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Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American sculptor and designer. He was the son of an American writer mother and Japanese poet father and was brought up in Japan (1906–18) before being sent to the USA to attend high school in Indiana (1918–22). In 1922 he moved to Connecticut, where he was apprenticed to the sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941). Discouraged by Borglum, Noguchi moved to New York and enrolled to study medicine at Columbia University (1923–5). From 1924 he attended evening classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School; encouraged by the school’s director, he decided to become a sculptor. In addition he frequented avant-garde galleries, including Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place and the New Art Circle of J. B. Neumann; he was particularly impressed by the Brancusi exhibition at the Brummer Gallery (1926).

In 1927 and 1928 he was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships to visit the Far East, but he went to Paris instead. For six months he worked as Brancusi’s studio assistant, producing his first stone carving, Sphere Section (marble, 406 mm, 1927; untraced, see Hunter, p. 36), under Brancusi’s influence. By 1928 he was making Constructivist influenced abstractions in stone, wood and sheet metal that were exhibited on his return to New York in 1929 in his first one-man show at the Eugene Schoen Gallery; no works were sold. At this time he met Richard Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham and began to support himself by making portraits.

Financial success enabled Noguchi to travel to the Far East from 1931 to 1932. After a short stay in Paris he visited Beijing for eight months, where he studied brush drawing with Qi Baishi, then Japan for six months, where he studied pottery with Uno Jimmatsu (b 1864). Impressed by Zen gardens and haniwa, the pre-Buddhist mortuary figures that he saw in Kyoto, he produced works such as The Queen (terracotta, 1.14 m, 1931; New York, Whitney).

Noguchi returned to New York during the Depression in 1932. Influenced by Japanese gardens and by contacts with socially conscious artists, such as Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Moses Soyer, Raphael Soyer and Chaim Gross, he began to design public spaces and monuments. His first playground design, Play Mountain (1933), was rejected by Robert Moses, the New York Parks Commissioner. In 1934 he worked briefly for the Public Works of Art Project, the precursor of the Works’ Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, which turned down his proposals.

Noguchi produced his first set design for Martha Graham’s New York dance production, Frontier, in 1935, inaugurating an intensive involvement with theatre that lasted until 1966. In Hollywood he produced portrait busts that financed a trip to Mexico City, where he made a relief mural, History Mexico (polychrome cement and carved brick, 20.1 m long, 1935–6; Abelardo Rodriguez Market).

In 1937 Noguchi returned to New York, where he won a commission for a low relief (stainless steel, 6.1×5.2 m, installed 1940) over the Associated Press Building entrance at the Rockefeller Center. He realized his first fountain (magnesite; destr., see Grove, 1985) in 1938 for the Ford Building at New York World’s Fair.

Noguchi drove across America with Arshile Gorky in 1941; the following year he was voluntarily interned for six months in the Japanese-American relocation camp at Poston, AZ, where he designed unrealized proposals for camp community recreation areas. During this period his first one-man museum exhibition was held at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Noguchi returned to New York disillusioned with public projects; his sculptures of the 1940s (mixed-media constructions and landscape reliefs) were often infused with anguished surrealist imagery that reflected his feelings about World War II, such as in This Tortured Earth (magnesite, 711×711×102 mm, 1943; artist’s col., see Friedman, p. 44). Between 1943 and 1948 he made ‘lunars’: relief sculptures illuminated internally by artificial light. From 1944 his furniture and lamp designs were manufactured by the Hermann Miller Company and by Knoll.

From 1945 to 1948 Noguchi worked on a series of carved and interlocking sculptures made from marble slabs and slate. The totemic Kouros (Georgia pink marble, 3.05 m, 1945; New York, Met.) was exhibited in 1946 in the 14 Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art. He also created horizontally oriented, baseless tables, such as Night Land (York fossil marble, 0.36×1.11×0.89 m, 1947; Chicago, Madelon Maremont Falxa priv. col., see A Sculptor’s World, pl. 64). In the same year he designed a visionary earthwork, Sculpture to be Seen from Mars (1947; unrealized), of a face formed by huge mounds of sand. This configuration was to be visible only from outer space; the nose was to be projected one mile high. He also designed the sets for the New York Ballet Society’s The Seasons (1947), with music by John Cage and choreography by Merce Cunningham.

Between 1949 and 1951 Noguchi was awarded a Bollingen Foundation Fellowship to research a book on the relation of leisure to public space. He travelled throughout Europe, the Near East, India and South-east Asia, studying cathedrals, plazas, temples, monoliths and monuments, arriving in Japan in 1950. In Tokyo Noguchi realized his first garden (1951), for Reader’s Digest, as well as a garden and memorial room (1951–2) to his father in the Keio University Faculty Building. Also at this date his monumental Peace Park bridges in cast concrete were completed in Hiroshima. In 1951 Noguchi began collaborating with Japanese lantern makers on commercially made light sculptures he called Akari (orig. designs, New York, Isamu Noguchi-Mus.). He also worked with the potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, making abstract and figurative ceramic and terracotta pieces.

After 1952 Noguchi commuted between Japan and New York. From 1952 to 1953 he worked on his proposals for a playground for the United Nations headquarters, which was rejected; he also worked on his first design for a plaza, for Lever House, which was unrealized. He did, however, execute his first garden commission in the USA, The Family (Stony Creek granite, 4.9×3.7×1.9 m, 1956–7), for the General Life Insurance Company, Bloomfield Hills, CT; this project led to collaborations with the architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Between 1956 and 1958 he designed a Japanese garden for the UNESCO headquarters, Paris (architect: Marcel Breuer).

Brancusi’s sculpture was often evoked by Noguchi in his cast-iron sculptures of between 1954 and 1957, for example Endless Coupling (1957; 3 sections, Washington, DC, Hirshhorn; 5 sections, Cannondale, CT, Howard and Jean Lipman priv. col.), and in his Greek marble pieces of between 1957 and 1958, such as Bird Song (two elements on single wooden base, Imperial Swedish granite, 2.95×0.4 m, and Greek marble, 1.21×0.5×0.35 m; Lincoln, U. NE, Sheldon Mem. A.G.). From 1958 to 1959 he sculpted with industrial sheet aluminium, also creating a series of balsawood pieces that were later cast in bronze (1959–62).

Noguchi’s first plaza was realized between 1960 and 1961 for the First National City Bank, Fort Worth, TX. His white marble garden (1960–64) for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, combined influences from Japanese temple sand mounds, Indian astronomical gardens and paved Italian plazas with Noguchi’s own artistic vocabulary: the circular sun; the cube on its point, a symbol of chance; and the pyramid, his sign for Earth. Other large projects included a sunken garden (1961–4) for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, New York, and his first sculpture garden (1960–65) for the Israel Museum (architect, Al Mansfeld) in Jerusalem. His first playground was created in Japan at Kodomo no Kuni (‘Children’s land’) near Tokyo in 1965–6.

While designing sculptural gardens and public plazas, Noguchi continued making independent sculptures. In 1963 he began work in the stone quarries at Querceta, near Lucca, Italy, where he made rough-cut marbles. In 1968 he had his first retrospective in the USA, at the Whitney Museum of American Art; a gallery exhibition of brush drawings made in China in 1931 was held at the same time. His numerous public works in the 1960s included Red Cube (painted steel, 7.31 m, 1968; New York, Marine Midland Bank Building). Between 1968 and 1973 he made banded marble sculptures held together with internal post-tensioning. By the late 1960s he began working in basalt and granite, producing works such as Double Black Mountain (granite, 1.28 m long, 1970; artist’s col., see Hunter, p. 288). By 1971 he had established a studio on the Japanese island of Shikoku.

For Expo ’70 in Osaka, Noguchi created 12 metal fountains; he later designed fountains in Tokyo, as well as in the USA (Palm Beach, FL and Chicago, IL). Between 1973 and 1978 he designed the Philip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit, MI—a large civic plaza incorporating a circular fountain, 8.3 m in diameter with a 36.6 m high twisted stainless steel pylon. He also produced his first playground in the USA, the colourful Playscapes (1975–6; Atlanta, GA, Piedmont Park), sponsored by the High Museum of Art. Later important commissions included the Monument to Ben Franklin (stainless steel, 30.8 m), proposed originally in 1933 but erected in Philadelphia in 1984. A sculpture garden for the Houston, TX, Museum of Fine Arts was inaugurated in 1986, in which year Noguchi represented the USA at the Venice Biennale; but of the greatest personal significance was the opening of part of the artist’s studio in Long Island City, NY, in 1985 as the Noguchi Garden Museum.

Joan H. Pachner
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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