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Modern Artist: Isamu Noguchi
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 in his friendships with Gorky and de Kooning, as well as his large-scale works, abstracted forms and interest in Surrealism. Yet, his sculpture retained a distinct sensibility in his use of natural materials and in its Eastern influence.

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 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 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 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 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.

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 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 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.

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 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.

Constantin Brancusi
Alberto Giacometti
Hans Arp
Joan Miró
Martha Graham
Buckminster Fuller
Alexander Calder
Arshile Gorky
Abstract Expressionism
Isamu Noguchi
Years Worked: 1924 - 1988
Maya Lin
Lawrence Halprin
Robert Smithson
Isamu Kenmochi
Buckminster Fuller
Abstract Expressionism
Modern Furniture Design
Landscape Architecture

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 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.

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See additional works by this artist
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

The Noguchi Museum

Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders
By Masayo Duus

Noguchi East and West
By Dore Ashton

Written by Artist
Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor's World

Isamu 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
November 2004
ArtForum International
By Anne M. Wagner

Smithsonian Archives of American Art - Nov 7, 1973
Transcript of oral history interview with Isamu Noguchi

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