One of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was a resolute modernist whose timeless work blended ancient and contemporary ideas. An itinerant, cultural polymath, he questioned defined artistic categories and the prevailing agendas of his time, embracing notions of globalism and anticipating ideas of relational aesthetics by several decades. Primarily a sculptor, Noguchi’s expansive, interdisciplinary practice included public projects, architecture, gardens, playgrounds, ceramics, furniture, lighting and set design, all formulated by a deep connection to nature and to the poetics of space.
Born in 1904 in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and American mother, Noguchi’s early years were marked by upheaval, exile and loneliness. Travelling between continents and negotiating the perceived dichotomy of ‘East’ and ‘West’ was, he later reconciled, a strong impetus for his artistic evolution. During the 1920s he lived in New York, working as an academic sculptor, but despite early success, he soon changed direction, leaving for Paris in 1926 and becoming the first and only assistant of Constantin Brancusi. Returning to New York in 1929, Noguchi met architect, inventor and social revolutionary Richard Buckminster Fuller – who would remain a lifelong friend and mentor – as well as fellow artists Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Although working as an abstract artist, Noguchi continued to support himself by accepting sculptural portrait commissions and it was through one such commission that he met the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, with whom he would collaborate on set designs for the next 20 years.
‘I don’t have much faith in objects. I tend to believe in the space around an object, or in non-material things,’ Noguchi said. His adherence to the role of art as something ‘other than information and knowledge’ belies an intention for sculpture to offer a dialogue with its viewer; one that is reciprocal and informed and directed by our own physical sensations. Whether in large-scale public works such as parks, plazas, fountains or playgrounds, or individual sculptures, his forms appear irreducible, reflecting an innate understanding of how materials behave.
Relentlessly self-critical, Noguchi consistently pushed his exploration further, into spatial, material and non-material areas that draw our attention to his deft manipulation of solid matter as much as to an object’s surroundings: ‘It is space itself that gives validity to sculpture,’ he remarked. While he worked with aluminium, bronze, wood, steel, concrete and clay, as well as found stones, salvaged materials and reconfigured industrial standards, he always returned to stone, which he described as ‘the basic element of sculpture’, and considered ‘the unassailable absolute’. Employing ancient stone carving techniques, he nonetheless embraced technological advances, using coring drills, tensioned steel rods and other methods of production for his often monumental works.
During his life Noguchi travelled extensively, discovering large-scale public works in Mexico, ink brush drawing in China and marble carving in Italy, but always to and from Japan, whose landscape and culture provided an equally rich inspiration for his oeuvre. Resolutely dialectical, his sculpture synthesised all of these varied sources, at the same time as being grounded in a relationship with the natural world and earthly materials and his own sense of a wider universe.
Noguchi’s large-scale public works, reflecting his strong belief in the social significance of sculpture, was an ongoing part of his practice particularly in the latter years. His first major commission was News (1938–39) a sculpture for the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center, New York, followed by many others, including the Reader’s Digest garden in Tokyo (1951); the jardin japonais for UNESCO in Paris (1956–58); the white marble sunken garden of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut; and the monolithic Tsukuba granite forms for First National Bank of Fort Worth Plaza, Texas (1960–61). In 1947 Noguchi created a proposal for a monumentally-scaled sculpture that reflected the profound unease following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Sculpture to be Seen From Mars, originally titled ‘Memorial to Man’, was an earthwork of vast proportions. Formulated more than a decade before space travel and pre-dating 1960s and ’70s Land art, it took the form of a schematised human face, built out of sand: a monument to human civilisation.
Noguchi’s experimental approach to spatial negotiation and materials was exemplified by his various schemes for children’s playgrounds and play equipment, such as the United Nations Playground, created between 1952–63. In these projects, many of which were never realised, hybrid freestanding elements act as both sculpture and non-directional play equipment, modular and extendable structural systems that could be installed anywhere and had multiple possible configurations. One such model, created in 1966, was realised by the artist two decades later as part of his exhibition ‘What is Sculpture?’ at the US pavilion in the 1986 Venice Biennale. Titled Slide Mantra (1986), this monumental sculpture that played with notions of classical architecture took the form of a white Italian marble curving slide.
The furniture and lighting that Noguchi produced throughout his career, are now recognised as classics of 21st-century modern design. They include the bent and folded aluminium ‘Prismatic table’, an interlocking wood and glass-topped table produced for Herman Miller and the Akari light sculptures, crafted in Gifu, Japan from traditional washi paper and bamboo. Noguchi’s applications for patents for numerous other object and lighting designs from around 1953 onwards are testament to his abilities not only as an artist but also as an experimental innovator and engineer.
In 1969 Noguchi rebuilt a 17th-century house and studio in the village of Mure Cho on the island of Shikoku, an area known for its stone cutting. His New York studio in Long Island City was the headquarters for his ongoing environmental and urban projects as well as a private museum for his work which, in 1985, became the Noguchi Garden Museum (now the Noguchi Museum). The sculptures produced at Mure Cho include huge granite and basalt monolithic forms, ‘landscape sculptures’ organically connected to the land where they were made. Although carving these relentlessly obdurate materials presented huge challenges for Noguchi, like all of his output, the late stone sculptures appear as uncompromisingly distillations that retain the integrity of the raw stone in their final form. ‘I like to work from the rock as rock, and allow the quality of rock to remain,’ he remarked.