- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
Some time after its opening in 1958, a young stonemason named Masatoshi Izumi visited architect Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefectural Government Office Building, including its south garden, composed of Aji granite elements. Aji is nearly synonymous with the nearby village of Mure-cho where Izumi hailed from, and Izumi certainly would have identified the stone by sight. Something about Tange’s modern spin on an arrangement of pieces of unmodified granite against reinforced concrete struck the impressionable Izumi. He later cited Tange’s garden as one inspiration for Stone Atelier, which he had helped to found in 1964 to specialize in the construction of masonry walls and rock gardens and to expand the possibilities of local carving beyond traditional products such as stone lanterns, gravestones, and architectural ornamentation.1
At roughly the same moment, in 1965—as described at the end of his first book, his 1968 autobiography—Isamu Noguchi was ruminating on his proclivity for adopting new materials and ways of working, or revisiting old ones. At the time, Noguchi was shuttling between his foothold in Queens, New York, and ad hoc studios in Italy, Japan, and elsewhere with “willing collaborators, wherever I might be.”2 Reflecting on his return to materials like wood and stone, he explained his evolving consideration of man’s coexistence with nature.
The then sixty-one-year-old Noguchi seemed to be at the start of a search. In hindsight, his emphasis on self-evident forms with emotional resonance, and particularly “inner presences,” seems to telegraph the shape that his work would soon take with Masatoshi Izumi. Izumi was to become the primary translator in Noguchi’s conversations with stone over the next two decades, as well as the facilitator of Noguchi’s working life in Mure from 1969 onward. Infinitely generous in sharing his knowledge of stone and his resources with Noguchi, Izumi would come to oversee the Japanese side of Noguchi’s increasingly complicated productions in stone, managing both large-scale commissioned works and the “private works”4 Noguchi made for his own pleasure. But Izumi’s insights into stone went well beyond the technical details of how to work basalt and granite—extending into the animistic and philosophical underpinnings of what Noguchi called “that ritual of rocks which comes down to us through the Japanese from the dawn of history.”5
Noguchi’s second book, the 1987 catalogue for The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, presented the findings from his “research,”6 much of which he credited to Izumi. With the opening of his museum in New York in 1985, circumstances had aligned for Noguchi to showcase his newer sculptures within what was an adapted warehouse space. Izumi’s presence infuses the first sections of the catalogue, just as it does the Museum itself. The “indoor/outdoor” gallery that acts as the entryway to the Museum was designed with the human-scale granites and basalts from Mure in mind, and the transition to the garden and its constellation of carefully situated sculptures captures the feel of the environment that Noguchi and Izumi created at Mure.
Born in Mure in 1938, Masatoshi Izumi came from a lineage of stonecutters and masons. The family name was not uncommon there, especially among stoneworkers. One story traces the name to a place called Izumi no Kuni near Osaka, where Chinese and Korean masons settled and taught their skills to locals centuries earlier.7 Izumi began as an apprentice at age fifteen (only about a decade before he met Noguchi), acquiring and confidently plying the skills of granite carving, while his older brother ran the Izumiya Stone Company. When they first met, Izumi had not heard of Noguchi.8
Noguchi was drawn to him, he later told Izumi, because he had never studied at art school, spoke no English, and loved stone.9 Hardly a slight, it was these parameters and an overall sense of critical distance that Noguchi felt fueled the new, and comparatively improvisatory, working method they developed together. Izumi breathed a local, multigenerational familiarity with stone that Noguchi clearly envied. His combination of knowledge and technical ability was to be tested by what at first must have seemed to be confounding directives from Noguchi. As Izumi explained, “He was seeking to make heavy stones look light, hard stones look soft, immobile stones like they were in motion. I learned through him that approach to the stone.”10
Izumi began carving for Noguchi in 1967 with a high-stakes trial run: Black Sun, a major public commission for the city of Seattle. Having previously farmed out small granite-carving tasks to stone-lantern makers in Kyoto, Noguchi reached out to the governor of Kagawa, Masanori Kanako, and prefectural architect Tadashi Yamamoto, with whom he had first toured Mure in 1964, for a recommendation for a stoneworker capable of executing what he had in mind. Yamamoto suggested Izumi, whom Noguchi had met on that first visit, among other stoneworkers, and his strong endorsement was enough to earn Izumi the job. During the nearly two-year execution of Black Sun, nine feet in diameter and carved from a massive piece of black granite from Brazil, Noguchi was gratified by Izumi’s full commitment to the undertaking.
After establishing a rapport with Izumi, Noguchi settled into a more or less annual residency at Mure beginning in 1969. Izumi had a circular stone retaining wall (the “Stone Circle”) built around the yard in which Noguchi could work in the open air. Almost concurrently, Izumi and Yamamoto arranged for an eighteenth-century merchant’s house in nearby Marugame to be dismantled and resited just across the yard from the studio for Noguchi’s use. Two reclaimed sake warehouses (kura) were installed as work and display spaces. In the early 1980s, Izumi leveled and graded parts of the hillside behind and overlooking Noguchi’s residence, forming a multitiered garden, which became a home for permanent installations in stone by Noguchi, including a granite moon-viewing platform.
Over three decades, Izumi offered unwavering support and generosity to the older artist, a full-service working refuge with a crew at his disposal and, just as important, the support of Izumi’s own family. Harumi Izumi, Masatoshi’s wife, was part of a team of local people who spent months hand-polishing Black Sun’s granite surface to Noguchi’s exacting specifications. The Izumi family arranged for meals and generally looked after Noguchi so that his sole focus could be on his daily sessions in the Stone Circle. As Yamamoto put it, Izumi and his family supported Noguchi “as unobtrusively as a shadow.”11
By the late 1970s, Izumi had organized a congenial group of the younger, inexperienced sons of local stonemasons as his—and by extension, Noguchi’s—apprentices. As Noguchi described the crew’s dedication to him and Izumi: “They do not walk, they run. They’re not just stonemasons, they’re athletes …”12 Izumi deputized another stone carver, Masami Sasao,13 to work directly with Noguchi, while Izumi continued acting as a supervisor of production.14 Familiar with the regional stones Noguchi preferred, Izumi regularly sourced stone for future projects, often without Noguchi’s knowledge, a shrewdness that frequently changed the trajectory of a project. After scouting a thirty-ton granite boulder in the mountains of Shodoshima to realize Noguchi’s embryonic idea for Momo Taro, destined for Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, Izumi returned with Noguchi in tow to cleave the stone into usable shapes and render it transportable. Having bisected the stone, Izumi gathered up still more granite fragments from the same mountain, which Noguchi later selected from and incorporated into his mock-up installation at Mure, expanding its scope from the simple three-piece composition of his initial plaster model.15 Izumi not only underwrote these “stone-fishing” trips and absorbed the costs into the family business, the atelier acquired specialty tools for Noguchi’s larger projects as needed, such as the large-scale saws required to produce the massive slabs of Shodoshima granite that define Heaven (1977–78), an interior space Noguchi designed for Sogetsu Center in Tokyo.16
It is impossible to overstate how much Izumi’s assured presence streamlined the logistics of many of Noguchi’s commissions from Black Sun onward. In one instance in the early 1960s, before working with Izumi, Noguchi chose to incorporate Japanese stone from a remote mountainside into his plaza commission for the First National Bank in Fort Worth, Texas. This entailed a marathon of activity, all of which Noguchi had to undertake alone: seeking guidance from his network of Japanese contacts for available sources of granite; surveying the chosen site with an eye to being able to extract and transport the stone elsewhere; sizing up the available stone and making selections; hiring stoneworkers to quarry, process, and prepare the stone on-site; identifying a skilled carver to make sense of his ideas and rough out the form for his eventual, final treatment; staging the composition in whatever makeshift setting was available; arranging for sea shipment with all the attendant customs paperwork; coordinating receipt at port and transportation of the stone within the United States; and finally, making sure all of the rigging necessities were in place for installation day. (This arduous process was used as a promotional angle in a pamphlet produced by First National Bank.) In contrast, Izumi’s operation consolidated much of this legwork and, for the cost of a plane ticket, he could be on hand to supervise any installation. Reviewing the many concurrent commissions from the last two decades of Noguchi’s life, it is hard to fathom how he could have accomplished so much. Izumi’s assistance is the answer, as well as that of architect and engineer Shoji Sadao.
Izumi’s fingerprints are all over Noguchi’s projects of the 1970s and ’80s: Landscape of Time (1975), an arrangement of five Aji granite stones for an early General Services Administration commission for the city of Seattle; Rock Carvings: Passage of the Seasons, for the Cleveland Museum of Art (1980–81); the pair of basalts, To the Issei, that presides over Noguchi’s Japanese American Cultural & Community Center Plaza in Los Angeles (1980–83); and the four basalts comprising Constellation (for Louis Kahn), at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1982). Spirit of the Lima Bean (1980–82), a towering mound of Mannari granite boulders that sits within Noguchi’s California Scenario (1980), a garden representing the microecologies of California, in Costa Mesa, utilized Izumi’s expertise in masonry to achieve the deceptive effect of a loose-fitting whole, somewhere between natural formation and engineered structure. The series of six black granite wells for a private passageway in Japan’s Supreme Court Building in Tokyo (1974), the basalt Water Stone for the Asian Art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1986),17 and The Well (Variation on a Tsukubai) (1982), which is the centerpiece of the garden Noguchi made for his own museum, were all inspired by the possibilities suggested by the coring drill, which Noguchi typically used to reveal areas of the interior of stone.
After Noguchi’s death in 1988, Izumi assumed a caretaker role for the sculptor’s legacy in Japan, as Noguchi had hoped. Izumi served as president of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation in Japan and oversaw the transition of the studio to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan, which opened in 1999. He also helped to oversee and execute projects uncompleted at the time of Noguchi’s death, including Black Slide Mantra (1988–89), a black variation on the white Italian marble Slide Mantra shown at the Venice Biennale in 1986 (and now installed at Bayfront Park in Miami). This second version, carved by Izumi in dark granite according to Noguchi’s plaster scale model, was installed in Odori Park in downtown Sapporo, Japan. Noguchi’s conception of these two versions of Slide Mantra mirrored the cross-continental dialogue between the white Danby marble sun element at Noguchi’s Sunken Garden at Beinecke Library at Yale University and Black Sun in Seattle. Another outstanding commission was for a site at Takamatsu Airport, a few miles from Mure. This work, Time and Space (1988–91), is composed of two merged forms: an eccentrically stylized pyramid and a drumlike mound. Each stone in the masonry assemblage retains its natural shape and character.
Over the last decades of his life, Izumi emerged as an artist in his own right in Japan and the United States, creating landscape sculptures and masonry walls. Noguchi’s brother, Michio, present for much of Noguchi and Izumi’s long collaboration, noted that Izumi initially modified stones for his own environment, creating basins and platforms, and suggested that Izumi “probably … does not regard these objects as sculptures or works of art; what concerns him most is that they should be beautiful and well-balanced.”18 These experiments in stone have found their way into public and private collections in the United States, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Izumi’s work has also been exhibited at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, on New York’s Long Island (2008), among other places.
In October 2016, I visited Noguchi’s studio in Mure, Japan for the first time with Senior Curator Dakin Hart. The environment at Mure is a glimpse of a private world as Noguchi might have arranged it, tended to by the figure who arranged for it. The contents of the residence have been preserved as Noguchi left them, at Izumi’s urging.19 The tools in the kura where Noguchi worked are still arranged neatly, as though he might return and take them up again at any moment. The place appears as a sort of sustained vigil maintained by Izumi and the dedicated staff of the Museum.
In the afternoon of the day of our visit, Izumi and his daughter Mihoko Masuda drove us up to a remote stone yard nestled somewhere on the slopes of Mount Goken (“the five peaks”), which can be seen from the Stone Circle. Izumi then proceeded to give us a systematic tour of all of the family’s stone yards, which are scattered throughout Mure. I’ve since learned that this was something of a staple of Izumi’s personal tours. It seems that acquainting us with the material resources of Mure was a way of acquainting us with Noguchi. One could imagine Izumi leading Noguchi on a similar circuit of these vast yards early on: treasuries of specimens of geological time that Noguchi could later visit and pick through at his leisure.
Our outing concluded at an anonymous, garage-sized building with a lot piled with stone basins, fragments, and half-worked pieces that we had passed along the roadside on our walk to Noguchi’s studio earlier that morning. Had this unassuming building not been surrounded by similar lots teeming with assorted stonework, we might have noticed a pair of near-life-size female and male dolls, Izumi’s granite replica of Noguchi’s Kokeshi (from 1951), just a few yards from the roadside. It was in this studio yard that Izumi completed Black Sun, and where a celebration was held before it was shipped to Seattle in 1969. Inside, Izumi showed us a small room fitted with various built-in wooden shelves and benches surrounding a flat, polished granite slab with arrangements of small stones on its surface, lit by a single Akari globe. Izumi related to us that this was where he and Noguchi took breaks, conversed, and began bonding during Noguchi’s first visits to Mure. Back to the beginning, a fitting end to our tour.
Text by Matthew Kirsch, Curator of Research and Digital Content at The Noguchi Museum.
Deepest thanks to our colleagues at The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan.
Copyediting by Stephanie Salomon.
Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Michio Noguchi, “About Masatoshi Izumi,” in Living with Stone (Tokyo: Yushi-sha Co., Ltd., 1994), 95.
2 Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 39.
3 Ibid., 40.
4 Katharine Kuh, “Noguchi in Japan,” World Magazine (March 13, 1973): 60. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_1622_1973.
5 Isamu Noguchi, “Garden of Peace,” UNESCO Courier 11 (November 1958): 33.
6 Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 55.
7 Michio Noguchi, “About Masatoshi Izumi,” in Living with Stone, 95.
8 Masayo Duus, The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 314.
9 “Masatoshi Izumi: Seeing the Soul of Stone,” season 4, episode 7 of Articulate with Jim Cotter, aired November 19, 2018 on PBS, https://www.pbs.org/video/masatoshi-izumi-seeing-soul-stone-e7npww/.
11 Tadashi Yamamoto, “Globality and Locality,” in Living with Stone, 162.
12 Isamu Noguchi, interview by Bruce Bassett (transcript), January 21, 1978. The Noguchi Museum Archives MS_WRI_048_001, 74.
13 Noguchi makes special mention of Sasao in Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 12.
14 A good, capsule description of Noguchi’s process and his direction of Izumi and his crew can be found in Bruce Altshuler, Isamu Noguchi (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994), 109–110.
15 This initial model, along with footage of Momo Taro’s staging at Mure and installation at Storm King, can be seen in Bruce Bassett’s documentary film Isamu Noguchi, Whitgate Productions, 1980. The Noguchi Museum Archives, AV_1VT_006_1980. Noguchi describes the conception of Momo Taro and the retrieval of granite from Shodoshima in an interview with Bruce Bassett, January 21, 1978. See The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_048_001, 56–57.
16 Noguchi interview, January 21, 1978. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_048_001, 47.
17 In a film documenting the installation of Water Stone, Izumi can be seen monitoring the fountain as it makes contact with the support stones and checking its leveling throughout.
18 Michio Noguchi, “The Works of Masatoshi Izumi,” in Living with Stone, 125.
19 See Shoji Sadao, letter to Isaac Shapiro and Donald Blinken, February 28, 1989. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_016_002.