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ISAMU NOGUCHI:

A SCULPTURAL UNIVERSE

Artist Isamu Noguchi went beyond the framework of sculpture to wider ranges of genres, including stage equipment, furniture, ceramics, and landscape design such as gardens and parks. Noguchi spent his 84 years of life continuing to pursue the “role of sculpture in society”, the way “Akari” did, through sculpting light. Among his creations, it was stone carving that he grew passionate about in his later years. The large stone sculptures left at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum are all unique in their sculptural beauty and exist in harmony with its surroundings as natural sculptures. What world did Noguchi find in the stones throughout his long artistic life? We’ll be exploring the world based on the trajectory left behind.

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Isamu Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at “Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?”, 1986 Venice

Biennale Photograph by Michio Noguchi The Noguchi Museum Archives, 144398 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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Isamu Noguchi with study for Luminous Plastic Sculpture, 1943 | Photograph by Eliot Elisofon

 The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03766 ©INFGM / ARS – DACS / Eliot Elisofon

Western European Orthodox and Japanese Gardens
Noguchi's life was full of ups and downs. Unsure of his true identity through his birth as a Japanese and an American, he wandered not only in both places, but also in various places in between such as London, Mexico and Beijing. However it was in Japan that Noguchi first came into contact with sculpture. Learning to use hands for art in kindergarten, at 9 years old making his first ever sculpture, and being taken by the carpenters’ tools that he’d see when walking by his new family home being built. It’s even said that he took the same tools he found then, with him when moving to America. But when it comes to his stone carvings, Paris is where it all started. When he first arrived in France at the age of 23, it is said that what he learned assisting Constantin Brancusi, while studying at Academy Grand Chaumiere and Academy Coralossi had a great influence on him. Brancusi, who was well established as a pioneer of minimal art, often told Noguchi,"Concept is not about the material, but is inherent in the relationship between the artist and the material." Brancusi's sculpture was made from an extrinsic approach considered to be Western orthodox, so Noguchi also learned to face extrinsic chances and the ways to interact with his materials.

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Isamu Noguchi, Peking Brush Drawing, 1930 Ink on paper, 89.2 x 146.1 cm | Photograph by Kevin Noble The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01213 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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Left: Isamu Noguchi, R. Buckminster Fuller, 1929 Photograph by F.S. Lincoln
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01411 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS / Penn State University Libraries Right: The Queen, 1931 Photograph by Kevin Noble | The Noguchi Museum Archives 00011 Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Eight years later, in 1931, at the age of 31, Noguchi returned to Japan for the first time since his childhood and visited Kyoto. As he traveled around gardens and temples, he remembered the Zen temple in Kamakura that he visited when he lived there, and realized that the concept of "garden" existed at his origin all this time. Due to Buckminster Fuller, whom he called his best friend, teaching him that "the garden is a sculpture of space", Noguchi began exploring the role of stones in the space of the garden that is not traced to the secret of traditional gardening, but capturing it in a modern way. At the Sinking Garden for Chase Manhattan Plaza and UNESCO Headquarters Garden, made with the cooperation of Mirei Shigemori, you can appreciate the sculpture as a space that Noguchi aimed to develop.

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Isamu Noguchi, Humpty Dumpty, 1946 | Ribbon slate, 149.9 × 52.7× 44.5 cm | Purchase Inv. N.: 47.7a-e Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala ©INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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Isamu Noguchi, Manufactured by Zenith Radio Corp. Radio Nurse and Guardian Ear, 1937 Bakelite.

Radio Nurse Photograph by Kevin Noble ©INFGM / ARS – DACS

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Isamu Noguchi, Trinity (Triple), 1945 (fabricated 1988) Bronze plate, 141.6 x 56.5 x 49.5 cm

Photograph by Kevin Noble The Noguchi Museum Archives, 9891 ©INFGM / ARS – DACS

Listen to the voices of the stones
In his later years, Noguchi shifts his focus back to stones. In Mure of Kagawa Prefecture, where he chose to rest, he met Masatoshi Izumi, his lifelong right-hand man. Noguchi says, "The act of breaking a stone is love, violence, and invasion", while Izumi says that the same act is "to cherish the life of the stone that comes from the mountain god." The two who resonate with each other will be immersed in (natural) stones in the same area that will later become the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. The boldly scraped stone surface, the stone surface rich in iron rust nuances, and the beauty of modeling created by skillfully combining curves and straight lines, are all born through personal dialogue with stones, as Noguchi says. This "seems easy, but you have to completely empty your inner self. This can only be reached by a world-changing liberation (see" Isamu Noguchi's Path to Discovery "catalog)." As Arata Isozaki says, it is just as entering a state of nothingness and creating a stone carving sculpture relying only on the stones’ voices, to explore the intrinsic creativity of "what you are" for Noguchi, and to be close to the material. It seems that he had found his place on a production approach that is the exact opposite of the West.

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Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar; Bollingen Travels; New Delhi, India, 1949 | Photograph by Isamu Noguchi The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08447.3 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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Isamu Noguchi in Machu Picchu, Peru, 1983 Photograph by Michio Noguchi

The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06974 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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Left: Martha Graham with Spider Dress and Serpent for Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart”, 1946 Photograph by Cris Alexander The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01619 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS
Right: Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture To Be Seen From Mars, 1947 | Sand, Dimensions unknown Photograph by Soichi Sunami. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01646 ©INFGM / ARS – DACS

It is said that the "Atomic Bomb Victims Memorial (1952)", which was once given by the architect and close friend Tadao Ando, as Noguchi's masterpiece, was shaped as a symbol of regeneration inspired by the "womb that nurtures life." The work was unfinished due to Noguchi being an American, but it seems to suggest that he continued to question his identity even with the warm, organic beauty of modeling. Similarly, in his later years, among the works made by the ritual, the works of the organic annulus represented by the "black sun" are often talked about along with the womb. In a long creative journey asking what sculpture is, Noguchi, who sought himself, found the answer in natural stone and left the world of spatial sculpture set in Mother Earth in the land of ritual. Noguchi will continue to move the hearts of many people.
 

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Isamu Noguchi, Akari 25N, 1968 117x83cm Photograph by Kevin Noble
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03066 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

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Isamu Noguchi in his 10th Street, Long Island City, Queens Studio, 1964
Photograph by Dan Budnik The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07281 ©2021
The Estate of Dan Budnik. All Rights Reserved / INFGM / ARS - DACS


 

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AKARI (1953) Models; 27N, 2N, BB3-70FF, BB2-S1 14A, BB1-YA1, 31N Paper, bamboo, metal ©INFGM / ARS – DACS / The Kagawa Museum

Text: Mio Koumura

English translation: Aoi Sasaki

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