Isamu Noguchi (1904 – 1988)
Date of Birth: November 17, 1904
Place of Birth: Los Angeles, USA
Date of Death: December 30, 1988
Place of Death: New York, USA
Education: Columbia University; Leonardo da Vinci Art School, New York
“The attractions of ceramics lie partly in its contradictions. It is both difficult and easy, with an element beyond our control. It is both extremely fragile and durable. Like 'Sumi' ink painting, it does not lend itself to erasures and indecision.”
“The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence.”
“Everything is sculpture... Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.”
Japanese Garden at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France.
Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York, New York
Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Bust of Martha Graham, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, Hawaii
Landscape of the Cloud, in the lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue New York, New York
Isamu Noguchi is one of America’s best known sculptors and landscape architects. Even though he had no formal training in sculpture, Noguchi was instrumental in changing the way people relate to public spaces. He used a wide variety of mediums: ink, stainless steel, stone, marble, iron, wood, aluminium, and even, water. Noguchi traveled continuously, spending large amounts of time in New York and Japan. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, Noguchi died in New York in 1988.
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, out of wedlock, to Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet and Léonie Gilmour, an American writer. After the Russo-Japanese War and due to growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. after the Japanese victory, Gilmour decided to move to Japan, to be with Yone Noguchi.
Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan up until he was 13 years old, after which he moved with his mother and half-sister to Indiana. Upon finishing school in 1922, he joined Colombia University to study pre-medicine. During this time, in 1924, he also took evening sculpture classes in the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York under Onorio Ruotolo. Noguchi became enthralled with sculpture and soon left university to pursue a career in academic sculpture.
Onorio Ruotolo was impressed with Noguchi’s work. Only three months into his training, Noguchi held his first exhibition showcasing some of his plaster and terracotta works. Soon thereafter, Noguchi set up his own studio and started to work on commissions of portrait busts.
In 1926, Noguchi went to an exhibition put up by Constantin Brancusi. What Noguchi saw profoundly changed his artistic direction. In the same year, Noguchi applied and got the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to study in Brancusi’s studio. He left for Paris in 1927, and worked with Brancusi for two years. During his time in Paris, and inspired by the more experienced sculptor, Noguchi’s work took a more modern and abstract turn. Noguchi’s stay in Paris was fruitful not only for his work, but also socially, as he was introduced to artists such as Alexander Calder and Jules Pascin, who later became friends.
In 1929, Noguchi returned to New York. On Brancusi’s recommendation he went to Romany Marie’s café in Greenwich, where he met Richard Buckminster Fuller. He collaborated with Fuller extensively during his career.
Noguchi also held a solo show at Eugene Schoen Gallery of the abstract work he had done in Paris. Unfortunately for him, none of his works sold, and Noguchi was forced to return to work on portrait busts.
Noguchi loved traveling and his journeys to India, China, and Japan, and his trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway greatly shaped his artistic vision. While in Peking, Noguchi studied brush painting with Qi Baishi for six months. However, when he returned to New York amidst the Great Depression, he found it extremely hard to sell his works.
In 1936 Noguchi left for Mexico on commissioned work to do a relief mural for the Abelardo Rodriguez market, situated in Mexico city. The mural was political and socially potent and included symbols such as the Nazi swastika and the hammer and sickle. While in Mexico, Noguchi met Frieda Kahlo with whom he had a brief but passionate affair. They remained friends until her death. Noguchi later had a relationship with Nayantara Sehgal, the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, a freedom fighter and independent India's first Prime Minister. This relationship too did not last.
In 1938, after Noguchi had failed several attempts at public sculpture, he finally finished a sculpture of great scale, which signified the freedom of the Press. It was a nine ton, stainless steel bas-relief titled “News,” and it was installed at the Associated Press building within the Rockefeller Center, New York. He garnered much praise for this work. This led to a variety of public works done by Noguchi around the world which included plazas, gardens and playgrounds.
In 1942, Noguchi set up his studio in Greenwich Village in New York, to which he moved. The attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War had a deep and lasting impact on Noguchi. As a result he founded the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, which raised awareness regarding Japanese-American patriotism. Noguchi voluntarily placed himself in an internment camp for a period of seven months. After the war, Noguchi spent a lot of his time traveling Japan, seeing firsthand the devastation the previous years had left. This experience was depicted in Noguchi’s work of this time which was also influenced by the surrealist movement.
Noguchi never considered that he belonged to any one school, but worked with artists across many mediums and schools. In the 1960s, he worked with the stone carver Masatoshi Izumi (on Shikoku Island, Japan), the architect Louis Kahn (for a playground design), as well as continued his work of set designs for theater and ballets for the dancer/choreographer Martha Graham.
The first retrospective of Noguchi’s work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1968. In 1985, the artist opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. The next year, Noguchi represented America at the Venice Biennale.
Isamu Noguchi died on December 30, 1988 at the age of 84 in New York City.
As Isamu Noguchi was inspired and influenced by Eastern and Western artistic traditions, his own eclectic style has had a profound impact on modern artists who came after him. His work in public spaces was hailed as visionary. Not only did he experiment, but he also created work that was simultaneously old and new, and modern and traditional, in character, value, and shape.
He sculpted, designed furniture (the Noguchi table series) and lighting (Akari light sculptures series), and also practiced clay craft, and architecture. He successfully brought various arts together in an organic way. He was a highly acclaimed artist, and his work today is held by prominent galleries around the world.
November 17, 1904 -December 30, 1988
Evening classes, Leonardo da Vinci Art School,
1982 - Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts
1986 - Kyoto Prize in Arts
1987 - National Medal of Arts, USA
1988 - Order of the Sacred Treasure, The Government of Japan
1929 - Eugene Schoen Gallery, New York
1930 - “Fifteen Heads of Isamu Noguchi,” Marie Sterner Gallery, New York
1935 - Marie Harriman Gallery, New York
1946 - “Fourteen Americans,” Museum of Modern Art, New York
1948 - Charles Egan Gallery, New York
1952 - Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Japan
MUSEUMS / COLLECTIONS
Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Long Island City, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii
Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Guggenheim Museum, New York