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Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi

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

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). □

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Noguchi, Isamu

Isamu Noguchi

Born: November 17, 1904
Los Angeles, California

Died: December 30, 1988
New York, New York

Asian American sculptor

Isamu Noguchi was a well-respected and admired Japanese American sculptor and designer. His sculptures, fountains, and gardens are focal points in major cities of the United States and worldwide.

Noguchi's youth

Isamu Noguchi was born to Isamu Noguchi and Leonie Gilmore on November 17, 1904, in Los Angeles, California. His father, a Japanese poet and authority on art, and his mother, an American writer, were never married. 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 thirteen years old. In 1918, his mother sent him back to the United States to finish his education. He went to public school in La Porte, Indiana, graduating in 1922. He became an apprentice (a person working to learn a trade) to Gutzon Borglum (18671941), the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, who told Noguchi he was not talented enough to be a sculptor. Thus, in 1923, Noguchi enrolled as a premedical student at Columbia University in New York City.

Prophet of his age

In 1925 Noguchi, at the urging of his mother, enrolled at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City to study sculpture. Here his talents were recognized and encouraged. Noguchi also attended the East Side Art School in New York City. In 1927 he won a scholarship and moved to Paris, France, where he was an apprentice to abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi (18761957) who became a strong influence on Noguchi's art. Noguchi felt that this art form was one that was well suited to his way of expressing himself in his work.

Noguchi lived in Japan for six months in 1930, working with clay and studying gardens. There he realized land could be sculpture that could be put to public use. In the 1930s he made art reflecting his social concerns, including a cement mural, 72 feet long, in Mexico City, Mexico, narrating Mexican history. In 1935 he began making stage sets for dancer Martha Graham (18931991), a partnership that would continue for fifty years. Throughout his career, Noguchi also worked with other choreographers (people who develop the dance steps and dances used in performances). 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 occasional exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. 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. He also traveled throughout the world, and his work was purchased by many important museums. His only marriage, to actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, lasted from 1951 to 1955. In 1968 the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a show featuring his work, and in 1978 the Walker Art Center exhibited his show Imaginary Landscapes.

Connection with nature

Noguchi's forms seem to suggest nature and human beings interacting with one another or with their surroundings. Like Brancusi, Noguchi always retained in his pieces a strong feeling for the perfection of the material from which they are made. His preference was generally for wood or stone, and he was talented in making use of these materials in a way that showed them at their best.

Noguchi's work was also richly inspired by European surrealism (art that demonstrates the imagination and uses distorted images) and abstraction (art that does not resemble any real object). His experiences in Asia gifted him with a unique ability for garden and courtyard design. Among his many important creations: a fountain and sculpture for the John Hancock Building, New York City; a garden for the UNESCO Headquarters, Paris (19561958); the Billy Rose Garden of Sculpture at the Israel National Museum, Jerusalem (19601965); a sunken garden at Yale University (19601964); and the 1968 Red Cube, a steel sculpture on Broadway in New York City.

Creative to the end

In 1982 Noguchi was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding lifetime contribution to the arts. In 1984, Noguchi's memorial to Benjamin Franklin (17061790), the Bolt of Lightning, a 102-foot stainless steel sculpture, was installed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1985 the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, displaying more than two hundred 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 art exposition. 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 mediums, including painting, ceramics, interior design, and architecture. His fountains grace several cities. In every work, he remained deeply attuned to his material and sensitive to its connection to nature and to society.

Isamu Noguchi died on December 30, 1988, in New York City.

For More Information

Altshuler, Bruce. Isamu Noguchi. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Ashton, Dore. Noguchi East and West. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Gordon, John. Isamu Noguchi. New York: Praeger, 1968.

Tracy, Robert. Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi's Dance Designs. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000.

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Noguchi, Isamu

Isamu Noguchi (ēsä´mōō nōgōō´chē), 1904–88, American sculptor, b. Los Angeles. The son of a Japanese poet father and an American mother, he was a student of Gutzon Borglum and won Guggenheim fellowships (1927 and 1928) that permitted him to study in Paris under Brancusi. In his work in stone, wood, and metal he integrated European modernism with Japanese traditionalism, harmonizing rough and smooth, geometric and organic. He created many independent pieces of sculpture and is also well known for the abstract sculptural elements he designed as adjuncts to architecture, highly integrated environmental work such as the massive red cube made for the Marine Midland Bank building, New York City, and the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (1969). Noguchi also created many playgrounds and stone sculpture gardens, e.g., in Mexico City and the UNESCO garden, Paris (1958). He also designed numerous striking stage sets and props for the Martha Graham dance company and items for the home, many of which have become modernist classics, such as his kidney-shaped, glass-topped, wood-based coffee table and his airy paper lanterns. He is the author of A Sculptor's World (1968). There are Noguchi museums in his former studios in Long Island City, New York, and in Japan.

See studies by S. Takiguchi et al. (1953) and J. Gordon (1968); C. Zwerin, dir., Sculpture of Spaces: Noguchi (documentary film, 1995).

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"Noguchi, Isamu." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 29 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Noguchi, Isamu

Noguchi, Isamu (1904–88). American sculptor and designer, son of a Japanese father and an American mother. He designed the monumental bridges in Tange's Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan (1951–2); sculpture for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill's Connecticut General Life Insurance Company offices, Bloomfield, CT (1956–7); the Japanese Garden for Breuer's UNESCO Building, Paris (1956–8); the garden for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT (1960–4); the plaza for First National City Bank, Fort Worth, TX (1960–1); the sunken garden plaza, Chase Manhattan Bank, NYC (1961–4); the Sculpture Garden for Mansfeld's Israel Museum, Jerusalem (1960–5); and his own Studio and Sculpture Garden, Long Island, NY (opened 1985).

Bibliography

Ashton (1992);
M. Friedman (ed.) (1978);
Hunter (1979);
Jane Turner (1996);
Walker & and Simo (1994);
Weilacher (1996)

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