Isamu Noguchi Life and Art Periods

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

ISAMU NOGUCHI 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.

ISAMU NOGUCHI 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.
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ISAMU NOGUCHI 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.

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.

Isamu Noguchi Biography

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

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.

Isamu Noguchi Photo

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

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.

ISAMU NOGUCHI LEGACY

Isamu Noguchi Portrait

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.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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ISAMU NOGUCHI QUOTES

"The 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 them."

"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

Isamu Noguchi Influences

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

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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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constantin Brancusi
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alberto Giacometti
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.

Modern Art Information Hans Arp
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
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.

Modern Art Information Martha Graham
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.

Modern Art Information Buckminster Fuller
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alexander Calder
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
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.

Modern Art Information Biomorphism
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
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.

Modern Art Information Maya Lin
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.

Modern Art Information Lawrence Halprin
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Smithson
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.

Modern Art Information Isamu Kenmochi
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 Art Information Modern Furniture Design
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.

Modern Art Information Landscape Architecture
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
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.

Modern Art Information Stuart Davis
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.

Modern Art Information Jules Pascin
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.

Modern Art Information George Gershwin
Portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller
Portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller

Title: Portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller (1929)

Artwork Description & Analysis: During the 1920s and 1930s, Noguchi's primary means of financial support came from sculpting portrait busts. At this point he had already studied with Brancusi and had begun to make his own abstract sculptures, many of which merged geometric and organic forms. Although his commissioned portraits were more representational than the majority of his artistic output, these powerful sculptures suggest Noguchi's interest in the abstract, as well as a keen understanding of his material and its properties. The portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller, a likeness of the inventor, theorist and architect who became a life-long friend, is covered in extremely reflective industrial chrome. These high-tech materials created "form without shadow," Noguchi stated, meaning that the reflection itself became a sculptural element. The choice of a modern material for this sculpture was also a reference to Fuller's work with technology. Noguchi was truly an international figure and is also notable for having engaged with leading figures of twentieth-century art, dance, literature and science. It was commented upon during his lifetime that he literally knew everybody of note.


Chrome-plated bronze

Death (Lynched Figure)
Death (Lynched Figure)

Title: Death (Lynched Figure) (1934)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Considered a major early piece by Noguchi, Death (Lynched figure) testifies to the artist's progressive racial views and strong social commitment. Noguchi modeled the painfully contorted figure, which hangs on rope upon a photograph of African-American George Hughes being lynched above a bonfire, writhing in agony; Hughes was hung in Texas in 1930. The horrifying photograph of Hughes was later reproduced in the Communist magazine, Labor Defender, which is where Noguchi saw it. In terms of form, the sculpture is unusual since Noguchi suspended the figure above the ground on a metal armature. Noguchi created this sculpture for a 1935 exhibition organized by the NAACP to protest the national rise in lynching, and also to pressure President Roosevelt to enact legislation prohibiting such vigilante violence; the President did not. While the sculpture was well received, some critics reacted harshly, revealing their own racism by claiming the artist was not native-born, and in one instance referring to the provocative sculpture as "a little Japanese mistake." The raw emotion and vital energy of Death (Lynched Figure) still remains potent today.


Monel, steel, wood, and rope - The Isamu Noguchi Foundation

History as Seen from Mexico in 1936
History as Seen from Mexico in 1936

Title: History as Seen from Mexico in 1936 (1936)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Considered one of the most innovative and important public works of art from the 1930s, this bold high-relief mural emerged from Noguchi's involvement with the revolutionary world of the Mexican intelligentsia. The sculptural mural was Noguchi's first fully realized public project, and speaks to the interwoven histories and modernisms of Mexico and the U.S. The three-dimensional mural displays the aesthetic and political influence of such Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco in the choice of the mural format and also, its overt Leftist symbolism - the clenched worker's fist, the tilled field, for examples. It was David Alfaro Siqueiros, the third great Mexican muralist, who inspired Noguchi's use of such innovative art-making materials, such as the unorthodox use of cement, believing modern art must be made using modern means. Noguchi chose to situate his work in an ordinary marketplace so that the common people of Mexico, or the masses, could encounter it during their daily routine. The work's intention was to inspire the dispossessed of Mexico to join in the revolutionary cause. The work's adaption of abstraction is without precedent in Mexican modern art, and was derived more from Noguchi's intimate familiarity with European modernism.


Tinted cement, concrete, and brick - Abelardo L. Rodriquez Market, Mexico City

Kouros
Kouros

Title: Kouros (1944-1945)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the 1940s, Noguchi made a series of interlocking slab sculptures, drawing on Surrealist-inspired biomorphic forms, organic abstractions, traditional Japanese art, and Brancusi's simplified figuration. Biomorphism appeared in much of Noguchi's work - both in free-standing sculptures and furniture designs. Kouros, the largest work of the series and titled after the Greek word for "man," depicts a three-dimensional, fragmented human shape rendered in smooth, interlocking flat surfaces slotted and notched together in a tense balance. The aesthetic roots of Noguchi's sculpture reside in the beginnings of western culture, within ancient Greece and its veneration of the young male both in society and in statuary. The idealized Greek male represented the highest pinnacle of human beauty and perfection within western society up through the nineteenth and early-twentieth-century artistic ideals and racial politics. Due to his hybrid identity, Noguchi and other Japanese-Americans suffered overt racism before, during, and after WWII, finding their identities split in half, rather than seen as a united whole. What Noguchi has accomplished with Korous is to challenge the basis of Western art and society, remaking the ideal human form into solids and voids, a whole that can be disassembled and rearranged, just as Noguchi experienced his identity differently in various social and political situations.


Marble - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Noguchi Table
Noguchi Table

Title: Noguchi Table (originally created 1944; in production ever since by furniture company, Herman Miller)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Good design can allow art, including that of the avant-garde, to enter and enhance the lives of everyday people. Noguchi accomplishes this ideal by reducing a table to just three basic elements: two smoothly shaped pieces of wood - unpainted to exploit the natural grain, interlock to create a tripod that supports the glass top. Noguchi eschews all excess ornamentation, letting the true nature of the materials speak while accentuating the elegance of the simple forms. The Noguchi Table conceals nothing, revealing everything about the simplicity of his materials, and harmoniously unites design with functionality. Noguchi originally created this iconic table in 1944, and today it is widely sold by Herman Miller, Inc. It is considered one of the most important works of modern furniture ever designed, and, even more noteworthy, can be found in living rooms, as well as museums, across the world today.


Wood, glass - Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Jardin Japonais - Gardens for UNESCO
Jardin Japonais - Gardens for UNESCO

Title: Jardin Japonais - Gardens for UNESCO (1956-58)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Noguchi first encountered Japanese gardens during his visits to his father's birth land in the 1930s. By the 1950s he began to design his own unique gardens. The designed garden became a crucial concept for his sculptural landscapes, which he saw as a means to integrate art into social environments. He viewed his work as a "sculpture of spaces," rather than a collection of discrete pieces. Jardin Japonais, for UNESCO headquarters in Paris, was his first major landscape commission. Noguchi felt that gardens should be experienced as nature untouched, so he included elements such as overall organic shapes and lanterns made of natural stone. He arranged the carefully selected Japanese stones by drawing on both Japanese tradition and his own unique design, fusing his skill as a designer with his high regard for the natural world. The fact that Noguchi's patron was the United Nations for a French location speaks to the international reputation, and high regard for the artist and his ability to represent the highest ideals of this international entity.


n/a - UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France

Akari E lamp
Akari E lamp

Title: Akari E lamp (ca. 1966)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the 1940s, Noguchi produced his first illuminated sculptures, Lunars, having previously explored the idea of sculpting with light. His Lunars demonstrate how the artist continued to draw upon Surrealist-inspired biomorphic shapes, and were comprised of magnesite and light bulbs. In 1951 Noguchi expanded his basic formula to create his Akari works at the request of the mayor of Gifu, Japan, to modernize the local lantern designs; again, Noguchi united the traditional and the modern. The results have been both exhibited and mass produced since 1955. Noguchi envisioned his Akari (which means "light as illumination") as two sculptures - both the outward form of the sculpture itself and the resulting shapes created by the emitted light. For Noguchi, light was another type of medium in which to work, one that challenged the idea of materiality through its fundamental ethereality, and which radiated both the natural and industrial worlds.


Mulberry bark paper, bamboo, and wire - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Energy Void
Energy Void

Title: Energy Void (1971)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Noguchi started his Void series in Italy, but he carved the largest, Energy Void of 1971, at his studio on the island of Shikoku, Japan. There he worked primarily in basalt - a local stone -- and granite for the remainder of his career, splitting his time between his studios in the U.S. and Japan. Here, in Energy Void, Noguchi worked with black Swedish granite on a large scale (approximately 6 feet high), having built his studio around the work. In these abstract Void sculptures, Noguchi emphasized the importance of negative space in sculpture by drawing on Zen Buddhist concepts of emptiness. He also found inspiration in laws of physics referring to the cyclical energy flow through all matter, seen here in the piece's continual loop. The piece neither begins nor ends, but rather suggests the timeless flow of energy and of life itself.


Granite - The Isamu Noguchi Foundation

The Well (Variation on a Tskubal)
The Well (Variation on a Tskubal)

Title: The Well (Variation on a Tskubal) (1982)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.