- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
By Liesl Olson
When the Chicago dancer and choreographer Ruth Page saw Isamu Noguchi for the very first time, she felt an electric charge. It was March 1932. Noguchi was in town for an exhibition of his sculpture and brush drawings at the Arts Club of Chicago, then located in the north tower of the Wrigley Building. One of the few places in Chicago that promoted avant-garde art, the Arts Club had given Noguchi his first Chicago show in 1930.1
Now two years later, during an evening concert at the club, perched inside the flood-lit skyscraper, Page was drawn to Noguchi’s “beautiful far away hungry look.” She fell in love with him “by just looking at him,” she later explained in an unpublished essay titled “Sex.” And with characteristic candor, Page noted, “He loved me at first sight too.”2
Page and Noguchi’s love affair lasted just over a year, a brief but catalytic period during which they both produced strikingly original work, each inspired by the other, and also by the city of Chicago. Their intimacy—and the art it produced—is a story largely absent from their biographies, buried in archival collections, including their correspondence, which they kept sealed.3 If Page deserves a larger spotlight in the history of modern dance, then Noguchi also should be considered in relation to Page, and to Chicago, a midwestern metropolis central to the history of American art and design. Through Page and his relationships with several other midwesterners, Noguchi found a network of artists, curators, and industrialists who supported his creative vision.
The most stunning of Noguchi’s Chicago-inspired work is Miss Expanding Universe (1932), a gleaming aluminum suspension, strong but lightweight, a futuristic figure radiating her limbs outward.
Page posed for this “portrait” wearing one of the blue jersey sack costumes that Noguchi designed for her, a triangular cut with a nipped waist. Both classically angelic and wildly modern, at once a winged Nike and a streamlined hood ornament, Miss Expanding Universe hovers in homage to the beauty of the moving body.4
Noguchi’s friend Buckminster Fuller gave Miss Expanding Universe its memorable title. A visionary designer, “Bucky” lived and worked in Chicago from 1924 to 1929, when he conceived his key ideas about the social good of the modernist experiment and the curative power of technology.5 Noguchi’s bronze sculpture Glad Day (1929), a smaller analogue to Miss Expanding Universe, was a spiritual portrait of Fuller, the body of a man spreading his limbs wide.6
Photographs of the two sculptures, woman and man, appeared on the front and back covers of Fuller’s short-lived, experimental magazine Shelter, like component parts of Noguchi’s jubilant expression. The more spectacular piece, Miss Expanding Universe expresses optimism in the promise of America, “everything expanding in spite of the depression,” Noguchi wrote, embodied by the potential freedom of a woman.7
But was she free? Noguchi’s sack costumes structured Page’s development of new choreographic movement in a dance also called “Expanding Universe,” first performed in 1932. Page danced this short piece wearing one of the jersey sacks, cut square, in which only her feet and head appeared. Her dance was likely influenced by the Bauhaus dances that she saw in Germany.8 She was also inspired, through Noguchi and Fuller, by physicist Albert Einstein’s discoveries of cosmic expansion. Page’s dance posed questions: if the universe is expanding, then what does this mean for people in relationship to the space around us? Can we expand how we see each other, and how we move in the world?
Noguchi’s sack costume stretched and folded with Page’s moving body—constraint and confinement produced her expansion. But the jersey fabric was no straitjacket. Page took the sack as far as her body could go. Noguchi’s sack was more freeing than an elaborate dance costume, or the simple leotard and tights worn to reveal dynamic bodily movement. Noguchi’s sacks offered Page a similar dynamism but without baring the body’s exact features. Perhaps, for Page, this was the most freedom a woman could get.
There is no footage of “Expanding Universe,” which seems to have been a performance wholly bound up in Page’s affair with Noguchi. Herein lies the ephemerality of dance as it resides in the archive. We can recover “Expanding Universe” only through reviews, playbills, correspondence, and artful photographs.9 The architectural photographer F. S. Lincoln captured the edges and folds of fabric and the illuminated planes of Page’s face as she posed in Noguchi’s sacks.10 Eyes closed, Page reaches toward another dimension, a bigger “universe.” A newspaper clipping tells us that she played with the connection between her “sack” costume and dancing “in the sack.” The costume was like a lover’s bedsheet. “Now that I’ve learned how [to move in it],” Page explained cleverly to a Chicago journalist, “I really feel more at ease dancing inside a sack than out of one.”11
Noguchi’s costumes were perfect for Page: freedom and constraint were part of many of her performances. Take American Pattern (1938), in which a woman in white, danced by Page, is torn away from romance and pleasure by three “matrons” of respectability, armed with an apron, a broom, and a feather duster. American Pattern dramatized the predictable “patterns” of a woman’s life, expressed most palpably by what she does with her body. Page was also at her best when her choreography was comedic, as when she played the “funny girl” who broke the rules that society set for women. In Dances with Words and Music (1943–46) Page danced while reciting playful, gender-bending poems by Ogden Nash, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, and many others.12 Humor and satire were her natural modes of subversion.
Page knew convention, and how it could be sidestepped. At age eighteen, she left home in Indianapolis to dance with Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova on a tour through South America. A few years later on her honeymoon in 1925 with Thomas Hart Fisher, a Chicago lawyer with “golden speech” and “athletic prowess,” Page stayed in Monte Carlo to train with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Fisher returned by himself to Chicago. (Page’s marriage to Fisher, despite her affair, was “a success in every way,” in her words, no doubt in part because of Fisher’s astute judgment of his wife’s career.13) Later, Page studied with Mary Wigman in Dresden and at the Wigman School in Berlin.14 Page traveled extensively throughout her life, absorbing techniques from around the globe. But, largely because of Fisher, her commitment remained to Chicago, where she became a principal dancer with Chicago Allied Arts, a group that loosely modeled itself on Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
In 1928, Page was invited to dance in a series of concerts for the coronation of Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo. She was the only Western performer. She continued her tour through Japan, China, Cambodia, Siam, Java, Bali, Burma, and India, and Spain. For those five months, Page kept a dance journal, in which she meticulously described the dances that she observed and practiced during her extensive travels.15 In the years that followed, she developed a complex fusion of movement beyond her training as a classical ballerina.
Consider photographs of Page taken in Peking during these 1928 travels. She poses in the salon of Lucy Calhoun, a former Chicagoan who welcomed artists, scholars, and diplomats into her unusual home, a former Chinese temple.16 (Calhoun was the younger sister of Harriet Monroe, who in 1912 launched Poetry magazine, which had published the poetry of Noguchi’s Japanese father, Yonejiro Noguchi.) Page wears elaborate costumes from Calhoun’s friend, the great Chinese actor and dancer Mei Lan-fang.17 With her dark hair, high-bun wig, and the posture of her arms and body, Page imitates the look and movement of characters from the Peking opera. In one photograph, she plays a female general (dao ma dan), holding a whip that signifies she is riding a horse. The headdress and long pheasant feathers indicate her status as a warrior. But she does not wear the white and pink makeup of the young female lead (dan); rather, her heart-shaped lips are pure Hollywood. The photographs also show Page mixing and matching gowns, headdresses, and shoes.18 She admires and mimics a form of cultural expression far different from her own, but her appearance is hardly about fidelity to the cultural traditions that she is playacting.
“It was not Noguchi, of course, who had awakened her love of the Far East,” Page’s friend and early biographer John Martin wrote. “It was rather the Far East that had awakened her love for him.”19
Noguchi was half-Japanese, and lived in Japan from ages three to thirteen. He returned to the Far East for extensive periods throughout his life. In 1930, at age twenty-six, on his way to Japan for the first time since childhood, Noguchi spent five months in Peking, where he was introduced to the traditional ink painter Qi Baishi, and absorbed everything he could of Chinese art.20 In Japan, he spent time with artists and writers; he explored Buddhist gardens; and he studied ancient art at temples, museums, and theaters.21 When he met Page in Chicago the following year, their attraction was artistic and intellectual as much as it was sexual. “The physical side of our love was much less important to me than the ethereal,” Page wrote much later in her essay, “Sex.”
Page’s experimentation with dance from the Far East, however, might be understood as yet another example of modernism’s intoxication with the Orient. It is hard not to see her Chinese costuming as primitivizing and appropriative. But this is not exactly how Noguchi saw her. He was affirming. To seek the past, to study art beyond Western traditions, and to balance and fuse forms—these were their shared impulses. “I think it’s going to be the making of you,” Noguchi wrote to Page soon after they met, when she was planning another tour through China and Japan.22 He wanted to travel together with her. He understood Page’s desire to reach back to classical cultures as a way of moving forward. This was yet another way to expand the universe.
Noguchi also saw the significance of Page’s dance, an extraordinary if yet under-recognized body of work.23 He knew modern dance firsthand. His half-sister, Ailes Gilmour, studied with Martha Graham. Their mother, Leonie Gilmour, helped to sew Graham’s costumes, and Ailes likely sewed Noguchi’s sacks for Page.24 Noguchi had made two portrait heads of Graham in 1929, one with downcast eyes and shrunken cheeks. (“If you have much to hide, better not have Noguchi do your head in bronze,” noted the Chicago art critic Clarence Bulliet.25) Noguchi would eventually design more than twenty stage sets for Graham over the course of their lifelong friendship. But in 1932, when he met Page, his work with Graham had not yet begun.
Page was very different from Graham, who also danced in an elastic garment that stretched with her body, notably in her four-minute masterpiece, Lamentation (1930), which almost certainly influenced Page and Noguchi. If Graham sought the primal, the archetypal, and the essential movement inward, then Page expanded outward, expressing the body’s relationship to space. Page was not an abstract purist like Graham. Instead, she built her best-known “Americana” ballets by merging many forms, from jazz and tap to folk dance and duets en pointe.26 She performed numerous different avant-garde pieces with her German-born partner Harald Kreutzberg, including Bacchanale (1935), in which they wrapped their faces and limbs in tape. Unlike Graham, Page also danced big narrative ballets with elaborate plots, props, and sets.
Page is hard to pin down because her dance is so unbounded. Dance criticism in Chicago was only just developing during Page’s career and did not try to define Page’s many modes. Key dance critics, like Lincoln Kirstein, who was a crucial patron of George Balanchine, and John Martin, who advocated for Graham and modern dance as opposed to ballet, focused on artists based in New York City.27 By the late 1940s and early 1950s, these New York based artists had been canonized in terms remarkably similar to a conceptualization of high modernist abstraction championed by Clement Greenberg and the Museum of Modern Art. The more various, fanciful, fusion styles that came out of Chicago went largely unnoticed.28 Chicago had extraordinary dancers, theaters, audiences, and cultural philanthropists, but not the critics who could see beyond New York, and secure Page’s legacy.
Nobody seemed to notice, for instance, when Page first integrated the ballet. For La Guiablesse (1933), the story of a “she-devil” from the island of Martinique, Page held all rehearsals in Bronzeville, a neighborhood corridor where Chicago’s Black population was crammed into kitchenettes through the force of the city’s racist, restrictive housing covenants. Among the roughly fifty dancers who would perform in La Guiablesse were both Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty. Both would become pathbreaking artists of mid-century America, touring internationally with their own Black dance troupes, and challenging the assumption that ballet was a “high art” achieved only by white dancers. In 1934, Page gave the lead in La Guiablesse to Dunham, who danced the ballet with the first all-Black cast at Chicago’s Civic Opera House.29
Page integrated the ballet before Balanchine, who did not cast a Black dancer until the late 1940s.30 This is one of Page’s many important contributions to modern dance. Did her boundary crossing have something to do with Chicago—with the range, ad hoc experimentation, and openness of its art? Perhaps. At some remove from the rarefied art worlds of Paris and New York, the Chicago avant-garde operated differently: a little out of sight, unfettered. The critical indifference to the avant-garde in Chicago may have allowed for a kind of freedom through dance that could not be found in other civic and social spaces.
In Page, Noguchi found a fellow experimenter, a midwestern American, an artist who knew non-Western cultures in ways that did not seem to him simple or voyeuristic. Noguchi had already met Fuller and Graham—who became longstanding collaborators—but there was something brief with Page that stayed a lifetime, or rather, existed beyond time. In the months after they met, Page and Noguchi became the other’s “necessary counterpoint,” in Noguchi’s words.31 “I do feel closer to you than ever—for now I know you as an artist equal to great enthusiasms,” Noguchi wrote to Page, when they were both generating new work devoted to one another, and to what they saw. “Now we see the world together eye to eye—and we will be thrilled both by the same song, the same flicker of an eyelid.”32 Noguchi saw the future in the reflection of his own seeing, in the eyes of another, not in some distant, far-off place. This metaphor—seeing “eye to eye,” seeing oneself in the other—expresses their sense of possibility in a “world together” that was a distinctly different universe.
Chicago inspired new worlds of thinking for Noguchi, not just through Page but also—as Bucky Fuller knew—because Chicago nurtured innovative developments in architecture, industry, and design. In 1932, when Noguchi and Page looked out of the windows of the Arts Club, they saw the newly constructed Michigan Avenue Bridge above the dirty currents of the Chicago River.33 A gateway, this double-deck “Chicago-Style” bascule bridge raised and closed its arms like a mechanical beast. The architectural wonders of the city’s commercial center buttressed Lake Michigan. Beyond, vast expanses of the Midwest flattened out into open prairie.
These words were written in 1931 by Fernand Léger, the French artist in love with machine-made modernism. Léger celebrated Chicago’s visual power in a piece that was also a tribute to Rue Carpenter, a designer and early president of the Arts Club, where Léger had key exhibitions. Léger’s piece was translated for the Chicago Evening Post by Thornton Wilder, the writer and playwright whose dignified portrait Noguchi made during his 1932 stay in the city.34 Noguchi also made a portrait of Rue Carpenter’s husband, the prominent composer John Alden Carpenter, founder of Chicago Allied Arts. And Noguchi would create a plaster head of Léger, rough and powerful, in 1941. Noguchi must have considered what attracted Léger to this city, not just like-minded people, but the “mechanical beauty” of the city’s industrial and commercial panorama, like a work of art “hung” by a machine-age god. “Bridges, more bridges,” writes Léger, “Chicago is a city hung from above.”
Many of Chicago’s construction projects were halted after the 1929 stock market crash. But the city continued to manufacture mass-produced objects, including now-iconic items from the 1930s like the Schwinn bicycle, the Hotpoint Toaster, the Sunbeam coffee maker, and the Radio Flyer wagon. In Chicago, innovative design was purposed for everyday consumption, from Ludlow typefaces to the streamlined Hostess Twinkie. For many Americans across the country, Chicago was the address written on mail-order envelopes posted to Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The “capital of mainstream modernism,” Chicago produced the look and feel of America.35
Noguchi’s Radio Nurse (1937) belongs to this moment in Chicago design history. The Chicago-based Zenith Radio Corporation—the Apple Inc. of its day—asked Noguchi to design the casing for a new invention, the first baby monitor.36 Noguchi produced a sleek modern shell made of brown Bakelite, a plastic easily molded and dyed. Invoking a female nursemaid, the object’s name is also a little futuristic, like Miss Expanding Universe. Both a consumer gadget and a work of art, Radio Nurse is richly suggestive: an abstracted head, the soft curvature of a nursemaid’s wimple, or the Kendo helmet of a Japanese warrior, which Noguchi wore as a child. Beset with technical problems, Radio Nurse nonetheless was awarded first prize by the magazine Modern Plastics in 1938 and exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s annual sculpture exhibition in 1939.37
Around the same time, the allure of the city’s architecture and design—and its wealthy industrialists—brought to Chicago members of the German Bauhaus, who were fleeing Fascism across Europe. Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy arrived to lead the “New Bauhaus” in 1937, and German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe arrived in 1938 to become Director of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Design. Moholy felt Chicago to be “a different culture—it is no culture yet, just a million beginnings.” He described the light and color of Lake Michigan, which had “no limitation.” He sensed a city in a constant state of evolution. “There’s something incomplete about this city and its people that fascinate me,” Moholy wrote. “It seems to urge one on to completion. Everything seems still possible.”38
Perhaps Chicago would never establish the institutions of high culture or academies of art that drew artists to European and East Coast capitals. But Chicago was a place to try out new ideas, to take risks, to improvise, and to launch projects without preconceived judgment. If you failed, there was less at stake, and fewer critics watching. Fuller returned to the “million beginnings” of Chicago to teach at the Institute of Design in 1948, where he designed his first large-scale prototype for a geodesic dome. He then came back to the Midwest from 1959 to 1972 to teach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where his geodesic domes were constructed in the cornfields.39 Chicago and its surrounding plains seemed like America, a little Wild West, and distinctly not New York.
Chicago became an important nexus of people and creative potential for Noguchi, who had strong childhood memories of the region. After early years in Japan, Noguchi spent a formative period among progressive educators in Indiana, where his freethinking American mother had sent him at age thirteen. She had been captivated by an advertisement in Scientific American for a school led by Dr. Edward Rumely in Rolling Prairie where boys could “learn by doing.”40 Physician, industrialist, and educator, Rumley became a father figure to Noguchi. “Discipline yourself. Keep your best energies for your work. Live intensely, taste all experience that life holds. Produce more,” Rumely wrote to the twenty-six-year old Noguchi as he embarked on his trip to the Orient.41
Charmingly, Noguchi referred to himself for the rest of his life as a “Hoosier,” as if he were just a hardworking roughneck from Indiana. Nimble in his identity, Noguchi went by the name “Sam Gilmour” during his high school years in LaPorte, Indiana, when he was still using his mother’s surname.42 Then and always, he was attuned to how difference would be received, and sometimes how it could be used to his advantage. By 1932, both Noguchi and Page, who was raised in Indianapolis, had become exceptional, cosmopolitan artists. But they must have realized early on that they each had spent their teenage years in the state just next door.
“Here nature is appreciated for its vastness, its sweep, the panorama of that open Indiana countryside,” Noguchi told curator Katharine Kuh, another key Chicago figure who exhibited Noguchi’s work in three shows during the late 1930s. Kuh opened a modern art gallery in 1935 and was the first Chicago dealer to show photography and typographical design as art forms, alongside work by the European and American avant-garde.
She then became the first curator of modern painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kuh crossed paths with Noguchi at many points, including a visit to his studio and home in Mure, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. In a 1962 interview, Noguchi explained to Kuh that his childhood in Japan and Indiana had instilled in him a reverence for worlds both old and new, that Indiana had given him “the feeling of America superimposed on the old Japanese.”43 That sense of past and future, East and West, traditional and modern, would coexist in Noguchi’s work, in tension, not as conflict.
“To be hybrid anticipates the future,” Noguchi wrote in “I Become a Nisei,” his 1942 cri de coeur. “This is America, the nation of all nationalities,” he added.44 Of everything Noguchi claimed, this is the most important to understanding his vision. Both Japanese and American, insider and outsider, immigrant and exile, Noguchi cultivated a persona rooted in hybridity, of which being a “Hoosier” was part.
To expand the self through multiple cultures, a hybrid identity, a wardrobe full of costumes: this might be seen as the Noguchi-Page version of the American dream. Page was fundamentally midwestern, if polyglot in her “enthusiasms,” to use Noguchi’s word. She took modern dance across the world and also across the middle of America. She premiered Expanding Universe, for example, in Fargo, North Dakota, and in Iowa, where it “somewhat startled the native Iowans,” she telegraphed to Noguchi, care of Bucky Fuller, “but they liked it.”45 “Ex Uni”—their shorthand for the project, which Page also called “our universal child”—was a creation of the Midwest, of panoramic expansiveness, of potential and futurity.
Consider a work that Noguchi invented to function on barns across the open prairie. Musical Weathervane (1933), a sculpture intended to be mass-produced, was an homage to the Midwest. Noguchi designed a version in plaster and another version in wood and magnesite. He produced several crayon sketches showing how the weathervanes would attach to the roof of a barn. Streaks of wind suggest a gust blowing through the striped gills in the weathervane’s cylindrical hollows. The weathervane was designed to make atmospheric “music,” sounds inspired by something Noguchi had found in Peking, a hollowed-out gourd that was tied to pigeons that made a “whooing” sound when the birds were in flight.46 A beautiful piece of sculpture and a form of American invention, the weathervane also reflects a moment, amid the public art projects of the 1930s, when Noguchi was thinking hard about how sculpture might improve the way people live and work.
“Sculpture can be a vital force in our everyday life if projected into communal usefulness,” Noguchi proclaimed in 1935, for a show at the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York.47 Here, Noguchi’s full range was on view, including designs for a playground, a memorial for a workers’ housing development, and a large earthwork for the midwestern prairie called Monument to the Plow. This triangular pyramid, 1,200 feet long on each side at the base, would have sides that were plowed, planted, and left fallow, with a plow “devised by Jefferson and Franklin” at its apex.48 It expressed Noguchi’s “wish to belong to America, its vast horizons of earth.”49 It was never built, nor was the playground or the memorial, which may be why we don’t think of utility and American invention as qualities that most define Noguchi’s work. Nor do we think of an aesthetics of the Midwest.
Art historical narratives about Noguchi tend to favor his monumental sculptures of basalt and granite, his work with stone as a form of touching time. Yet stones are transformed by the groove and seep of years. Rock is its own kind of archive, a record of the weather. Too, the strange beauty of an earthwork on the prairie arrives through seasonal change—of sunlight and cyclical growth. It is not unlike a ballet performance that begins and ends with the movement of the body, a performative art, ephemeral in expression. This is another kind of monument, which is not about what lasts but about what stays, the sharp brevity of something beautiful in a flicker of an eyelid.
Chicago cultivated its identity as a city of “progress,” of openness, of freedom and futurity, even as these qualities were more myth than fact. But myths are powerful, especially to artists, and also to architects and other designers. They design projects with the knowledge that they may never secure financial backing, civic approval, or public support. By profession, they must be dreamers.
Noguchi was a dreamer whose projects were dependent upon many factors, and whose ideas could not always be executed. His 1935 show at the Marie Harriman Gallery included five unbuilt projects that never came to be. He did not distinguish between sculpture and architecture, or between art and design. As a young man, Noguchi made sugar cake molds, a Bakelite clock case, and later many pieces of furniture, including his popular table with biomorphic legs and a glass top. These objects for “everyday life” came out of his engagement with commercial and industrial materials, the possibilities of mass production, and his “one solid connection to America,” his lifelong friend Bucky Fuller.50 Noguchi’s friendship with Fuller influenced the streamlined silver exuberance of Miss Expanding Universe, not just because Fuller gave the sculpture its title but also because it was a shiny American invention, not unlike Fuller’s domes, or an automobile.
Only dreamers could have designed the “Dymaxion Car,” for instance, a three-wheeled, streamlined, blimp-like, fuel-efficient vehicle, which Fuller debuted at Chicago’s 1933–34 World’s Fair, whose theme was “Century of Progress.” Noguchi has been credited with helping conceptualize the shape of the car and with making models for it.51 According to advertising, the car could carry ten passengers and reach speeds up to 120 miles per hour. Future models would also fly. Rumors spread that the car had crashed outside the fairgrounds—which was untrue, although the car was difficult to steer. (None of the models ever flew).52 As if equipped for some sort of space travel, the car seems analogous to Miss Expanding Universe, a sculpture designed like a hood ornament, a figurehead to ward off bad omens.
The car that these dreamers actually drove was a Dodge station wagon. In 1930, Fuller and Noguchi took a road trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Chicago. It was a memorable adventure, and it’s worth returning to this early moment, just after Noguchi’s travels through China and Japan, and before he met Page. Heading west to Chicago, a city still defined by its commercial and industrial ambitions, the two men may have felt their vision would be realized. The road trip must have been a nonstop monologue. (Fuller once gave a forty-two-hour lecture called “Everything I Know.”) At Romany Marie’s bistro in Greenwich Village, where the two men had first met, Noguchi often remained the only person still listening, as Fuller somersaulted over ideas to fix humanity’s problems, from poverty and transportation to consumption and ecological destruction. The walls flickered and shone: in exchange for free meals, Fuller had designed the bistro with aluminum furniture and silver paint.53 Fuller’s wild speech was really a kind of love language. Noguchi would repurpose it, not for impossible projects, but for Page.
The road trip began after Fuller and Noguchi’s joint show at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The same work would be on view next at the Arts Club of Chicago, where the two men had consecutive shows. (There was no sign of Page on this earlier trip because she was in Russia performing six “American dances” for workers’ groups in Moscow.54) Noguchi packed the Dodge wagon with portrait heads, sculpture, drawings, and a plaster cast of Fuller’s Dymaxion House, a circular aluminum structure designed for mass production to solve the world’s housing shortage.55
The word “Dymaxion,” linked to Fuller, was actually coined by a marketer at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store who drew upon “Bucky-speak” to combine the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion.”56 The house, like the car, like Miss Expanding Universe, was wholly futuristic. Suspended by wires, it could be transported wherever housing was needed.57
Fuller knew that Chicago needed affordable housing even more than most cities.58 He planned to drum up support for his Dymaxion House, which would be inexpensive, move-able, and efficiently designed. Fuller later countered Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum “Less is more” with the challenge to do more with less.
Like Fuller, Noguchi was also experimenting with the possibilities of aluminum, silver, and reflection. In his top floor loft on 29th Street and Madison Avenue, which had formerly been a laundry, Noguchi painted the walls and ceiling and floor with silver paint. “One was almost blinded by the lack of shadows,” he said. “There I made [Bucky’s] portrait head in chrome-plated bronze, also form without shadow.”59
Fuller’s head was one of the portraits packed in the back of the Dodge wagon. To Fuller, the portrait was magical because of its “completely reflective surface.” He described it as an “invisible sculpture.”60 Yet his head would be hard not to see. Noguchi installed his portraits on shiny, galvanized pieces of furnace pipe rather than standard pedestals.61 Fuller’s prominent forehead is a plane of light; the nose is a pyramid. Most dramatic are the deep, lidless eyes, abstracted pools of reflection—as if a prophet’s, or the eyes of a blind man.
If Noguchi and Page saw themselves—and the future—in the eyes of the other, then Buckminster Fuller closed his eyes and only saw ahead. What does it mean that he invented very few permanent structures that accomplished his vision? The road trip to Chicago, packed with dreams, did not secure Fuller’s projects. Despite grand plans, his Dymaxion House failed to find support from Chicago industrialists or urban planners. Nor was the house later included in the “Homes of Tomorrow” pavilion at Chicago’s 1933–34 World’s Fair, which showcased twelve models that used modern and affordable building methods. It was the Dymaxion Car that was on display, parked right in front of the model homes. But of course the car would never take off.
In a strange confluence of dreamers and their projects, two of the fair’s model homes were prefabricated, steel-framed, and designed by General Housing, Inc. This was the pioneering firm of Chicago architect Howard T. Fisher, the brother-in-law of Ruth Page. The connection was not lost on Noguchi. In a 1932 letter, Noguchi appealed to Page: “Induce Howard to help Fuller! Those with kindred interest should, in my opinion, work together, cheering each other on—philosophically, altruistic, selfish, those who lend their lives to adequate housing for the masses must cooperate or nothing results.”62 There is no evidence, however, that a “kindred” connection was made between Fuller and Howard Fisher. No doubt it would have been complicated.
But Fisher’s architectural work illuminates yet another striking parallel between Page and Noguchi. Page also lived in homes made of silver. Howard Fisher designed a loft and studio in the commercial space where Page and her husband, Thomas (Tom) Fisher, lived. It was the only residence in the building, Diana Court, where Katharine Kuh also ran her gallery.63 (Page would have seen Noguchi’s shows at the Katharine Kuh Gallery, on a daily basis.) In 1933, Page and her husband purchased from General Housing a prefabricated home located in Hubbard Woods along the North Shore of Lake Michigan.64 Here, they retreated from Chicago to a sleek shelter of steel, mirrors, and Moholy-Nagy’s “no limitation” light.
Steel and aluminum were practical, to be sure, inexpensive and easily procured during the lean years of the Great Depression, but through silver-painted walls, reflective sculpture, and prefabricated homes, we might also see these artists pushing the limits of what is possible. If structures of reflective silver create “form without shadow,” in Noguchi’s words, then Page’s home along the lake was shadowless, a kind of suspension of time at high noon. For a nomadic artist, this home is like a fellow traveler: it can be perched in any location. But the choice to live anywhere means that you are nowhere. The silver shelter is not designed for local surroundings or a site’s particular environment. This inattention to context became a key criticism of the prefabricated home. The magic of silver is ultimately a dream: a flickering experience of a moment outside of time and place.
Perhaps it is no wonder that Noguchi and Page’s affair was so brief, because it occurred within a suspended moment, difficult to sustain. There were also very real geographic and financial impossibilities. When Noguchi urged a divorce from Tom Fisher, and proposed marriage, Page seriously considered it. Fisher intervened, in love with his wife, stern, and exasperated with Noguchi. It is unclear how Page made up her mind, but she was ultimately devoted to Fisher, and she also sensed that there might be other women in Noguchi’s life, or would be.
Noguchi and Page would work together again after World War II, when Noguchi designed the set and costumes for Page’s ballet The Bells (1946), a weird allegory of death and destruction, and a dark mismatch with Allied victory.65 After forced removal of Japanese Americans, after Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, both Page and Noguchi would question the potential and promise of technology, and the optimism of the 1930s that had defined their relationship. (Fuller never abandoned his optimism in technology, which caused some tension with Noguchi later in life.66) Yet Noguchi and Page continued to live intensely creative lives; they both transformed their artistic fields; and they both mentored extraordinary artists and established lasting institutions. They frequently traveled; they sometimes crossed paths; they kept their eyes on each other.
Noguchi sold Miss Expanding Universe to Page and Tom Fisher soon after he made it—and then, when it was out on loan in 1948, he resold it to a midwestern museum, unbeknownst to them. After awkward correspondence with Fisher, Noguchi eventually cast another version of the sculpture, exactly like the first. Page and Fisher planned to install the sculpture in their home in Hubbard Woods. Later, after Fisher’s death, Page mounted it on a mirror in her Chicago living room.67
In the spaces of these homes, Miss Expanding Universe might be understood as a kind of beautiful acknowledgment of how we reside in multiple moments, seeing ourselves in relationship to one another, through the many intimate and historical forces that shaped one astonishing piece of art.
In a photo postcard taken in Egypt, which Page sent to Noguchi when she was eighty-two years old and he was seventy-eight, she is pictured atop a large stone sculpture, a pharaoh.
Page must have known that the ancient, enduring monument would appeal to him. “This is my new BOYFRIEND RAMESES II,” she wrote to Noguchi. “We both wish you Happy Holidays and love.”68 Nearly fifty years after they met, the silvery thread of exuberance, of play, of seeing ahead together, all remained. They shared an artistic vision that was not located far off or in the sole promise of the future. It was in the monuments and movements of the past, and in each other, eye to eye, expanding into the universe.
Liesl Olson is Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library, an independent research library in Chicago. She is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press, 2017), which won the 2018 Pegasus Award from the Poetry Foundation for best book of poetry criticism, and the 2019 MidAmerica Award from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. With three of her Newberry colleagues, Olson was awarded the 2020 Outstanding Public History Project Award from the National Council on Public History for “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots.” Olson is curator of an upcoming Newberry exhibition, Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time (September 10–December 31, 2021), which will illuminate the lives and work of Ruth Page, Katharine Kuh, Gertrude Abercrombie, Katherine Dunham, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Produced by Alex Miller.
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1 Founded in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show and run largely by women, the Arts Club of Chicago was a key site of experimentation across the arts. See Janine Mileaf and Susan Rossen, The Arts Club of Chicago at 100: Art and Culture, 1916–2016 (Chicago: Arts Club of Chicago, 2016).
2 Ruth Page, “Sex,” Ruth Page Papers, Newberry Library. This undated, four-page essay was composed late in Page’s life, after the death of her first husband, Thomas Hart Fisher.
3 Noguchi would not allow Page’s early biographer and friend John Martin to quote from Noguchi’s letters to Page in Ruth Page: An Intimate Biography (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977). Noguchi’s friend Dore Ashton barely mentions Page in the otherwise superb Noguchi East and West (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). Hayden Herrera succinctly covers Noguchi’s relationship with Page in two pages of Listening to Stone: the Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). The correspondence between Page and Noguchi is still identified as “closed” to researchers at the Jerome Robbins Research Division of the New York Public Library, although it is possible to request access, and also to read digital versions at The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, where Martin’s correspondence with Noguchi is also housed. Drafts of Martin’s biography are contained in Page’s papers at the Newberry Library.
4 The Noguchi Museum’s exhibition Space, Choreographed: Noguchi and Ruth Page (September 25, 2013–January 26, 2014) showcased drawings that Noguchi made of Page and illuminated their collaboration. In the exhibition brochure, Dakin Hart describes Miss Expanding Universe as “a perfectly progressive, highly intellectualized, abstract alternative to the conservative ideal of American womanhood.” As Hart points out, it is unclear whether Noguchi’s sculpture or his blue jersey sack costumes came first.
5 Tricia Van Eck, “Buckminster Fuller in Chicago: A Modern Individual Experiment,” in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, eds. Mary Jane Jacobs and Jacquelynn Baas. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
6 Fuller briefly owned Glad Day, which Noguchi titled after a poem by William Blake. See Herrera, Listening to Stone, 111.
7 Letter from Isamu Noguchi to Otto Wittmann, Director of the Toledo Museum of Art, January 4, 1970. The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_129_003.
8 Page modified “Expanding Universe” for another dance called “Variations on Euclid,” for which there is footage from 1938, accessible through the Chicago Film Archives. I thank dance scholar Susan Manning, who suggested in conversation with me that “Variations on Euclid” is visibly inspired by the Bauhaus dances of the 1920s, especially how the dancers use sticks, ropes, and fabric to create geometric shapes and volumes on stage.
9 In 2017, working with archival source materials, dancer Jennifer Conley collaborated with dance scholar Joellen A. Meglin to restage “Expanding Universe” at the 92nd Street Y.
10 F. S. Lincoln also took photographs for Fuller’s magazine Shelter, which suggests that Noguchi knew Lincoln through Fuller, and then introduced Lincoln to Page.
11 “Dances Inside a Sack,” undated Chicago newspaper clipping. The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_305_001.
12 Joellen A. Meglin, “Victory Garden: Ruth Page’s Danced Poems in the Time of World War II.” Dance Research 30.1 (2012): 22–56.
14 Susan Manning, in Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), illuminates how Wigman’s principles of dance were not a codified technique but rather developed through improvisation and the dancer’s relation to space. Undoubtedly Wigman’s principles influenced Page, as did Wigman’s use of costume as mask.
15 Ruth Page, Class: Notes on Dance Classes Around the World, 1915–1980, ed. Andrew Wentink (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
16 On Lucy Calhoun, see Liesl Olson, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 55–60; and Elinor Pearlstein, “Color, Life, and Moment: Early Chicago Collectors of Chinese Textiles,” in John Vollmer et al., Clothed to Rule the Universe: Ming and Qing Dynasty Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago and University of Washington Press, 2000), 80–93.
17 Page, Class, 119.
18 Thank you to Judith Zeitlin at the University of Chicago and Yuhang Li at the University of Wisconsin—Madison for helping to identify the props, costumes, and makeup in these photographs of Page in Peking.
19 John Martin, Ruth Page: An Intimate Biography (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977), 82.
20 Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, exh. cat. Edited by Heidi Coleman and Amy Hau (Long Island City, NY, and Milan: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, in association with Five Continents Editions, 2013).
21 On Noguchi’s time in China and Japan in 1930, see Herrera, Listening to Stone, 113–124.
22 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Ruth Page, undated, fall 1932. Ruth Page Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library.
23 A new biography of Page is scheduled to appear in 2021 (Oxford University Press) by dance scholar Joellen A. Meglin, who has published several important articles on Page’s life and work.
24 On Noguchi, his half-sister, Ailes Gilmour, and Graham, see Herrera, Listening to Stone, 107–108.
25 Clarence Bulliet, “Of Picasso, Zadkine, Noguchi, and the Chinese,” Chicago Evening Post, April 22, 1930.
26 Ruth Page, “Americana in the Making” in Page by Page (Brooklyn, NY: Dance Horizons, 1978), 123–132.
27 After John Martin left his position at the New York Times in 1962, he wrote about Ruth Page, including her biography, and about Sybil Shearer (1912–2005), another groundbreaking—if understudied—Chicago dancer of the same period.
28 A two-volume history of Chicago dance, Dancing on the Third Coast: Chicago Dance Histories (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming), edited by Susan Manning and Lizzie Leopold, promises to significantly expand narratives of Chicago dance.
29 Also in the cast was the nineteen-year-old artist and dancer Charles Sebree, whose paintings would soon be exhibited in Chicago at the Katharine Kuh Gallery and at the Renaissance Society, where Noguchi also had exhibitions during the 1930s. In box seats at the performance of La Guiablesse were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, on one of their visits to Chicago during Stein’s American lecture tour. For more on La Guiablesse, see Olson, “What did a 1930s ballet say about cultural appropriation in modernist Chicago?” Chicago Reader, March 28, 2019.
30 Meglin makes this point in “Doppelgänger with a Difference: Ruth Page’s Debt (and Dedication) to African American Jazz,” in Perspectives on American Dance: The Twentieth Century, eds. Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young (Tallahassee, FL: University of Florida Press, 2017), 56–90.
31 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Ruth Page, 1932, dated “Monday.” Ruth Page Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library.
32 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Ruth Page, October 17, 1932. Ruth Page Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library.
33 On the architecture and interior of the Arts Club of Chicago, see Robert Bruegmann, “The Arts Club and Architecture,” in Mileaf and Rossen, Arts Club of Chicago at 100, 38–61.
34 Fernand Léger, “Chicago Seen Through the Eyes of a Visiting French Cubist,” trans. Thornton Wilder, Chicago Evening Post, March 15, 1932. The piece originally appeared in the Paris periodical Plans in January 1932.
35 See Robert Bruegmann, ed., Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern American (Chicago: Chicago Art Deco Society and Chicago History Museum, 2018). The phrase “capital of mainstream modernism” is the title of Bruegmann’s essay in Art Deco Chicago, 1–15.
36 On “Radio Nurse,” see Dakin Hart’s essay “Noguchi Archaic Noguchi Modern” in the exhibition catalogue Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern (Washington DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2016), 29. Noguchi was asked to design only the case; Zenith’s president designed the electronic system. Hart compared the Zenith Corporation to today’s Apple Inc. in a 2016 lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
37 Monica Obniski, “Radio Nurse,” in Art Deco Chicago, 276–277.
38 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy: Experiments in Totality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 143. Thomas Dyja notes that Moholy-Nagy’s letters were translated and published by his wife and are likely poeticized versions of the original German. See Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream (New York: Penguin, 2013), 423.
39 Tricia Van Eck in “Buckminster Fuller in Chicago” debunks the idea that the geodesic domes were designed at Black Mountain College. Van Eck notes that thirty-one “great circles” were built by Buckminster Fuller and his students at the Institute of Design in Chicago. They then traveled in a silver Airstream to Black Mountain in the summer of 1949.
40 Dakin Hart, “Noguchi Archaic Noguchi Modern,” 16.
41 Herrera, Listening to Stone, 110.
42 Ibid., 63.
43 “An Interview with Isamu Noguchi by Katharine Kuh,” in Isamu Noguchi, Essays and Conversations, eds. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 130.
44 “I Become a Nisei” was written after Noguchi’s voluntary internment at the Poston, Arizona, camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Noguchi submitted the essay to Reader’s Digest in 1942 but it was not published in his lifetime. The essay is included as an appendix in Amy Lyford’s Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950 (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2013), 215–219. See also Hart’s discussion of Noguchi’s ideas about hybridity in “Noguchi Archaic Noguchi Modern,” in Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern (Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Ltd., 2016), 15-16.
45 Ruth Page, telegram to Isamu Noguchi, October 30, 1932. The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_305_004.
46 Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 21.
47 Marie Harriman Gallery exhibition brochure, 1935. The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_014_001.
49 Quoted in Dore Ashton, Noguchi East and West (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 50–51.
50 Ibid., 48.
51 Noguchi is credited with helping to design the Dymaxion Car and he also drove it. In February 1934, Noguchi borrowed the car for a drive with two friends, the actress Dorothy Hale and writer Clare Boothe Brokaw (later Luce). They drove to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut for the premiere of Four Saints and Three Acts, the controversial opera with an all-Black cast by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. Buckminster Fuller joined them there. See Herrera, Listening to Stone, 138.
52 Van Eck, “Buckminster Fuller in Chicago,” 117.
53 On Romany Marie’s, see Herrera, Listening to Stone, 105; and Sieden, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, 133–134.
54 Martin, Ruth Page, 77.
55 On the Dymaxion House and Marshall Field’s, see Van Eck, “Buckminster Fuller in Chicago,” 114–115. See also Sieden, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, 131–132.
56 Van Eck, “Buckminster Fuller in Chicago,” 114–115.
57 Noguchi refers to the model of the Dymaxion House as “suspended.” The model informed Fuller’s lightweight geodesic domes, which could be airlifted, as demonstrated in the 1956 air show in Philadelphia. See Shoji Sadao, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (New York: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2011), 82, 156–158.
58 Chicago’s housing crisis intensified in the decades following Fuller’s years in Chicago. In a May 13, 1970 interview with Studs Terkel, Fuller and Terkel drove a station wagon around a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Lincoln Park where Fuller once lived in the 1920s. They were joined by Cha Cha Jimenez, Chairman of the Young Lords, and a woman (unidentified in the interview) who described the displacement of citizens by urban renewal in the name of community improvement.
59 Isamu Noguchi, “A Reminiscence of Four Decades,” Architectural Forum 136 (January–February 1972): 59.
60 See Fuller’s drafts and introduction to Noguchi’s memoir, A Sculptor’s World. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PUB_039_001.
61 Noguchi installed his portraits on furnace pipe at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art though it is unclear if the same works were similarly installed at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1930. See Herrera, Listening to Stone, 108.
62 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Ruth Page, October 1, 1932. Ruth Page Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library.
63 On Page and Fisher’s loft, see “A Penthouse Studio Apartment,” House Beautiful (November 1932). On the Diana Court Building, see Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, “Michigan Square Building,” in Art Deco Chicago, 126–128.
64 Lincoln Kirstein, a friend of Howard Fisher, came up to see the experimental house when he was in Chicago to review “Century of Progress” (the 1933–34 World’s Fair)for his magazine, Hound & Horn. The fair’s ideas of “progress” did not extend to modern dance. See Martin, Ruth Page, 85–86. Kirstein also cofounded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, where Noguchi and Fuller had shown their work in 1930.
65 Noguchi’s set and costumes for The Bells have been lost, only the drawings remain. See Dakin Hart’s exhibition brochure essay for Space, Choreographed: Noguchi and Ruth Page (The Noguchi Museum, September 24, 2013–January 26, 2014).
66 In letters from Noguchi to Fuller from 1983, Noguchi decries the “seizure of science by corporations,” and tells Fuller, “Perhaps I fail in optimism.” The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_246_022, MS_COR_246_025.
67 The story of how Noguchi sold the sculpture to Page and Fisher, and then resold it to the Toledo Museum of Art, is told through Noguchi’s correspondence in The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives and clarified in Dakin Hart’s “Coda” to his essay for Space, Choreographed. In a January 15, 1948, letter to Noguchi, Fisher inquires about the status of the sculpture, and writes: “Ruth has suggested to me that we bring her back to Chicago and install her in our place in Hubbard Woods.”
68 Letter from Ruth Page to Isamu Noguchi, c. 1981. The Isamu Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_305_019.
Flicker of an Eyelid: Isamu Noguchi, Ruth Page, and the Universe of Chicago has been made possible through major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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