988) was a multifaceted sculptor whose works defy categorization. He synthesized European Modernism and his Japanese heritage into an internationally acclaimed form of personal expression. Determined to be independent, sometimes he saw himself as a bridge between the cultures of East and West; at other times he considered himself an outsider to both sides.
A versatile manipulator of numerous media and an innovator in the articulation of public spaces, Noguchi thought as profoundly as anyone of his generation about the communicative role of art and its place in creating and sustaining human relationships. His development drew on a wide range of intellectual relationships with artists Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Frida Kahlo; designer/inventor Buckminster Fuller; architects Gordon Bunshaft, Louis Kahn and Richard Neutra; and dancers/choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, and many others, both famous and less well-known.
Drawing on such varied sources, Noguchi created works characterized by spiritual expression, poetic metaphor, material innovation and technical mastery. He advocated carving in stone and wood, yet experimented with such unusual materials as paper, string, aluminum and electric lights. Noguchi also designed home and office furnishings, stage settings and costumes, gardens, playgrounds and environments.
The sculptor’s social/intellectual network and its impact on his creations is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922‱960,” on view at the Noguchi Museum through April 24. Marking the 25th anniversary of the museum, the show is organized by independent curator Amy Wolf in coordination with museum curator Bonnie Rychlak.
Arranged by disciplines, the exhibition moves from sculpture and painting to works for the theater, to furniture and architecture. Within each section, artworks, vintage photographs, documents and ephemera shed light on Noguchi’s interactions with individuals, galleries and other commercial enterprises, as well as the periods in which they took place. The show’s focus, said Noguchi Museum director Jenny Dixon, “illuminates Noguchi’s protean creativity” and “provides a view of Modernism that includes both well-known figures and those who have been overlooked in traditional histories.”
Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese poet-father and an American writer-mother, Noguchi was raised from ages 2 to 14 in Japan. By age 7 he decided to become an artist.
After returning to the United States to attend high school in Indiana, in 1922 Noguchi was apprenticed to sculptor Gutzon Borglum, an admirer of Auguste Rodin, in Stamford, Conn. His artistic ambitions received little encouragement from Borglum, who “didn’t make the slightest effort to teach me anything at all,” Noguchi recalled. Undaunted, Noguchi studied at the Leonardo da Vinci School in New York City, where sculptor Onorio Ruotolo taught him how to work quickly in making heads and figures.
In 1927, a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Noguchi to travel to Paris, where he worked as a “helper” for six months for Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The Romanian expatriate was “rather dour,” said Noguchi, but he “was very kind to me.” According to curator Wolf, Brancusi became Noguchi’s “most important artistic mentor&⁛providing] him with technical skills, a reverence for materials and working tools, appreciation for the eternal in art and a standard by which to revolt against his own academic training.”
Noguchi began to experiment with abstract sculptures in stone, wood and sheet metal, which he showed in his first exhibition back in New York in 1929. Displays of works by Brancusi and Noguchi document the impact of the older artist on his assistant.
In New York, Noguchi fell in with two attractive young artists, Marian Greenwood and Andree Ruellan, spending time with them at the artists colony in Woodstock, N.Y. A bust of Greenwood, drawings, letters and photographs attest to his close friendship with that beautiful muralist.
In Greenwich Village, he met the visionary architect Fuller, who became an important friend and collaborator; they often traveled together, with Fuller lecturing in cities where Noguchi exhibited. Fuller encouraged his friend’s expansive notions of art and its place in the world. Noguchi’s portrait busts and innovative figures were displayed by New York City art dealers, who organized traveling exhibitions.
In the early 1930s, Noguchi traveled to China, where he learned ink-brush drawing, and to Japan, where he studied pottery and admired the gardens of Kyoto. In New York City, he associated with avant-garde artists Gorky, John Graham, Chaim Gross and Moses and Raphael Soyer, and introduced social content into his work. An elegantly conceived, but never realized children’s play park forecast his future development as a playground and garden designer.
In 1935″6, Noguchi and Greenwood, both committed to social protest, worked on a pro-peasant, pro-workers mural project with Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Noguchi became close friends with Rivera’s estranged wife, Frida Kahlo, and saw her whenever she visited New York City.
During the Depression, Noguchi eked out a living with portrait heads, furniture designs and his first commercial product, “Radio Nurse,” for Zenith Radio Corporation. He and Gorky, a fellow art establishment outsider and companion in visiting museums and galleries, drove to California. “We argued all the way&” said Noguchi, adding that he learned a lot. Later, he and Gorky collaborated on an abstract drawing, “Hitler Invades Poland,” 1939, created when they heard news of the Nazi invasion. With the help of old friends, Noguchi sculpted a marble portrait head of actress Ginger Rogers, now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1935, he began a collaboration that spanned four decades with Martha Graham, providing him unique opportunities to explore objects in space in stage sets and costumes. “I was interested in the relationship of the movement and the space and how they interrelate,” he said. Exhibition displays of set elements designed for Graham and photographs of dance performances suggest how Noguchi’s designs were both integral to dances and independent works of art.
Several sets used Surrealistic, biomorphic forms, often as flat, interlocking units. Noguchi’s close and sustained relationship with Graham, resulting in the creation of some 20 sets, “is regarded by many as a high point in the history of modern dance theater,” according to the exhibition’s curators.
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 threatened the freedom of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States, Noguchi attempted to organize support for threatened groups. Living on the East Coast, he avoided being interned in a relocation camp, as were others on the West Coast, but volunteered to oversee an arts program at a site. He spent from May to November 1942 at a relocation camp in Poston, Ariz., but frustrated by the experience, he left in disillusionment after a brief effort.
Resettling in New York, Noguchi embarked on a series of Surrealistic works that reflected despair about the war and a response to the many European Modernists who had fled to New York from the conflict in Europe. He also experimented with a highly original series of abstract relief and freestanding sculptures incorporating hidden electric lights that produced glowing effects through openings in organic shapes.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Noguchi introduced utility into his art, creating furniture and other household items for commercial producers. While some denigrated artists who made such functional objects as “designers,” Noguchi “considered utility a bonus and proof of inherent value,” writes Wolf in the catalog.
Noguchi’s integration of art and design resulted in some of the best design works of the Twentieth Century, notably in collaboration with Herman Miller Company †coffee tables, chess tables, dinette sets and free-form couches and ottomans †that integrated the sculptor’s three-dimensional ideas and continue to inspire practitioners worldwide. Additional work with other manufacturers helped usher in an era of “good design” in American popular culture. “Noguchi’s exploration of industrial materials and production, as well as his commitment to Modernist essential elements, are evident in these commercial ventures,” observes Wolf.
After struggling for years to find patrons and sponsors for his avant-garde work, in the 1940s and 1950s Noguchi began to find success, especially as a result of inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s celebrated 1946 “Fourteen Americans” exhibition. The resulting critical acclaim led to solo exhibitions at leading New York City galleries.
At the peak of his success, around 1950, Noguchi utilized a Bollingen grant to undertake a several-year, epic research trip in an attempt to define a more enlightened vision of his role in society. He visited France, England, Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Egypt, Cambodia and India. Returning from these travels as an established, middle-aged artist, Noguchi aspired to, according to curator Wolf, both Brancusi’s devotion to “timeless and eternal qualities” and utilization of new technologies of space and structure. “Noguchi sought,” she adds, “to endow what he made and built in the modern era with a soul, both connected to a shared ancient past and creating relevance and hope for the future.”
Consistent with the sculptor’s passionate conviction that art should play a role in daily life, he built on old and new relationships with architects. Documentary materials in the exhibition illuminate Noguchi’s collaboration with Bunshaft in designing outdoor plazas and sculpture gardens for Lever House and Chase Manhattan in New York, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Conn.
Other collaborations on display include Noguchi’s innovative design for film director Josef von Sternberg’s Los Angeles house by Richard Neutra; an imaginative Japanese garden for Marcel Breuer’s UNESCO building in Paris and an unrealized Mahatma Gandhi memorial planned for New Delhi in cooperation with Edward Durrell Stone. “As with his dance design sets, collaborating with architects gave him the opportunity to think about space in different ways,” observes Wolf.
After moving to Long Island City in 1961, Noguchi continued to make large outdoor sculpture and fountains. A factory across the street from his studio became the Noguchi Museum in 1985.
Apparently undaunted by projects that had to be abandoned, Noguchi rationalized that “the things that do not happen are as valuable as the things that do happen, because the idea is there, and even if you don’t do it, somebody else will. And that has happened quite a lot.”
Therein lies a key to Noguchi’s heritage. He thought long and deeply about his sculpture and his projects, and whether they were built or not, they had such special qualities that they continue to influence artists, architects and designers to this day.
This review of Noguchi’s early/middle career offers significant insights into his mind and the international network of friends and artists who profoundly influenced his diverse body of work. Visitors to “On Becoming an Artist” will come away with a fresh appreciation for the sculptor’s technical skills, his intellectual and spiritual qualities and his remarkable ability to interact with important creative figures to nurture new work.
As Wolf sums up, Noguchi’s “intentions were served by unbridled curiosity, an ability to make the most from any circumstance and a relentless commitment to creating something enduring.” When he died in 1988, Isamu Noguchi was an internationally recognized giant in the art world, a reputation that seems destined to last.
The catalog, filled with quotations by Noguchi and others, is published by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum and distributed by D.A.P.; it sells for $45, hardcover.
The Noguchi Museum is at 9-01 33rd Road. For information, www.noguchi.org or 718-204-7088.
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