Isamu Noguchi

by Branka Bozic

Isamu Noguchi

How to begin a story about a man who had affections for various artistic disciplines? Isamu Noguchi was a sculptor, set designer, painter, furniture designer, landscape architect… His oeuvre was so wide and diverse. We find his work from those miniature ones, like lamps, to gigantic ones, like parks. Where did this diversity come from? Was there an analogy between his origins and character that lead him through curiosity?

Growing up on two continents 

Isamu Noguchi was born as an extramarital child of a distinguished American editor Léonie Gilmour and Japanese writer. Yone Noguchi, Isamu’s father, asked for Léonie’s expert help before publishing his first novel. Their business relationship turned into a love one soon, from which one of the most appreciated artists of the 20th century was born at the end of 1904.

But the beginning of Isamu’s life was marked by a conflict between the two countries: the USA and Japan. In spite of the fact that he was born in Los Angeles, the current state in the country led his mother and her three-year-old son move to Tokyo at Yone’s. After a while, father abandoned them so Léonie and her son went to a coastal town Chigasaki. Isamu spent his childhood there, went to Japanese and Jesuit school and spent his free time in gardens by the sea. Circumstances in which he grew up would mark both his life and his creativity in a special way.

At the age of 14 Isamu went back to Indiana, USA, where he continued his education and finished high school. His wish was to become an artist but nevertheless he decided to enter Medical School at Columbia University. While he was studying he attended sculpture classes in Leonardo da Vinci Art School in the evening, where his mentor was Onorio Ruotolo. His teacher believed in him and compared his talent to Michelangelo’s. His knowledge about human anatomy, which he gained at the University, was an experience on a way to become uomo universale. At one point Isamu Noguchi made a decision to leave the University and to dedicate himself to sculpture completely. His mother, who was coming back from Japan to her home country at the moment, supported him. 

International student

At the very beginning of his career he visited an exhibition of a Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Impressed with the display, at the end of 1926 he sent an application for Guggenheim Fellowship, a scholarship given by John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation annually. Although he didn’t fulfill all the criteria for receiving a support like this, the Foundation rewarded him and Isamu went to Paris the following year.

In April 1927 he met Constantin Brancusi in whose studio he stayed to work as an assistant. Philosophy that was read in Brancusi’s work and shapes that expressed those thoughts had a special influence on an emerging artist. In his studio, Isamu Noguchi used different materials like stone, wood, metal and marble. His curiosity made him draw European knowledge insatiably in the years to follow. The work of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró as well as the Futurism appearance in Europe undoubtedly influenced his sculptures’ abstraction.

Scholarship ended and Isamu returned to New York reluctantly where he was making busts of his friends and associates. Among them were Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller and through their portraits he brought revolution to the sculpture of the 20th century. He chose polished chrome as a material for Fuller’s bust which described Fuller’s high tech approach to projects to a large degree. The layering of his works was recognized by the rich who bought them so Isamu acquired funds rapidly. This enabled him to go back to his journeys. This time the destination was the continent of his father’s origin – Asia. China connected him closer to brushes and ink, and Japan to ceramics, zen gardens and terracotta figures called haniwa.

Constant craving for learning and meeting unexplored cultures, customs and tools was probably hidden in Isamu’s unusual upbringing. He couldn’t regard any country as homeland but he belonged to every country that he visited. Wherever he went he found a way to master something unknown. He was an artistic force opposing religious and racial restrictions. Many people described him as a bridge that connected people and united them into his work. He was a gate between East and West which wasn’t unusual because he had both in his veins. ‘My Father, Yone Noguchi is Japanese and has long been known as an interpreter of the East and West, through poetry. I wish to do the same thing through sculpture’. – Isamu used to say describing his work.

Finding identity

Political situation between two countries deteriorated in key moments of his creativity. The Japan’s attack on the USA’s navy base Pearl Harbor provoked a chain of unjust events in Isamu’s life. He went to Poston camp as a volunteer so that he would spread the awareness of Arts. Unfortunately he was recognized as a spy there. Disappointed, Isamu Noguchi decided to leave the camp and after that he dealt with numerous racially motivated problems. Without many consequences, he succeeded in coming back to creativity but this time by asking moral questions through his work.

He expressed his feelings through sculptures of surreal, biomorphic character. Then Kouros appeared. They represented a series of intertwined, flat surfaces that at first glance didn’t at all resemble what Kouros was before. Greek sculptures of this type were statues of a young man that were supposed to shape naked man at his full strength. In Isamu’s interpretation it didn’t resemble man’s figure by which he questioned western culture and society. We saw the game of full and empty, which the author identified with his identity in different situations during war. Sculpture had subtle form but bold message. 

The marriage of sculpture and furniture

In the field of design Isamu created pieces for leading world companies, where his work was described as a balance between art and furniture. Famous Noguchi table is a part of Herman Miller’s catalogue since 1948 until today. The base of the chair was made of two strong, wooden elements which give the sense of security and tenderness thanks to their shape. Glass surface is not distracting attention from two base parts put up in such a way to deceive observers.

Series of freestanding lamps and ceilings Akari Light Sculptures found roots in Japanese tradition. While visiting Gifu, the heart of handmade lanterns, Isamu discovered the beauty of their light construction. Because they were made of bamboo and paper they were called Akari, which in Japanese represents two terms: light and lightness. They were a perfect juncture of old and modern in one, so Isamu regarded them as “poetic, ephemeral, and tentative”.

Courage is the answer

In the middle of previous century Isamu Noguchi got another scholarship which enabled him to travel the world and explore public spaces. He was interested in “emptiness” in which people relax and spend their free time. In Sapporo, Japan there was a need for rearranging the dump into a green space, which Isamu imagined as a giant sculpture from the beginning. Moerenuma Park was his last project that was realized, opened for visitors in 2005.

Isamu’s life showed the experience that he had gained travelling and spending time in different cultural circles. His endless ambition was seeking the way to unite everything that he had met during his life. The fact that he lived in cleft between two continents and two nations made him show what he longed for through his work. All his life he had been searching for a place to identify as home but in the end he stayed a traveler. If we had to describe this man in one word, it would simply be his name, which in translation means courage.

Featured image: Isamu Noguchi by Michael, is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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