Page from 'Kan Yasuda,' with grid of nine photographs featuring stone architecture, mountainsides...
05/5

Introductions, Forewords, and Prefaces by Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi was a compelling writer when it came to his own way of thinking and on subjects of immediate concern to his work. But these occasional pieces are something else. In the 1960s, paralleling his career as an artist and designer, Noguchi became a sought-after explainer of East to West and vice versa. Individually, it might be possible to dismiss these as favors for friends: coincidences of affinity and affiliation. But as a body of work, they offer a surprisingly comprehensive look at Noguchi’s complex interest in material culture: the traditional crafts of Japan in particular, and the uses and uselessness—the social function and existential power—of art. Ranging across architecture, fashion, design, paper, samurai helmets, flower arranging, bathing, kites, painting, and even sculpture, they produce a kind of supplementary intellectual autobiography.


Above: Kan Yasuda. Tokyo: Gyararii Ueda Ueahausu, 1985: 23. All materials from The Noguchi Museum Archive
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“Designer’s Note”
The Tragedy of King Lear
William Shakespeare
Introduction by Donald Wolfit, designs by Isamu Noguchi
London: The Folio Society, 1956

It is likely that the Royal Shakespeare Company asked Noguchi to provide a note explaining himself after getting a look at what he had in mind for this touring production featuring John Gielgud, the last of the great actor’s four stage appearances in the role. Discussing the difficulty of navigating similarly superfluous tendencies to historicize and contemporize setting and costumes, Noguchi writes, “Obviously a vacuum is not the solution, for the simple reason that it cannot exist. Something has to be there which is of so transparent a logic as to clarify every nuance of the play. In a way this something should be more nothing than nothing itself, creating even more of a void than would a bare stage: it should fill space with a certain magic of expectancy.” LIFEs gleeful article covering not the play but the controversy surrounding Noguchi’s design, “A Weird Kind of Lear,” carries the lede “London boggles at bizarre production” and begins with this summary: “The costumes were compared to waffle irons; King Lear’s throne to a ham bone; his crown to a hatrack and his cloak (p. 68) to a Gruyere cheese. These comments were made by London critics about a new production of King Lear starring Sir John Gielgud as a new kind of Lear.”

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“Designer’s Note”
The Tragedy of King Lear
William Shakespeare
Introduction by Donald Wolfit, designs by Isamu Noguchi
London: The Folio Society, 1956

It is likely that the Royal Shakespeare Company asked Noguchi to provide a note explaining himself after getting a look at what he had in mind for this touring production featuring John Gielgud, the last of the great actor’s four stage appearances in the role. Discussing the difficulty of navigating similarly superfluous tendencies to historicize and contemporize setting and costumes, Noguchi writes, “Obviously a vacuum is not the solution, for the simple reason that it cannot exist. Something has to be there which is of so transparent a logic as to clarify every nuance of the play. In a way this something should be more nothing than nothing itself, creating even more of a void than would a bare stage: it should fill space with a certain magic of expectancy.” LIFEs gleeful article covering not the play but the controversy surrounding Noguchi’s design, “A Weird Kind of Lear,” carries the lede “London boggles at bizarre production” and begins with this summary: “The costumes were compared to waffle irons; King Lear’s throne to a ham bone; his crown to a hatrack and his cloak (p. 68) to a Gruyere cheese. These comments were made by London critics about a new production of King Lear starring Sir John Gielgud as a new kind of Lear.”

View in the Archive


 

“Foreword”
The Roots of Japanese Architecture: A Photographic Quest by Yukio Futagawa
Teiji Itoh
New York: Harper & Row, 1963

Noguchi’s efforts as a writer of forewords and introductions could hardly have had a more auspicious start. This incredible book gave him the opportunity to think deeply about his core beliefs concerning the nature of sculpture.

“The audacity of this book is not its novelty so much as the surprising degree to which it succeeds: its panoramic view has a shape and method which somehow goes beyond popularization to catch, however obliquely, the spirit underlying ancient Japanese concepts of architecture and space.”

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“Hisao Domoto”
Hisao Domoto: Solutions, continuité
New York: Martha Jackson Gallery, 1967

The extraordinary statement Noguchi wrote for Hisao Domoto on the occasion of his exhibition with the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York is a perfect dispatch from the bleeding edge of postmodernity.

“Art, that chameleon mirror of the human heart, flashes its changes. Now it shatters in fragments, in specialization and new techniques—it is a time of questioning. Where is art—that great answer giver, that resolver of riddles? One day there will come a seeking after this wider identity, for a whole out of all parts within or distant, from whatever may be saved from the onrush of our technology and conceit.” 

Noguchi goes on to ask, more rhetorically, “Are values ever obsolete or the sensibility of artists?”

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“Hisao Domoto”
Hisao Domoto: Solutions, continuité
New York: Martha Jackson Gallery, 1967

The extraordinary statement Noguchi wrote for Hisao Domoto on the occasion of his exhibition with the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York is a perfect dispatch from the bleeding edge of postmodernity.

“Art, that chameleon mirror of the human heart, flashes its changes. Now it shatters in fragments, in specialization and new techniques—it is a time of questioning. Where is art—that great answer giver, that resolver of riddles? One day there will come a seeking after this wider identity, for a whole out of all parts within or distant, from whatever may be saved from the onrush of our technology and conceit.” 

Noguchi goes on to ask, more rhetorically, “Are values ever obsolete or the sensibility of artists?”

View in the Archive

 


“Preface to a Book on Tsutomu Hiroi”
Tsutomu Hiroi
Tokyo: Tsutomu Hiroi, 1972

Tsutomu Hiroi began his career, for all intents and purposes, as Noguchi’s assistant on Japanese projects in the 1950s. Today he is still the most famous kite maker in Japan. Here Noguchi tries to gently disentangle his own “quest … to experience the wider and more basic purposes of sculpture” from Hiroi’s. He ends with this telling insight: “Today a kite flying in the sky, or even just the idea of it, brings us closer to the elements. And sculpture, in that it relates us to our place in the universe, becomes more like this old, new childish thing.”

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“On the Artist Teshigahara Sofu”
Maboroshi by Sofu Teshigahara
Kenkichi Sugimoto, ed.
Tokyo: Kyuryudo Co., Ltd., 1977

Sofu Teshigahara was the best known flower arranger in and outside of Japan. He is typical of Noguchi’s Japanese friends and collaborators: a living treasure who channelled his absolute mastery of tradition into forward-looking rebellion. Teshigahara’s school of Ikebana, Sogetsu, owns the second-largest collection of Noguchi’s ceramics, and its headquarters in Tokyo is the site of one of Noguchi’s best interiors, Heaven. Of this multifaceted artist, Noguchi says, “There is a bond of sympathy between us like that of two old thieves who do not have to brag to each other about their exploits.”

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“On the Artist Teshigahara Sofu”
Maboroshi by Sofu Teshigahara
Kenkichi Sugimoto, ed.
Tokyo: Kyuryudo Co., Ltd., 1977

Sofu Teshigahara was the best known flower arranger in and outside of Japan. He is typical of Noguchi’s Japanese friends and collaborators: a living treasure who channelled his absolute mastery of tradition into forward-looking rebellion. Teshigahara’s school of Ikebana, Sogetsu, owns the second-largest collection of Noguchi’s ceramics, and its headquarters in Tokyo is the site of one of Noguchi’s best interiors, Heaven. Of this multifaceted artist, Noguchi says, “There is a bond of sympathy between us like that of two old thieves who do not have to brag to each other about their exploits.”

View in the Archive


“Erinnerungen an Brancusi”
Constantin Brancusi: Plastiken, Zeichnungen
Duisburg, Germany: Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt Duisburg, 1976

Noguchi wrote this piece as a talk for a colloquium held at Fordham University in New York on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Brancusi’s birthday. It was later published as “Noguchi on Brancusi” in Craft Horizons and translated into German as one of a collection of short pieces by authorities on the Romanian sculptor for the catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum (Duisberg, Germany).

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“On Washi”
Washi: The World of Japanese Paper
Sukey Hughes
Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1978

This extraordinary book is a complete guide to the history, structure, uses, production, and culture of Japanese paper (washi). For a Western audience no spokesperson could be more authoritative than Noguchi, creator of Akari light sculptures. From his essay: “How could I have conceived of such possibilities except through a knowledge of the qualities inherent in washi. I hope I may have extended its appreciation through the light and shadows it casts. This is what comes from an old tradition, the use of washi and the making of lanterns, which extends its life into the needs of our time.”

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“On Washi”
Washi: The World of Japanese Paper
Sukey Hughes
Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1978

This extraordinary book is a complete guide to the history, structure, uses, production, and culture of Japanese paper (washi). For a Western audience no spokesperson could be more authoritative than Noguchi, creator of Akari light sculptures. From his essay: “How could I have conceived of such possibilities except through a knowledge of the qualities inherent in washi. I hope I may have extended its appreciation through the light and shadows it casts. This is what comes from an old tradition, the use of washi and the making of lanterns, which extends its life into the needs of our time.”

View in the Archive


“On the Sculptor J.B. Blunk”
J.B. Blunk Sculptures 1952–1977
Los Angeles: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 1978

Noguchi could be prickly and impossible, but he was consistently supportive of young artists, who seem always to have tapped the most idealistic part of himself. Writing about J. B. Blunk, to whom he became a friend and mentor when Blunk was a twenty-one-year-old G.I. in Tokyo, Noguchi focused on his favorite theme, life over art, with distance from New York providing the scale. “Here [in California] the links seem to me more to the open sky and spaces, and the far reaches of time from where comes the burled stumps of those great trees.”

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“New York Mood-o”
Eiko by Eiko
Eiko Ishioka
New York: Callaway Editions, 1983

The Japanese designer and art director Eiko more or less invented the practice of employing non-Japanese subjects and figures to sell modernity and the future in Japan. “It must take a degree of emancipation,” Noguchi wrote with characteristic understatement, “to be able to achieve an art so successfully through the commercial medium.”

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“New York Mood-o”
Eiko by Eiko
Eiko Ishioka
New York: Callaway Editions, 1983

The Japanese designer and art director Eiko more or less invented the practice of employing non-Japanese subjects and figures to sell modernity and the future in Japan. “It must take a degree of emancipation,” Noguchi wrote with characteristic understatement, “to be able to achieve an art so successfully through the commercial medium.”

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“A New Direction”
Hiroshi Teshigahara
Tokyo: Sogetsu Shuppan Inc., 1985

It is not atypical of Noguchi that he had the opportunity, in one lifetime, to befriend, collaborate with, and write for one of the titans of Japanese culture in the twentieth century, Sofu Teshigahara, and then his son. (He would do the same as well with Yoshiro Taniguchi and his son Yoshio.) Like his father, who he succeeded as headmaster of his father’s school, Hiroshi Teshigahara served the tradition of ikebana by pushing it with relentless optimism, and total openness, into the future. In 1952, Sofu Teshigahara was enlisted to add living material to Noguchi’s ceramics for his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura. In 1985, Hiroshi did the same for Space of Akari and Stone, a mind-blowing exhibition of Noguchi’s work designed by recent Pritzker Prize–winning architect Arata Isozaki for Seibu Art Museum.

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“For Yasuda Kan”
Kan Yasuda
Tokyo: Gyararii Ueda Ueahausu, 1985

This deeply personal note of concern from an older artist to a younger one was truly written “for” Kan Yasuda. As he so often does, Noguchi, in his own unique way, combines a stunning humility (here he implies that his Kouros is a 9-foot-tall example of immature overreach, not a masterpiece) with flinty wisdom. Noguchi counsels Yasuda against giving in to his own facility and pleasure and making any work other than the art that expresses his “difficult conscience.” “It is the artist’s obligation,” he ends, “to change into his ever widening perception. Kan has expressed it with his forked squares where he denies himself and all his skills. I know intimately of what I write.”

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“For Yasuda Kan”
Kan Yasuda
Tokyo: Gyararii Ueda Ueahausu, 1985

This deeply personal note of concern from an older artist to a younger one was truly written “for” Kan Yasuda. As he so often does, Noguchi, in his own unique way, combines a stunning humility (here he implies that his Kouros is a 9-foot-tall example of immature overreach, not a masterpiece) with flinty wisdom. Noguchi counsels Yasuda against giving in to his own facility and pleasure and making any work other than the art that expresses his “difficult conscience.” “It is the artist’s obligation,” he ends, “to change into his ever widening perception. Kan has expressed it with his forked squares where he denies himself and all his skills. I know intimately of what I write.”

View in the Archive


“Foreword”
Furo, the Japanese Bath
Peter Grilli and Dana Levy
Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1985

It should probably come as no surprise given his predilection for making nonfunctional iron sculptures based on traditional Japanese vessels (e.g., Bell Image, Enigma, and Tetsubin, a teapot without a top or bottom), that Noguchi’s favorite bathtub was the then already archaic goemon-buro, a cast-iron soup pot for one. But what animates this terrific piece is the sharp focus on the nature of time spent in intimate space, as defined by a bath, which Noguchi sees as having already been lost. “Throughout the room,” he writes of a night spent in an airport hotel in Tokyo, “not even the illusion of time and space remained, only a crowd of things from bed to television as if to make any other description of Japan today a lie. Perhaps this is the logical, of ironic, result of the new architecture, with people reconciled to no time, no space, self-sufficient with their modern conveniences while they busily concern themselves with trying to recall the past, with learning about the poetry of Basho and the more elegant customs of the Heian court.”

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“No Division between Artist and Mask”
Spectacular Helmets of Japan 16th–19th Century.
Alexandra Munroe, ed.
Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1986

Most of Noguchi’s introductions begin with the assertion that he has no business writing on the subject, before he goes on to offer something of crystalline if cryptic value. Here, looking back to his childhood when, inspired by Greek mythology, he produced a winged helmet like the one Perseus wore to make him invisible and invincible facing Medusa. “It may be said,” he wrote, “that all effigy-making offers a similar transcendence of identity,” such as that achieved by the great samurai helmets, in which, through sculpture, “The mask of terror becomes the man himself.”

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“No Division between Artist and Mask”
Spectacular Helmets of Japan 16th–19th Century.
Alexandra Munroe, ed.
Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1986

Most of Noguchi’s introductions begin with the assertion that he has no business writing on the subject, before he goes on to offer something of crystalline if cryptic value. Here, looking back to his childhood when, inspired by Greek mythology, he produced a winged helmet like the one Perseus wore to make him invisible and invincible facing Medusa. “It may be said,” he wrote, “that all effigy-making offers a similar transcendence of identity,” such as that achieved by the great samurai helmets, in which, through sculpture, “The mask of terror becomes the man himself.”

View in the Archive


“Foreword”
Issey Miyake: Photographs by Irving Penn
Nicholas Callaway, ed.
New York: New York Graphic Society Books; Boston: Little, Brown and Co. in association with Callaway Editions, 1988

At its best, Noguchi’s writing is poetical and contradictory. But there is no way to describe this foreword for Issey Miyake other than as a prose poem. The subject is change—specifically, fashion as the most sensitive barometer of social change and, among the arts, the ultimate domain of newness. Miyake, he suggests, is the avatar of that capacity.

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“Shigeo Anzai”
Akiyoshi Tokoro, ed.
Anzaï: Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer
Tokyo: Galerie Tokoro, 1989

The meaningful dissemination of sculpture, to the extent that it is possible at all, depends on inspired photography. Anyone with a camera can produce an adequate reproduction of a painting or drawing. But to capture sculpture, you need a real photographer. The list of the photographers that Noguchi worked with is a who’s who of twentieth-century greats, from Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston, and André Kertész to Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe. A number of lesser-known, but no less talented photographers, including his half-brother Michio Noguchi, were integral to the development of Noguchi’s understanding of sculpture. But it is Shigeo Anzai, who photographed a special series on the opening of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Noguchi’s studio in Mure, and his participation at the Venice Biennale, for whom Noguchi wrote. Here he likens Anzai’s approach to his own: a devouring, complete inhabitation, and loss of self in the content of the work.

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“Shigeo Anzai”
Akiyoshi Tokoro, ed.
Anzaï: Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer
Tokyo: Galerie Tokoro, 1989

The meaningful dissemination of sculpture, to the extent that it is possible at all, depends on inspired photography. Anyone with a camera can produce an adequate reproduction of a painting or drawing. But to capture sculpture, you need a real photographer. The list of the photographers that Noguchi worked with is a who’s who of twentieth-century greats, from Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston, and André Kertész to Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe. A number of lesser-known, but no less talented photographers, including his half-brother Michio Noguchi, were integral to the development of Noguchi’s understanding of sculpture. But it is Shigeo Anzai, who photographed a special series on the opening of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Noguchi’s studio in Mure, and his participation at the Venice Biennale, for whom Noguchi wrote. Here he likens Anzai’s approach to his own: a devouring, complete inhabitation, and loss of self in the content of the work.

View in the Archive


Credits

Text by Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at The Noguchi Museum. 

Transcripts of archival materials are available for accessibility purposes by request to communications@noguchi.org.