Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), American sculptor and designer, was one of the few legitimate heirs to the sculptural tradition begun by Brancusi. His sculptures, fountains and gardens are focal points in many cities in the United States and worldwide.
Isamu Noguchi was born on November 17, 1904, in Los Angeles, California. His father was a Japanese poet and authority on art, his mother an American writer. In 1906 he moved with his family to Japan, where his father married a Japanese woman, and Noguchi remained with his mother until he was 14 years old. In 1918, his mother sent him back to the United States to finish his education. He became an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, who told Noguchi he was not talented enough to be a sculptor. So Noguchi enrolled as a pre-medical student at Columbia University in 1923.
Prophet of His Age
In 1925, however, Noguchi enrolled at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City to study sculpture. The school's director, Onorio Ruotolo, proclaimed Noguchi the "new Michelangelo." Noguchi also attended the East Side Art School in New York. In 1927 he won a Guggenheim fellowship and moved to Paris, where he was an apprentice to abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi. "Brancusi gave me respect for tools and materials," Noguchi later said. He also was a strong influence on Noguchi's art. "It became self-evident to me that in so-called abstraction lay the expression of the age and that I was especially fitted to be one of its prophets," said Noguchi in 1929, the year his first one-man exhibition took place in New York City.
After visits to New York, Paris, and Beijing, Noguchi lived in Japan for six months in 1930, working with clay and studying gardens. There he realized that land could be sculpture and sculpture could be put to public use. In the 1930s he made art reflecting his social concerns, including a sculpture of a lynched man, and a cement mural, 72 feet long, in Mexico City, chronicling Mexican history. In 1935 he began making stage sets for dancer Martha Graham, a collaboration that would continue for 50 years. Throughout his career, Noguchi also worked with other choreographers. In 1938 he made his first sculpture in stainless steel, a symbol of freedom of the press at the entrance to the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center, New York City.
Power in Stone
Noguchi enjoyed periodic and selective exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe, and the Orient. Among his important group shows was the exhibition of "14 Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, in 1946. A return trip to Japan in 1949 prompted Noguchi to begin direct carving in stone. "Stone is the primary medium, and nature is where it is, and nature is where we have to go to experience life," he said. "When I'm with the stone, there is not one second when I'm not working."
Noguchi received a fellowship from the Bollingen Foundation in 1950. He also traveled throughout the world — to Mexico, the U.S.S.R., and Israel, among other countries — and his work was purchased by numerous important museums. His only marriage, to actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, lasted from 1951 to 1955. In 1968 the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a Noguchi retrospective, and in 1978 the Walker Art Center exhibited his show Imaginary Landscapes.
Connection with Nature
Much of Noguchi's sculpture incorporates the spirit of Brancusi's reduced and simplified naturalism. Even when he worked with marble, as with Euripides (1966), Noguchi's forms seem to suggest natural or human entities that interact with one another or with their surroundings. Like Brancusi, Noguchi invariably retained in his pieces a strong feeling for the integrity of the materials. His penchant was generally for wood or stone, and he had a remarkable ability for dramatizing the textural potential of each, but without sacrificing their inherent identity.
Noguchi's work was also richly inspired by European surrealism and abstraction. His experiences in the Orient endowed him with a unique ability for garden and piazza design. Among his numerous important commissions were the gardens and sculpture for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, Hartford, Connecticut; a piazza and sculpture (1960) for the First National Bank, Fort Worth, Texas; a fountain and sculpture for the John Hancock Building, New York City; a garden (1956-1958) for the UNESCO Headquarters, Paris; the Billy Rose Garden of Sculpture (1960-1965) at the Israel National Museum, Jerusalem; a sunken garden at Yale University (1960-1964); and the 1968 Red Cube, a steel sculpture on Broadway in New York City.
Prolific to the End
In 1979 a basalt sculpture Noguchi had made in Japan was installed near New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next year the Whitney Museum held an exhibit of his landscape projects and theater sets. In 1982 Noguchi was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding lifetime contribution to the arts. In 1984, Noguchi's memorial to Benjamin Franklin, the Bolt of Lightning, a 102-foot stainless steel sculpture, was installed in Philadelphia. In 1985 the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, displaying more than 200 of his works, opened in Queens, New York.
In 1986, Noguchi ended his long career with a playful signature as the U.S. representative to the Venice Biennale. His exhibition of sculpture and lamps included the Slide Mantra, a religious-looking marble sculpture which visitors could climb up and slide down.
Noguchi was best known for sculpture, but he worked in many other media, including painting, ceramics, interior design, and architecture. His fountains grace several cities, including Detroit. In every work, he remained deeply attuned to his material and sensitive to its connection to nature and to society. According to Michael Brenson of the New York Times, he "was marked by an Asian esthetic that believed in a link among all the arts, and he was constantly searching for ways to bring them together." His work bridged East and West and spoke to universal themes. In 1985, Noguchi wrote: "For me it is the direct contact of artist to material which is original, and it is the earth and his contact to it which will free him of the artificiality of the present and his dependence on industrial products."
Further Reading on Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi's A Sculptor's World (1968); Isamu Noguchi, by John Gordon (1968); Noguchi is also featured in Sam Hunter's, Modern American Painting and Sculpture (1959); Legends in Their Own Time (1994); and Les Krantz's American Artists (1985).