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A Bigger and Better Noguchi
“My effort was to find a way to link that ritual of rocks which comes down to us through the Japanese from the dawn of history to our modern time and needs.” -Isamu Noguchi
First, the disclaimer: as one of the preeminent artists and designers of the 20th-century, Isamu Noguchi has been written about extensively, and there is little I hope to add to this conversation. Still, for someone familiar with his work for at least 20 years, I was excited and inspired by a book I picked up at a thrift shop last week, Sam Hunter’s "Isamu Noguchi". Published by Abbeville in 1978, this oversize book provides a stunning overview of the range and depth of Noguchi’s work in a variety of media and materials, and includes a wealth of surprising visual delights. Arranged chronologically and thematically, the book draws one into Noguchi’s world, tracing his development and maturation as both an artist and a human being.
The 1978 Isamu Noguchi was an extension of Noguchi’s autobiography "Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World" published by Harper and Row in 1968. The later book similarly benefited from Noguchi’s cooperation and collaboration, featuring numerous shots of pieces from Noguchi’s own collection, in addition to sketches, maquettes and notes from his archives. With superb and dramatic photographs and thought provoking text, Isamu Noguchi illuminates the artist’s vision in works ranging from intimate to monumental in scale, rough-hewn to lapidary in texture, and single to grouped in spatial relation. The artist’s varied career in sculpture, architecture, landscape architecture, theater design, interior design, and design is represented.
On the most fundamental level, Isamu Noguchi is presented as a stone carver, attuned to this material as few other modernists. As the lead quote suggests, Noguchi had an almost mystical attraction to stone, which for him presented primal, abiding, geocentric qualities. “When I tap it, I get the echo of that which we are—in the center of gravity of the matter. Then the whole universe has a resonance.” Noguchi fathomed and vested deep human meanings in his abstract stone sculpture, meanings that crossed cultural borders. After all, as Noguchi observed, “the whole world is made of stone.”
The cross-cultural nature of Noguchi’s art is, of course, another major theme of the book. As the child of a Japanese father and American mother, apprentice to Brancusi at age 23, semi-voluntary detainee in a US internment camp during WWII, and constant traveler between Occident and Orient throughout his life, Noguchi was uniquely positioned to embody and synthesize the cultural dialogue between East and West. Noguchi’s apprenticeship to Brancusi points to the complexities in this dialectic, with ideas flowing back and forth. Noguchi wrote that “Brancusi showed me the truth of materials and taught me never to decorate or paste unnatural materials onto my sculptures, to keep them undecorated like the Japanese house.”
Despite a measure of alienation in his personal life due at least in part to his divided nationality, Noguchi remained an unwavering humanist in his outlook, seeking beyond personal expression “to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living…at once abstract and socially relevant.” These desires were realized in monumental sculptures placed in relation to buildings, in playgrounds and gardens, in set designs for Martha Graham and others, in interiors, and in functional objects. The book aptly and amply illustrates these projects, and they are liberally sampled here.
To read and look at "Isamu Noguchi" is to come away with renewed appreciation for Noguchi’s creative genius—for his artistic achievements as well as the challenges he faced and transcended in life.
From top: faculty room at Keio University, Tokyo, 1951-2; ceiling and floors of 5th Ave lobby, New York, 1957; "Tenguko" (Heaven), with Tenge Kenzo, Tokyo, 1977; Playscapes, Piedmont Park, Georgia, 1976; set for Martha Graham’s "Cave of the Heart," 1946; Andre Kertesz photo of Noguchi’s studio, 1946; table for Samuel Dretzin, 1948.