By Spencer Bailey
Throughout his life, Isamu Noguchi thought deeply about memory and memorials. In fact, he devised fifteen memorial designs, five of which were completed prior to his death on December 30, 1988.
Considering himself a citizen of “Spaceship Earth,” Noguchi’s universal worldview was exemplified in his memorial making, perhaps evidenced nowhere more clearly than through his concept for the immense Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars (1947).1 His Japanese American identity, and the evolving conflicts he felt therein, also came out through his multifarious memorial projects: while he designed a memorial to Benjamin Franklin—and effectively, American ingenuity—in 1933 (it would be completed more than fifty years later, in 1985), as well as another that same year to the American plow, an innovation attributed to Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he would also put forward, just eighteen years later, a memorial dedicated to the atomic bombing victims of Hiroshima, the deadly result of America’s technological, industrial, and military might. That he was torn between identities, cultures, and societies was his quiet strength as a designer of memorials. Such projects were no doubt a productive way for Noguchi to work through his shifting allegiances and polar perspectives.
What made Noguchi special, or even spectacular, as a memorial maker was his aim of capturing something spiritual—a sort of transcendence of space and time through physical abstraction. His memorials were made to be experienced. Between 1950 and 1953, when devising a project dedicated to Gandhi, for example, he sought to create “a living memorial in which many people may participate.”2 Memorials were, for him, democratic acts of un-forgetting.
Noguchi understood how to create ambitious works that were evocative exactly because of their ambiguity. Their power and strength lies in their pairing of abstraction with a certain level of specificity—enough to make clear what’s being memorialized while still allowing for a multitude of meanings, interpretations, and responses. “One does not silently bury the dead building a monument,” Noguchi once wrote.3 He sought to make profound works that deal with “today’s problems” and capture various ideas at once—“aspirations, problems, sufferings.”4
While Noguchi was without question singular in his approach to memorials, his creations followed pathbreaking examples by Auguste Rodin, who was commissioned in 1884 to create a monument to the burghers of Calais in France, and Constantin Brancusi, whom Noguchi worked under in Paris for five months in 1927, and who created the towering Endless Column memorial in Târgu Jiu, Romania, completed in 1938 and dedicated to the soldiers who died fighting off the Germans from that town during World War I. Noguchi would evoke Endless Column in several projects, built and unbuilt, including the Memorial to Buddha (1957) and the Challenger Memorial (1985–87). When conceiving his Challenger project, Noguchi also looked to Vladimir Tatlin’s plans for the never-built Monument to the Third International (1919–20) as a reference (the Tatlin monument had long interested him: on a brief trip to Moscow in 1930, Noguchi had tried to find the structure, which he thought had been built, to no avail).5