By Matthew Kirsch
- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
By Matthew Kirsch
In hindsight, the arc of Isamu Noguchi’s solo exhibitions seems like an active attempt to confound any public perception of Noguchi as an artist with a single known style. Early in his career, his gallerists were able to assert their dominance in the artist-dealer relationship, judiciously selecting examples of Noguchi’s previous portraits or brush drawings done in Beijing to convey the image of Noguchi as a wide-ranging talent—the figurative work softened the shock of the avant-garde work it accompanied. When left to his own devices, however, Noguchi embraced a counterintuitive, go-for-broke approach, eagerly exhibiting his most recent work, even if that work showed no immediately discernible aesthetic thread to his last body of work. Noguchi effectively treated every exhibition as his last, seemingly going so far as to follow through on that ultimatum in 1949, when he abandoned his studio in New York for a year of travel just a few months after his exhibition at the Egan Gallery in New York. Only in the 1960s—his fourth decade working as an artist—does a cohesive picture begin to emerge, and that is partly because he was the reluctant subject of his first career retrospective. As his career matured, his expectations changed as his studio practice did, and Noguchi actively resisted the urge to show his newest sculpture in a timely manner. As he noted in an interview in the early 1970s: “it’s no good to be ahead of time. In fact, most of my sculptures today—I wait as long as possible [to show]. The tendency, of course, is to show things as soon as possible before somebody else does a similar thing. But doing the stone things, it takes so long to do one anyway that you can’t beat them …”1 By this point in his career, Noguchi realized that his greatest asset, after all of his struggles, was the freedom to do what he chose, when he chose.
After Noguchi found himself returning to portraiture by financial necessity, his exhibition at the Marie Harriman Gallery in January 1935 was intended by Noguchi as a self-corrective and a restatement of his self-imposed mission of purpose as the avant-garde artist who was awakened in Paris in the late 1920s. The exhibition mixed portraits of varying degrees of figuration with his notion of civic art: an ambitious conceptual model for a Monument to Ben Franklin (an abstract, upright thunderbolt) mingled with a plaster model for an earthwork celebrating American invention as applied to agriculture called Monument to the Plow. Even more unconventional was the model for Noguchi’s first conception for a playground, Play Mountain, a massive, stepped earth mound intended to occupy a New York City block. Critical reception to the exhibition, however, was mixed due in no small part to the presence of Noguchi’s monel metal Death (Lynched Figure), a sincere and sharp response to a photograph of a lynching in Texas that Noguchi had seen in a 1930 issue of International Labor Defense. New York critics flinched at Noguchi’s direct engagement with such brutal subject matter, and the critic for the New York Sun, Henry McBride, offered a contemptuous and duplicitous appraisal that characterized the work as “a little Japanese mistake.” That remark stung Noguchi for the rest of his career.
More than a decade after his last exhibition in New York, at the Marie Harriman Gallery, Noguchi was included in this Museum of Modern Art survey of New York’s contemporary artists, capitalizing on the credibility he had accrued as the consummate artist’s artist. In the interim, the peripatetic forty-two-year-old artist completed his first public work in Mexico City, History Mexico; gained public recognition as the fabricator of the largest stainless steel artwork of its time, News, at the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center; initiated a series of industrial design commissions; and abandoned his art entirely to spend most of 1942 as an activist and voluntary internee at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona after Executive Order 9066. Holing up in his MacDougal Alley studio beginning in 1943, he redirected his energies to his art, producing a body of work that demonstrated his ingenuity with materials, construction, and allusive significance, while also betraying a bleak worldview in works that emphasized tension, fragility, and contingency. Several works referenced his expansion of sculptural notions to landscape, both in terms of conceptual plans for shaping earth itself—the plasticity of ordered space in Contoured Playground and the more violent evocation of its distant cousin, This Tortured Earth—but also in self-contained, imaginary spaces that fused human anatomy and his experiments with light elements, such as his Lunar Landscape. A selection of his interlocking sculptures, including Gregory and the large-scale Kouros (later purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), became most associated with his name over the following decade, and the exposure from this show later opened doors for Noguchi upon his return visit to Japan in May 1950.
His first gallery exhibition in New York since Marie Harriman, Noguchi’s exhibition at Charles Egan’s gallery was arranged through a mutual friend, Willem de Kooning, who had exhibited a year previously in one of the gallery’s first shows. The Egan Gallery was located in a townhouse in midtown Manhattan and has been described as a tiny space. Two interlocking marble works, Avatar and The Gunas, shared the floor of the main gallery with Night Land, a propped plane of marble that collapsed anatomical features into an evocation of landscape, an early foray for Noguchi into the table-sculpture format that would appear over the coming decades. The majority of the works in the exhibition illustrated Noguchi’s preoccupation with doing away with pedestals or bases entirely, and even the primacy of the ground itself, in favor of wall-oriented sculpture. Two pieces of delicately overlapped dowel rods and small carved shapes, Bird’s Nest and Insects in a Rice Field, evoked scenes of nature suspended in midair. Open Window and Hanging Man, two constructions in arrayed arabesques of aluminum, transposed the experiments with negative space in Noguchi’s interlocking sculptures to the wall surface, while Lunar Fist (then called The Mountain) and Plus Equals Minus transplant spatial ordering to a vertical surface. A seven-panel, foldout invitation for the exhibition featured Noguchi’s inventory of his sculptures in spirited, calligraphic renderings.
Upon returning to Japan on May 1950 for his first visit in nineteen years, Noguchi was feted as something of a celebrity, largely due to the publicity he received after the exhibition Fourteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art four years earlier. A generation of younger avant-garde artists, designers, and architects sought out his views on what Japan’s cultural course should be. In that first few months, Noguchi toured the temples of Kyoto, Nara, and Ise with critic Saburo Hasegawa; the painter Genichiro Inokuma hosted the artist in his home and shared his studio; and industrial designer Isamu Kenmochi offered him a studio at IARI (Industrial Arts Research Institute), leading to their collaboration on a bamboo basket chair. When Noguchi was offered an exhibition at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo, he jumped at the chance to mount his first exhibition in Japan. Here, another tendency emerged in Noguchi’s exhibition strategy: bypassing the presented opportunity in favor of an entirely new approach. The prospect of exhibiting photographs of his past work being less than optimal in his eyes, Noguchi traveled to the Seto region to work with ceramists and labored feverishly at IARI to produce a large-scale plaster sculpture, Mu. Remarking on the limitations that he faced, mirroring other artists and their society as a whole in postwar Japan, he wrote: “When all the possibilities of modern technology are lost, one returns once more to basic things, to basic materials, to basic thoughts. One starts all over again, and I think it good.”
This exhibition found Noguchi focusing on his initial experimentation with the traditional chochin (paper lantern) format. In less than two years of collaboration with the Ozeki Company in Gifu, Noguchi had already dreamed up about two dozen variations of Akari, taking it from a table setting to more sculptural realms, emphasizing its freestanding nature in a series of tripod versions including the 13A and 14A models. Noguchi tinkered with variations in size and scale for certain shapes, and introduced one of his most elaborate forms, the model E, a columnar composite of shapes that trailed from ceiling to nearly floor-level at the scale of a Portuguese man o’war. Rather than present his light sculptures as simple product, the Chuo Koron show gave a first glimpse of Noguchi’s broader visual and material culture. The artist had floor-to-ceiling wooden louvers installed alongside a long bench, and at the center of the constellation of Akari he included an ovoid granite table with a pitted crater on its surface.
A lesser-known episode of the clash between the expectations of the gallerist and those of an artist excited about the newest phase of his work, Noguchi’s second exhibition at Stable Gallery almost didn’t happen. Noguchi had intended to exhibit his cut-and-folded aluminum works—recent work he felt was an appropriate response to the steel and glass environment of booming, postwar New York—but the Stable Gallery’s Eleanor Ward balked, finding that the use of a cheap, industrial material ran counter to her conception of Noguchi the sculptor. With the exhibition dates already publicized, Noguchi returned to a series of sculptures he had begun when searching for Pentelic marble in Greece. Informed by sculpture groupings he had designed for his unrealized courtyard at the Lever Brothers building in New York a few years earlier, the marbles extended a series of minimal and archaic-inspired bird motifs that marked the most overt nod to the influence of Constantin Brancusi in Noguchi’s career. Noguchi reconciled this nod to his past with similar abstract forms fabricated in cast iron in Gifu, Japan, that reflected his reinterpretations of Japanese material culture during his reacquaintance with Japan after 1950. A diptych of minimally worked totemic stones with no predetermined configuration, Garden Elements, predicted many threads of his fascination with granite and its place in the Japanese garden, a contrasting note to the marbles within this “totally sensuous realm of tactile values.”3
Coinciding with the release of an autobiography, Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World, which fused his story with a primer on the different areas of his multi-hyphenate practice, Noguchi enjoyed his first retrospective at the Whitney Museum, the first museum to acquire his work (a portrait) in the early 1930s. Even though the exhibition included work in a spectrum of materials (aluminum, bronze, and variety of marbles and granites) within the decade leading up to the show, it seemed to situate Noguchi as a traditionalist in the greater context of the multitude of materials and approaches of contemporary art of the 1960s. Noguchi expressed some disappointment that while some of his set designs for Martha Graham were present, the selection ignored work he considered just as vital: his Akari and furniture designs. (He called it “simply a cross section from various periods.”) The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer similarly observed that the exhibition could be defined by what was not shown. The timing of the exhibition within Noguchi’s career arc is curious, serving as something of a preview for Noguchi’s experiments with hard granites just as the artist was establishing a new atelier in Mure, Japan, and the more improvisational direction his sculpting would embrace in his final two decades.
Already fifteen years into his passion project, an ongoing collaboration with the Gifu, Japan- based family business with whom he produced new shapes for traditionally crafted paper lanterns, Noguchi arranged with his gallery, Cordier & Ekstrom, to exhibit his Akari, given the momentum of his Whitney Museum retrospective and the publication of his autobiography in 1968. While the Akari had been included in a handful of his Japanese exhibitions and had become a staple of specialist design publications and the Good Design movement, Noguchi had experienced—and would continue to experience—pushback from various quarters of the fine art ecosystem. His friend and critical champion, Dore Ashton, for instance, had omitted Akari from her overall consideration of his work throughout the 1960s. Noguchi marked the occasion by introducing a new series, with models given an “N” suffix, predominantly characterized by asymmetrical shapes and unevenly spaced “random-wound” bamboo ribbing.
Perhaps the first and most fully realized exhibition to attempt to illustrate some sense of unity between all of Noguchi’s art and design endeavors, Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes succeeded in portraying the artist as a questing, ambitious artist six decades into his career. Martin Friedman, the Walker Art Center’s director and the architect of its exhibitions program, had attempted to entice Noguchi into an exhibition of his theater set designs for years before broadening its scope to the “sculpture of space.” He and Noguchi clashed throughout its planning, and the exhibition and its tour (it eventually traveled to the Denver Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, SFMOMA, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art) was nearly canceled before Noguchi relented and allowed Friedman free rein. One measure of the show’s importance was that Noguchi had a number of plaster study models from his 1933 earthwork Play Mountain cast in bronze. In addressing his concern that a display of too many of his theater sets for Martha Graham’s productions would cede his own retrospective to the choreographer, Noguchi created a new, temporary performance space for the run of the exhibition. The critical success of the exhibition must have sat well with Noguchi, considering how closely the layout of the permanent collection of his own namesake museum echoes Friedman’s selection for the Walker. Meanwhile, the tour’s stop at its last venue, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, rekindled interest in Noguchi’s 1933 model Monument to Ben Franklin, leading to a commission for a public work unveiled in 1984.
Within just a few years of the installation of his site-specific granite work Momo Taro at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, Noguchi installed on an overlook nine of his recent hot-dipped, galvanized steel editions fabricated by Gemini G.E.L. The workshop had mostly produced editions of two-dimensional work when it approached Noguchi about a collaboration in 1980. Having experimented continuously with making three-dimensional sculptures from two-dimensional sheets—highly polished brass and zinc abstractions in the 1920s; cut, folded, and scored aluminum sheet sculptures in the 1950s; minimally welded, brushed stainless steel work in the early 1970s—Noguchi by this time was intrigued with the possibilities of the anodization bath. The hot-dipped process allowed “my way of finding a more direct continuity of appearance to thing, with more allowance for nature’s intrusion.”4 Noguchi showed the Gemini editions in a few different galleries throughout 1984, but at Storm King he most closely approximated the ideal setting for this ongoing exploration of the dichotomy between nature and the man-made.
This two-week exhibition, the first of two collaborations with the architect Arata Isozaki, is something of a rarity in that Noguchi rarely gave free rein to another to install and interpret his work. Isozaki had begun his career working in the office of Noguchi’s friend Kenzo Tange, and the two became better acquainted in the 1980s. Noguchi initially brainstormed with Isozaki on new ideas for highlighting his Akari beyond simple massings of large numbers of the light sculptures, which Isozaki agreed tied their meaning too closely to Japan’s Bon Odori festival (a celebration of the ancestors). In time, the two integrated some of Noguchi’s recent, minimally carved stone sculptures, and conceived of Space of Akari and Stone as an attempt to more clearly illustrate the relationship between sculpture and architecture. Isozaki determined that the exhibition space’s layout closely matched the dimensions of the Shokintei (teahouse) at Katsura Imperial Villa (a site that Noguchi had visited on many occasions) and used it as his thematic point of departure. Beyond incorporating a painted Ichimatsu “checkerboard” pattern on one of the gallery’s walls, Isozaki imitated Katsura’s water features and devised areas of interplay between organic wood elements and tatami mats with nontraditional materials like zinc-alloy fencing and corrugated metal sheets. The display called out the kind of dichotomies and oppositions that were central to the material culture of Noguchi’s own practice.
Isozaki assisted Noguchi again on his installation at the 1986 Venice Biennale, Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture? Selected by Alanna Heiss and Henry Geldzahler to represent the United States, Noguchi was undoubtedly expected to install the stone works he was most known for and to take a well-earned victory lap. Instead, true to its title, nearly every choice Noguchi made ran counter to expectations, with two of Noguchi’s longtime passion projects at the core of his presentation. He installed more than thirty of his Akari light sculptures throughout the pavilion, a divisive gesture, as the lanterns were viewed as too commercial by the international art world (as they had been for the previous three decades). Meanwhile, Noguchi looked back to the concept of play, installing a nearly 11-foot-tall spiral slide in white marble, Slide Mantra, in the main courtyard. (He added bronze models of a few of conceptual failures related to play, including Play Mountain from 1933, to punctuate this provocation.) Elsewhere, he included a steel-strutted Tetrahelix modeled on the shape of DNA; an exercise in variable garden placement composed of five Andesite stones he called Beginnings; and a massive, hollow cube composed of square slabs of remaindered Swedish granite titled Ends. In an interview from this time, Noguchi seemed pleased to note that every work was done in Japan or Italy, in this way, “I could be an American without being too American.”5