"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, 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
MOST IMPORTANT ART
Portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller (1929)
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.
ISAMU NOGUCHI BIOGRAPHY
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.
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, 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 , and .
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, and . 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.
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
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
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.
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 Influences
Interactive chart with Isamu Noguchi's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
Isamu Noguchi BOOKS AND ONLINE RESOURCES
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
5 Public Landscapes of Isamu Noguchi
By Diana Budds
Celebrating an Enduring Partnership
By Gia Kourlas
The Far-Ranging Artistic Alliances That Shaped a Sculptor
By Karen Rosenberg
By Mark Van De Walle
Noguchi at 100
By Fred Stern
Isamu Noguchi's Garden of Stone
By Suzanne Munchnic