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Artists Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi

American Designer and Sculptor

Movement: Surrealism

Born: November 17, 1904 - Los Angeles, California

Died: December 30, 1988 - New York, New York

Quotes

"The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence."
Isamu Noguchi
"Stone is the fundament of the earth, of the universe. It is not old or new but a primordial element. Stone is the primary medium, and nature is where it is, and nature is where we have to go to experience life."
Isamu Noguchi
"Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture."
Isamu Noguchi
"[The visible world] enters our consciousness as emotion as well as knowledge; trees grow in vigor, flowers hang evanescent, and mountains lie somnolent -- with meaning. The promise of sculpture is to project these inner presences into forms that can be recognized as important and meaningful in them."
Isamu Noguchi
"I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space: a beginning, and a groping to another level of sculptural experience and use: a total sculpture space experience beyond individual sculptures."
Isamu Noguchi

"Sculpture can be a vital force in our everyday life if projected into communal usefulness."

Synopsis

Isamu Noguchi, a major American and Japanese sculptor and designer, spent over six decades creating abstract works - largely in stone - based on both organic and geometric forms. Greatly inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as by the biomorphic style of some Surrealist art, Noguchi became internationally known both for his artwork and his publicly accessible furniture and architecture. His ultimate objective, to create and enhance public spaces through sculpture, provided his career with a distinct direction and established him as a critical figure in the worlds of post-war art, architecture and design.

Key Ideas

The overarching concept informing Noguchi's work was his passionate, career-long desire to create art the public could use in a social space. He realized this goal in myriad ways: mass produced furniture and lamps; theatrical set designs; public projects such as gardens, playgrounds and fountains; and sculptural manipulations of the natural landscape.
Noguchi wanted to call attention to the dichotomies inherent in much of his work: he merged geometric and organic forms, found value in both positive and negative space, and created works that challenged the boundaries of design and art. He also integrated the materials and art forms of both his Japanese and American heritages into his innovative creations.
Noguchi was socially and artistically connected to Abstract Expressionism, as evident not only in his large-scale works evoking abstracted forms but also in his friendships with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Yet, his sculpture retained a distinct sensibility in its use of natural materials and its distinct blend of Surrealist and Japanese influence.

Most Important Art

The Well (Variation on a Tskubal) (1982)
Located within the garden at the Noguchi Museum in New York, The Well demonstrates Noguchi's mastery of natural elements, and the strong presence of a Japanese aesthetic. Noguchi worked with stone his entire life, first learning how to carve while an assistant to Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi produced his final stone sculptures at his studio on Shikoku Island, Japan, where he worked with the local basalt stone. The Well perfectly balances modernism with traditional Japanese stonework, the man made with the natural. The piece unites natural contrasts: the fluidity and transparency of water against the still, solid black stone. Filtered up from below, the water gently skims the surface of The Well; there is a slight indentation on top that pools with water before cascading downwards. Noguchi sensually combines natural elements, creating a work that is both contemplative, but joyous.
Water, Basalt - The Isamu Noguchi Foundation
More Art Works


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Biography

Childhood

Isamu Noguchi's parents met when his mother, an American writer, was hired to assist his father, a young Japanese poet, with his English. By the time Noguchi was born in 1904, his father had returned to Japan. At two years old, Noguchi and his mother moved to Tokyo to live with his father, but left in 1910 for Omori and in 1912 for Chigasaki, where nine-year-old Noguchi helped with the construction of his home. In 1913, Noguchi's father married a Japanese woman and began his own family, further distancing himself from his son. At 13, Noguchi's mother sent him to the Interlaken School in Rolling Prairie, Indiana.

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Early Training

After graduating high school in Indiana, Noguchi spent a summer tutoring the son of sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut; in exchange he received training from the future Mount Rushmore sculptor, who asserted that Noguchi was talentless. Although Noguchi had wanted to be an artist since he was young, he entered Columbia University as a pre-med student in 1922. His mother moved to New York in 1924 and encouraged her son to study sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. Later that year, Noguchi left Columbia to focus on his art full-time; he also began using his father's name "Noguchi," rather than his mother's, "Gilmour," which he had previously used. His academic, figurative sculptures were soon shown in several exhibitions at the da Vinci School, the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Isamu Noguchi Biography

In 1927, Noguchi traveled to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship and began working as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, whose New York gallery exhibition the previous year had been extremely influential for the young artist. While teaching Noguchi methods of direct carving in wood and stone, Brancusi strongly communicated to Noguchi his aesthetic and relationship to his materials. From Brancusi, Noguchi became interested in the idea of leaving the marks of his tools on his sculpture to signify an ongoing connection between sculptor and material. However, it was only after leaving Brancusi's studio that Noguchi began creating his own sculptures, many of which initially echoed the form, themes and materials of his mentor. Noguchi's sculptures began as simple geometric shapes, but he soon moved toward more organic forms, sometimes merging the two. While in Paris, Noguchi also became part of the Bohemian community, meeting artists such as Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis and Jules Pascin.

Upon returning to New York in 1929, when his Fellowship expired, Noguchi had his first solo exhibition at the Eugene Schoen Gallery, which was met with a positive response despite a lack of sales. To make money, he returned to the representational portrait sculptures he had begun in his academic years, creating busts of well-known artists such as George Gershwin, Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller. For the next two years he traveled to Paris, Beijing and finally Japan. In Kyoto he first saw the Japanese pottery and Zen gardens that would greatly influence much of his work.

Mature Period

Isamu Noguchi Photo

Noguchi returned to New York in 1931 and became involved in the social and labor activism of the 1930s, when he executed designs for workers' memorials, public art projects and political works. During this period, Noguchi also designed sets for dance and theater performances, particularly for modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, with whom he collaborated for several decades. He also became very interested in the application of art to lived environments and created proposals for several outdoor spaces, playgrounds and other public projects. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Noguchi furthered his political actions, forming the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942. That year he also voluntarily spent several months in an Arizona internment camp, in an unsuccessful attempt to help design an improved environment.

At this time Noguchi also began to develop his freestanding sculpture, much of which was based on the biomorphic forms of Surrealist art. Biomorphism also infused his furniture designs of the 1940s, such as his iconic table that was mass-produced in 1947 and is still popular today. Also in the 1940s, Noguchi started creating sculptures with light, entitled Lunars, which similarly employed biomorphic shapes. His Akari lamps of 1951 furthered his experiments in using electric light as a key sculptural element. He continued producing such sculptures for the rest of his career and included illumination in some of his public and environmental sculptures. Post-war construction growth in the 1950s and 1960s provided Noguchi with the opportunity to design numerous international public projects, many of which were focused around gardens.

Late Years and Death

Isamu Noguchi Portrait

In 1962, Noguchi spent time in Italy as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. Later that decade, while still in Italy, he began his banded marble works, for which he used a post-tension technique involving a tightened, internal metal rod holding the multicolored pieces together. Noguchi also started his Void series in Italy in 1970. During the later period of his career, Noguchi continued creating public sculptures, gardens, fountains and playgrounds for international sites. His late sculptural work was made primarily using stone, some of which he left unpolished and in its natural state. In 1981 he began designing the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York; it opened in 1985, three years before his death in New York in 1988.

Legacy

Although considered by some to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Noguchi's dual heritage and time abroad diverted his individual aesthetic toward a unique blend of Eastern and Western art. As a result, he had a distinct influence upon subsequent generations of modern artists, designers and architects. Noguchi's determined efforts to create sculptural spaces and objects to be used by the general public were highly successful; innumerable examples of his inventive designs, sculptures and architecture can be found worldwide in museum collections and public spaces, as well as inside everyday homes.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Isamu Noguchi
Interactive chart with Isamu Noguchi's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Constantin Brancusi
Alberto Giacometti
Hans Arp
Joan Miró

Friends

Martha Graham
Buckminster Fuller
Alexander Calder
Arshile Gorky

Movements

Surrealism
Biomorphism
Abstract Expressionism
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi
Years Worked: 1924 - 1988

Artists

Maya Lin
Lawrence Halprin
Robert Smithson

Friends

Isamu Kenmochi
Buckminster Fuller

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Modern Furniture Design
Landscape Architecture

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Isamu Noguchi

Books
Websites
Articles
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Isamu Noguchi's Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930-1950

By Amy Lyford

The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders

By Masayo Duus

Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space

By Ana Maria Torres

Noguchi's Missing Link

By Stephanie Strasnick
ARTnews
October 18, 2013

5 Public Landscapes of Isamu Noguchi

By Diana Budds
Dwell
September 20, 2013

Celebrating an Enduring Partnership

By Gia Kourlas
The New York Times
March 18, 2011

The Far-Ranging Artistic Alliances That Shaped a Sculptor

By Karen Rosenberg
The New York Times
December 16, 2010

Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Arshile Gorky
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
ArtStory: Constantin Brancusi
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and Kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
ArtStory: Alexander Calder
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.
Stuart Davis
Jules Pascin
Jules Pascin
Jules Pascin
Jules Mordecai Pincas (aka Pascin, aka "Prince of Montparnasse") was a Bulgarian-born artist. Not associated with any particular twentieth-century movement, Pascin instead spent his life traveling throughout Europe and the U.S., experimenting with watercolor, drawing, and painting, typically using friends and family members as his subjects. Plagued with depression and alcoholism most of his life, Pascin committed suicide at age 45.
Jules Pascin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin was one of the most significant American composers of the twentieth century, heralded for his contributions to musical theater, including the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Best known for his popular stage, screen, and classical compositions, Gershwin created work characterized by complex rhythmic patterns and catchy melodies, influenced by folk and jazz styles.
George Gershwin
Martha Graham
Martha Graham
Martha Graham
Martha Graham was a twentieth-century American dancer and choreographer. Having essentially invented a style of dance that emphasized existential language and movement, Graham is widely considered to be the ambassador of modern dance.
Martha Graham
Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, designer, inventor and writer. He is best known for his designs of geodesic domes, such as the ones at Disney's Epcot Center and the Montreal Biosphere.
Buckminster Fuller
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
ArtStory: Alberto Giacometti
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
Hans Arp
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró
Biomorphism
Biomorphism
Biomorphism
Biomorphism was a twentieth-century art movement with close ties to Surrealism, Art Nouveau and Abstract Expressionism. Coined by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the term referred to styles of painting and sculpture that assumed an organic appearance or form, and contained characteristics reminiscent of nature. Pioneers of biomorphic art include Joan Miró and Isamu Noguchi.
Biomorphism
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin is a Chinese-American sculptor, landscape artist and installation artist. Lin will likely be remembered most for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., a commission she won at the age of 21 and while still an undergraduate student.
Maya Lin
Lawrence Halprin
Lawrence Halprin
Lawrence Halprin
Lawrence Halprin is an American landscape architect and teacher. Originally a student of Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, Halprin's designs are characterized by their large scale and accessibility.
Lawrence Halprin
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson was an American artist best known for his innovations in Land and Earth Art. Smithson's large-scale projects employed earth and other natural resources to construct works that both manipulated and preserved the natural landscape. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty in Utah, constructed entirely from basalt, earth and salt.
ArtStory: Robert Smithson
Isamu Kenmochi
Isamu Kenmochi
Isamu Kenmochi
Isamu Kenmochi was a Japanese artist and furniture designer in the twentieth century. Combining traditional design with modern crafting techniques, and aesthetic elements of both East and West, Kenmochi was a significant figure in the growing popularity of Japanese industrial design.
Isamu Kenmochi
Modern Furniture Design
Modern Furniture Design
Modern Furniture Design
Modern furniture design first began in the late nineteenth century, when European designers adopted many elements from East-Asian design, including simple forms, clean lines and a lack of decorative qualities. Modern furniture was later popularized by Bauhaus designers such as Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
Modern Furniture Design
Landscape Architecture
Landscape Architecture
Landscape Architecture
Lanscape Architecture refers to the design and manipulation of physical outdoor spaces intended for public use. Practitioners of landscape architecture often set out to affect socio-behavioral characteristics by altering the natural environment, or in some cases infusing it with outside elements, as found in Earth/Land art.
Landscape Architecture