“We are a landscape of all we have seen.”
– Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi was one of the most experimental and pioneering artists of the 20th century. He created an extraordinary range of sculptures – made in stone, ceramics, wood, and aluminum – as well as theatre set designs, playground models, furniture, lighting, architecture, and gardens.
Noguchi is one of my favorite artists and was the clear choice for the cover of Funga´s Japan edition.
His work set the standard for the regeneration of the arts. He traveled extensively throughout his lifetime, maintaining studios in both Japan and New York in his later years. Noguchi discovered the impact of large-scale public works in Mexico, ceramics and tranquil gardens in Japan, subtle ink brush techniques in China, and the purity of marble in Italy.
Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of 0f 13 before moving to Indiana. Later on, he went on to study pre-medicine at Colombia University while taking an evening sculpture class. He soon left the university to become an academic sculptor.
“To order space is to give it meaning.” – Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi´s work was not recognized in the United States until 1938 when he completed a large-scale sculpture symbolizing the freedom of the press, which the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Centre, NYC, commissioned. This would become the first of numerous celebrated public works worldwide, ranging from playgrounds to plazas, gardens to fountains, all reflecting his belief in the social significance of sculpture.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Japanese Americans in the United States had a dramatic personal effect on Noguchi and motivated him to become a political activist. In 1942, he started Nisei Writers, an artist mobilization for democracy – a group dedicated to raising awareness of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans. Following the war, Noguchi spent much time in Japan exploring the wrenching issues raised during the previous years.
His ideas and feelings are reflected in the work of the time, particularly the delicate slab sculptures included in the 1946 exhibition 14 Americans.
Noguchi did not belong to any particular movement but collaborated with artists in various mediums and schools. He created stage sets as early as 1935 for the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham that began a lifelong collaboration, as well as for dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Eric Hawkins, George Balanchine, and composer John Cage.
In the 1960s, he began working with stone carver Masatoshi Izumi on the island of Shikoku, Japan – a collaboration that would continue for the rest of his life.
From 1960 to 1966, he worked on a playground design with the architect Louis Kahn.
When given the opportunity to venture into the mass production of his interior designs, Noguchi seized it. In 1947 his glass-top table was produced by Herman Miller. His designs for the Akari light sculptures were developed in 1951 using traditional Japanese materials. Both these designs, along with the others, are still being produced today.
In 1985, Noguchi opened The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York. The museum, established and designed by the artist, marked the accumulation of his commitment to public spaces. It is located in a 1920s industrial building across the street from where the artist had his studio in 1960. It has a serene outdoor sculpture garden and many galleries that Noguchi´s work, along with the photographs and models from his career. Noguchi´s first retrospective in the United States was in 1968 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
In 1986, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Noguchi received the Edward McDowell Medal for outstanding lifetime contribution to the arts in 1982, the Kyoto Prize in Arts in 1986, the National Medal in Arts in 1987, and the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese Government in 1988. He died in New York City in 1988.
“You can find out how to do something and then do it or do something and then find out what you did.” – Isamu Noguchi
Watch Isamu Noguchi, on his own career and practice below.
All text taken from the documentary The Life of a Sculptor – Isamu Noguchi