The verdict is in. The Japanese-American sculptor, architect and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) has joined the elite company of Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Julio Gonzalez and Tony Smith in the pantheon of great sculptors of the 20th century.
Why Noguchi's pre-eminence? He was an artist who understood the basic nature of classic materials like stone, marble, plastic, wood, copper, steel and aluminum, plus the new man-made materials, with which he experimented. And he was a sculptor who absorbed the history of his craft across the centuries. Trained in the academic principles of the art, he quickly learned that contemporary man also responded to the abstract expression of ideas and concepts, and spent his life in their pursuit.
The Noguchi centenary was recently celebrated in New York with a wide-ranging exhibition at the Whitney Museum, Oct 28, 2004-Jan. 16, 2005 (the show opens at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10-May 8, 2005). At the Whitney, the show included some 60 sculptures and 20 related drawings.
Simultaneously, the Noguchi Museum in Queens has mounted an exhibition of the stage designs the sculptor created for the dancer and impresario Martha Graham during a collaboration that spanned over three decades. "Noguchi & Graham: Selected Works for Dance," Dec. 2, 2004-May 1, 2005, features 19 of these stage sets, including those for the Greek dramas Clytemnestra, Phaedra (1962) and Herodiade (1944-45).
The life story of Isamu Noguchi, his unusual upbringing and family background, parallels the dramatic intensity of his creations, and enabled him to bridge two disparate cultures. Noguchi's ability to meld the artistry of East and West was unique for its time. His mother, Leonie Gilmour, an American writer and teacher of English literature, was a strong and powerful influence on the early development of her son. His father, the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi, abandoned the family soon after Noguchi's birth, and Gilmour decided to move to Japan, an unusual choice during these times.
In Japan the young Noguchi resided with his mother and his half-sister until he was 13. In all likelihood, the life of this boy, a child of mixed parentage raised by a single mother, was not an easy one in Japanese society. Nevertheless, his earliest impressions were of Japan, and they were favorable enough, apparently, to establish a strong identity and connectedness with the country, its artistic heritage and its people. He was to return to Japan for extended stays during several key creative periods of his life.
As a boy Noguchi attended Japanese schools but was also apprenticed early on to a cabinet maker. There he learned woodworking and the love of tools. One can only imagine the dramatic change in the young teenager's environment when the family moved back to the United States in 1917 and took up residence in Indiana. No doubt, Japanese students were unusual there. But he adapted and went on to Columbia University to prepare for medical studies. His mother, however, apparently anxious to nurture his creative qualities, enrolled him in a sculpture class, and only three months later, Noguchi had his first sculpture exhibition. His artistic temperament was fostered by an impressed art instructor who recommended his young student for election to the exclusive National Sculpture Society.
Until then, Isamu Noguchi's art training was academic in manner as well as subject matter. He worked on portrait busts, which proved easily saleable, an important consideration for the penniless youngster. But during the 1920's, Noguchi became increasingly impressed by the abstract art that was emerging all around him. Soon his interest in abstraction overtook his classical grounding, and he longed to explore the many artistic avenues that other artists had chosen. He applied for and won a Guggenheim grant to study abroad.
His first stop was Paris. There he met the art elite, including Calder and Stuart Davis. He also encountered the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who hired Noguchi as his assistant. The experience had a profound and life-long influence on the young man. "I learned a great deal from Brancusi, especially that one must strive for perfection and that every material makes its own demands -- wood, stone, bronze and marble need to be worked differently. Most of all, I learned that art endures when it has its own identity." Unlike many sculptors, Brancusi did all his own physical work preparing and "dressing" marble, stone, granite and other materials. He expected the same from Noguchi, who gained from the apprenticeship an abiding respect for the sanctity of the materials with which he worked.
Returning to New York, Noguchi rented a studio in Carnegie Hall and again supported himself doing portrait busts. Working in stone, terra cotta and bronze, he learned to translate his insights into his subject's psyches into his sculptures. He modeled busts of such greats as George Gershwin (a 1929 bronze) and R. Buckminster Fuller (a 1929 chrome-plated bronze). Fuller was one of the most celebrated architects and engineers of his time, and he became a lifelong influence and Noguchi patron. His bronze bust was among the highlights of the Whitney show.
It was at his first commercial exhibition in 1929 that Noguchi met Martha Graham. Their meeting led to his work for the stage. Using ropes, wires and plywood, he designed ballet sets for her and other choreographers.
But he felt the pull of the Orient. Traveling to Beijing and returning to Japan after years of absence, he was deeply influenced by Buddhist sculpture and by the Zen gardens of Japan. He was to later design a number of such gardens himself, including one for UNESCO in Paris. It was a pivotal period for Noguchi. From then on he would concentrate his efforts on architecture and garden design.
Refreshed from that visit and his first ceramic exhibition in 1931, he was ready for new challenges in New York: creating outdoor environments of beauty and functionality. These included fountains, monuments, playgrounds, parks and outdoor sculpture. His creative philosophy evolved into ambitious interior and exterior designs, incorporating wood, water, stone and plant material.
That approach was demonstrated by a Noguchi playground design of the period, which was meant to bring urban children closer to the feel of the earth. Rejected in New York, Playscapes was ultimately realized in somewhat modified form in Japan. Finally, in 1976 his playground design was incorporated into Piedmont Park in Atlanta.
But more typically, Noguchi's designs garnered immediate recognition and success. In 1938 he won a competition for a sculptural relief design to be used at New York's Rockefeller Center. The innovative design depicted a group of technicians at work, and marked the first time a stainless steel casting was used in an outdoor display. It can be seen above the main doorway of the Associated Press Building at 50 Rockefeller Plaza.
In contrast, his 1934 metal figure of a lynched person is a moving comment on this horrific aspect of American racism. It is in the permanent collection of the Noguchi museum, but is on loan for the Whitney show.
With the outbreak of World War II, Noguchi experienced racial prejudice more personally. "In a flash I realized I was no longer, merely a sculptor. I was not just an American, but a Nisei. A Japanese-American. I felt I had to do something," he wrote. Protesting the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Cost, Noguchi founded the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, then went to Washington to register his complaints about camp conditions. Finally, in a demonstration of solidarity, he voluntarily entered an interment camp in Poston, Arizona.
As an architect and designer, Noguchi continued to grow during those years, but under dark and difficult circumstances. At Poston he spent his time planning parks and recreational areas that would improve the conditions under which displaced Nisei lived. After working on these designs and their implementation plans and patiently waiting for six months, Noguchi realized the project would never be approved. He began the difficult task of leaving Poston. It took months to reclaim his freedom from a facility he had entered originally as a volunteer.
How ironic, then, that only a few short years later, in 1946, he was included in the prestigious exhibition "Fourteen Americans" mounted at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
He now plunged into vigorous action. From this very formative period the Whitney had Monument for Heroes on display. It is a wood sculpture with bone, cardboard and string, highlighting the barbarism of war. The construction was lent by the Noguchi Museum, where it is in the permanent collection. Using magnesite cement and electric lights, he also created "lunar landscapes," flat structures with a strong tactile appeal that reproduce depressions on the moon's surface.
Noguchi's fascination with lights led him to design the "Akari" lamps so favored by interior architects. The lights, constructed of washi paper, bamboo and wires, were inspired by the lanterns of the fishermen of Gifu, on the Japanese coast. "Inherent in akari are lightness and fragility. They seem to me the magical unfolding away from the material world," wrote Noguchi.
Gunas, a marble structure of two interlocking components, is also from this period. The arrangement of the statue's vertical and horizontal elements is based on Noguchi's philosophy of a balance between the conscious and subconscious. Similar philosophical statements are to be found in other examples from the late 1940's, such as the balsa wood Cronos, and The Field, a redwood construction. Solar (1958) celebrates his successful work with stainless steel. Its flat metal disc connecting two vertical poles suggests the sun.
Despite his superlative career successes, his relationships with women were often disappointing. During the 1940's, Noguchi was romantically involved with a young Indian woman from the Nehru family, but differences of nationality and age ended the romance. In December 1951 he married Japanese movie star Yamaguchi (Shirley) Yoshiko. It seems Noguchi had intended to settle permanently in Japan with his bride, making their home in Kamakura, close to Kitaoji Rosanjin, one of the great Japanese potters of the day. Noguchi marked the period with clay figurines celebrating their marriage. One, entitled RiKoRan was based on a song Yamaguchi sang in a movie. Unfortunately, their careers veered in different directions and the union was to last only a short time.
Work in granite and basalt dominated the last period of Noguchi's life. To Bring to Life is a basalt of Japanese origin. "When I came upon it, it was being split into a triangular shape for a wall. The hidden brilliance of the heart contrasts with the equal beauty of nature's coating." The Inner Stone, a carved basalt work on a pinewood base, powerfully articulates Noguchi's statement, "Call it sculpture when it moves you so."
Unlike many sculptors, Isamu Noguchi was unwilling to part with his work unless forced by circumstances. That was the prime reason for his decision in 1985 to convert his studio and an adjacent building into a museum to house his creations. The museum is located in Queens in a primarily industrial section of Long Island City (32-37 Vernon Blvd). It has a small garden and contains more than 250 works covering all his creative periods, providing an ideal introduction to Noguchi's work. Many highlights of the traveling Noguchi exhibition are in fact on loan from the Noguchi Museum.
But even without entering a museum, Noguchi's work can be enjoyed. His gardens, sculptures, building exteriors and interiors are there for all. In Manhattan, his Red Cube, a red painted steel structure with a large round open core, stands at the foot of the Marine Midland Bank at 140 Broadway near the site of the World Trade Center. And, of course, there is the bas-relief at Rockefeller Center and, north of the city, the Swedish black granite Black Sun can be seen at the Rockefeller estate at Kykuit in Westchester County.