SynopsisIsamu 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.
ChildhoodIsamu 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 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.
Early TrainingAfter 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.
In 1927, Noguchi traveled to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship and began working as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, whose New York gallery exhibition of 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, but Noguchi did not sell any sculptures. 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 PeriodNoguchi 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, Lunars, which similarly employed biomorphic shapes. His Akari lamps of 1951 furthered his experiments with electric light as a key 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 centered around gardens.
Late years and DeathIn 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 primarily in 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.
LegacyAlthough 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 was distinctively influential to 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.
Below are Isamu Noguchi's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Years Worked: 1924 - 1988
QuotesThe essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence.
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.
Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.
[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 themselves.
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.
The Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road
Highlights from the Collection: Noguchi Archaic / Noguchi Modern
Open until August 31st
The Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road
Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow
Open until September 21st
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
The Noguchi Museumwww.Noguchi.org
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographyThe Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders
By Masayo Duus
Noguchi East and West
By Dore Ashton
Written by ArtistIsamu Noguchi: A Sculptor's World
WorksIsamu Noguchi: A Study of Space
By Ana Maria Torres
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum
Isamu Noguchi (Modern Masters Series)
By Bruce Altshuler
Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth
By Louise Allison Cort
Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design
By Vitra Design Museum
Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor
By Valerie J. Fletcher
Sense and Subtlety in Stone
March 17, 1980
By Robert Hughes
The Beauty and Wisdom of Noguchi's Late Work
May 31, 1998
The New York Observer
By Hilton Kramer
Isamu Noguchi, the Sculptor, Dies at 84
December 31, 1988
The New York Times
By Michael Brenson
Noguchi's Exploration of the 3-Dimensional World
October 29, 2004
The New York Times
By Grace Glueck
Noguchi's lost heart
By Anne M. Wagner
Smithsonian Archives of American Art - Nov 7, 1973
Transcript of oral history interview with Isamu Noguchi
Movies and Documentaries
Portrait of Isamu Noguchi - 1974
The Creative Adventures of Isamu Noguchi -1980
Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper - 1997
Websites about artist
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces 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 post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|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 Page
|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 Page
|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.
|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 Page
|Martha Graham was a 20th-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.
|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.
|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 Page
|Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and was 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 Page
|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 Page
|Biomorphism was a 20th-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.
|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.
|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.
|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 Page
|Isamu Kenmochi was a Japanese artist and furniture designer in the 20th 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.
|Modern furniture design first began in the late 19th 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.
|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.