Isamu Noguchi - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor and Designer
Los Angeles, California
New York, New York
Biography of Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi's parents met when his mother, an American writer, was hired to assist his father, a young Japanese poet, with his English. By the time Noguchi was born in 1904, his father had returned to Japan. At two years old, Noguchi and his mother moved to Tokyo to live with his father, but left in 1910 for Omori and in 1912 for Chigasaki, where nine-year-old Noguchi helped with the construction of his home. In 1913, Noguchi's father married a Japanese woman and began his own family, further distancing himself from his son. At 13, Noguchi's mother sent him to the Interlaken School in Rolling Prairie, Indiana.
After graduating high school in Indiana, Noguchi spent a summer tutoring the son of sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut; in exchange he received training from the future Mount Rushmore sculptor, who asserted that Noguchi was talentless. Although Noguchi had wanted to be an artist since he was young, he entered Columbia University as a pre-med student in 1922. His mother moved to New York in 1924 and encouraged her son to study sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. Later that year, Noguchi left Columbia to focus on his art full-time; he also began using his father's name "Noguchi," rather than his mother's, "Gilmour," which he had previously used. His academic, figurative sculptures were soon shown in several exhibitions at the da Vinci School, the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In 1927, Noguchi traveled to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship and began working as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, whose New York gallery exhibition the previous year had been extremely influential for the young artist. While teaching Noguchi methods of Direct Carving in wood and stone, Brancusi strongly communicated to Noguchi his aesthetic and relationship to his materials. From Brancusi, Noguchi became interested in the idea of leaving the marks of his tools on his sculpture to signify an ongoing connection between sculptor and material. However, it was only after leaving Brancusi's studio that Noguchi began creating his own sculptures, many of which initially echoed the form, themes and materials of his mentor. Noguchi's sculptures began as simple geometric shapes, but he soon moved toward more organic forms, sometimes merging the two. While in Paris, Noguchi also became part of the Bohemian community, meeting artists such as Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis and Jules Pascin.
Upon returning to New York in 1929, when his Fellowship expired, Noguchi had his first solo exhibition at the Eugene Schoen Gallery, which was met with a positive response despite a lack of sales. To make money, he returned to the representational portrait sculptures he had begun in his academic years, creating busts of well-known artists such as George Gershwin, Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller. For the next two years he traveled to Paris, Beijing and finally Japan. In Kyoto he first saw the Japanese pottery and Zen gardens that would greatly influence much of his work.
Noguchi returned to New York in 1931 and became involved in the social and labor activism of the 1930s, when he executed designs for workers' memorials, public art projects and political works. During this period, Noguchi also designed sets for dance and theater performances, particularly for modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, with whom he collaborated for several decades. He also became very interested in the application of art to lived environments and created proposals for several outdoor spaces, playgrounds, and other public projects.
After the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack on the United States, Noguchi furthered his political actions by protesting against the 100,000 Japanese Americans interned. He formed the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942 and registered complaints in Washington. That year he also voluntarily spent several months in an Arizona internment camp, even though he was living in New York and was not required to be detained. He went there for a couple of months, with the goal of improving the lives of the people encarcerated. Instead, the budget for his projects was cut, and his paperwork to be released got lost. Noguchi pleaded for release and ultimately spent a total of 7 miserable, unproductive months in the camp.
At around this time Noguchi also began to develop his freestanding sculptures, many of which were based on the biomorphic forms of Surrealist art. Biomorphism also infused his furniture designs, such as his iconic table that was mass-produced in 1947 and is still popular today. Also in the 1940s, Noguchi started creating sculptures with light, entitled Lunars, which similarly employed biomorphic shapes. His Akari lamps of 1951 furthered his experiments in using electric light as a key sculptural element. He continued producing such sculptures for the rest of his career and included illumination in some of his public and environmental sculptures. Post-war construction growth in the 1950s and 1960s provided Noguchi with the opportunity to design numerous international public projects, many of which were focused around gardens.
Late Years and Death
In 1962, Noguchi spent time in Italy as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. Later that decade, while still in Italy, he began his banded marble works, for which he used a post-tension technique involving a tightened, internal metal rod holding the multicolored pieces together. Noguchi also started his Void series in Italy in 1970. During the later period of his career, Noguchi continued creating public sculptures, gardens, fountains and playgrounds for international sites. His late sculptural work was made primarily using stone, some of which he left unpolished and in its natural state. In 1981 he began designing the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York; it opened in 1985, three years before his death in New York in 1988.
The Legacy of Isamu Noguchi
Although considered by some to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Noguchi's dual heritage and time abroad diverted his individual aesthetic toward a unique blend of Eastern and Western art. As a result, he had a distinct influence upon subsequent generations of modern artists, designers and architects. Noguchi's determined efforts to create sculptural spaces and objects to be used by the general public were highly successful; innumerable examples of his inventive designs, sculptures and architecture can be found worldwide in museum collections and public spaces, as well as inside everyday homes.