Collage of objects personally collected by Isamu Noguchi in his lifetime, including masks, tools,...

Noguchi as Collector

Collage of objects personally collected by Isamu Noguchi in his lifetime, including masks, tools,...

Noguchi as Collector

By Kate Wiener

A 1960s photograph of Isamu Noguchi in the kitchen of his Long Island City studio and home shows the artist casually leaning back in his chair as he chats on the phone. On a pegboard and shelf behind him is a curious collection of objects: an ancient Chinese three-legged vessel sits below a four-sided Mexican bell, which is tacked to the wall along with two of Noguchi’s own small metal works, a Native American hide drum, and what appears to be a Japanese paper kite.1 A photograph of the space, likely taken a few years later, captures the pegboard adorned with a revised cast of objects. Among other new additions, the collection now includes a Balinese shadow puppet and a Melanesian shield, as well as a pair of Indian bhaya and tabla drums sitting atop Noguchi’s Cyclone Table.

These photographs of Noguchi’s pegboard and living space, which played host to a rotating selection of items over the years, offer a captivating glimpse into the extraordinary range of objects that Noguchi chose to keep in his orbit. More than four hundred of these objects, now loosely known as Noguchi’s collectibles, are housed in The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum’s Study Collection. Taken together, they offer a unique and intimate portrait of the artist, tracing his travels around the world and the phenomenal scope of his interests. This essay highlights select objects in this collection, treating them as entry points into Noguchi’s complex and multifaceted practice.

Research into Noguchi’s collectibles remains an ongoing project at the Museum as we continue to uncover new information through careful study of Noguchi’s letters, photographs, writings, and Personal Library. There is still a great deal of work to be done, and we invite anyone with specific knowledge regarding these objects to contact the Museum by sending an email to Photographs of Noguchi’s collectibles can be found in The Noguchi Museum Archive, along with updated object labels, which are based on new research.2 Despite the copious records and correspondence now available through the fully digitized Archive, there remains relatively little information about precisely when, where, and how Noguchi collected most of these items. We have no accounts of Noguchi speaking explicitly about his approach to collecting or why he obtained what he did. Unlike some of his artist peers who considered collecting to be part of their artistic practice, Noguchi never seems to have fashioned himself as a collector.3 In the absence of such records, we are mostly left to seek out the meaning behind the collectibles by turning to the objects themselves and studying them in the context of Noguchi’s broader approach to material culture and its global histories. Noguchi concluded his catalogue for the Museum with the succinct statement, “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.”4 If anything, it is safe to say that Noguchi’s collectibles represent those objects that moved him so and informed his continued efforts to expand the boundaries of sculpture.

Ancient Artifacts

At its best, Noguchi’s work defies neat temporal classification, upending conceptions of the modern and archaic, the ephemeral and eternal. He once described his work in stone as a “meeting from opposite ends of time,” and often spoke of ancient history and a longer ecological or cosmic time-scale.5 When asked in a 1960 interview what kind of art he admired, Noguchi replied: 

Actually, the older it is, the more archaic and primitive, the better I like it. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s simply because the repeated distillation of art brings you back to the primordial: the monoliths, the cave paintings, the scratchings, the shorthand by which the earliest people tried to indicate their sense of significance, and even further back until you get to the fundamental material itself.6

For Noguchi, looking to the distant past, and to the oldest examples of artistic expression, was an effort to tap into what he understood as a broader cosmic interrelatedness—something fundamental shared across time and culture. His collection includes numerous ancient artifacts, which likely held certain material and technological significance for him.

For instance, the ancient Chinese vessel, seen on the shelf behind Noguchi in the photograph taken at Noguchi’s studio in the 1960s, is a typical three-legged bronze jue, likely dating back to the late Shang dynasty (12th century BCE). These vessels, which were used in rituals to serve wine, represent notable advances in bronze-casting technology. We do not know when Noguchi acquired this piece, but his friend and biographer Dore Ashton has noted that Noguchi became aware of Chinese casting techniques, with their rich symbolism and inscriptions, and “the exquisite mysteries these ancient Chinese bronzes proffered” as early as 1930, when he lived in Peking (now Beijing).7 Noguchi’s interest in ancient tools and technology seems to have spanned many years. In 1988, the last year of his life, Noguchi acquired the oldest object in his collection—an Egyptian basalt vase dating approximately to 3500 BCE—by trading one of his own basalt sculptures, The Inner Surface (1978) with antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz.8 Schultz had shown the vase in a gallery exhibition in 1987, and in the show’s catalogue, the vase is described as bearing the markings of an ancient technique that entailed the hollowing out of basalt with a crank drill, which left telltale rings on the inside of the vessel.9 Noguchi surely would have appreciated these material testaments to ancient human labor and innovation.

Chinese; Wine Vessel (Jue); late Shang Dynasty, c. 12th century BCE and Egyptian; Vase; Predynastic, Naqada I-II, c. 3500 BCE; Collection of Isamu Noguchi (Study Collection; Collectibles, C-Apt-1; C-V-16). The Noguchi Museum Archives, SC_COL_001; SC_COL_269. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi also had a number of stone figures dating back to approximately 300100 BCE from the Mezcala, an ancient Mesoamerican culture originating in present-day Guerrero, Mexico. Like many artists of his time, Noguchi may have been drawn to the protomodern abstraction of the human form in these ancient carvings. For Noguchi, who in his later years developed a deep appreciation for carving hard stones, the material and carving process also would have been a source of great interest. In his personal library, Noguchi had a catalogue from a 1956 exhibition at André Emmerich Gallery called Mezcala: Ancient Mexican Sculpture written by his friend, the artist and ethnologist Miguel Covarrubius.10 The preface, written by Emmerich (who would later exhibit Noguchi’s work in 1980), could very well describe Noguchi himself:

The makers of Mezcala stone figures had only the simplest of tools to work with...yet the stones they chose for their sculpture were almost always the hardest they could find. These ancient sculptors gave their figures a hand-worn, smoothed and polished finish that speaks of great patience and love. Perhaps only someone who has tried to cut and polish stone with a simple tool can have adequate respect for the marvelous accomplishments of these stone-age artists.11
Noguchi’s collection of Mezcala stone figures and a related publication from his personal library. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS


In many ways Noguchi’s collection of three haniwa encapsulates his nuanced appreciation for ancient history. Haniwa are ancient Japanese burial objects made of hollow, unglazed, and low-fire ceramic that traditionally take the form of animals, figures, and small houses, and date from the Tumulus period (250552 CE). Noguchi first encountered haniwa in the collection of the Kyoto Museum in 1931, on his first trip back to Japan as an adult. He described them as temporal bridges, recalling that “they were in a sense modern, they spoke to me and were closer to my feelings for the earth.”12 That summer, Noguchi established a studio in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto, where he studied with master potter Jinmatsu Uno and produced his own series of low-fire terra-cotta sculptures. Among these works was The Queen (1931), a large-scale cylindrical terra-cotta sculpture that he at times chose to alternatively title Haniwa. Nearly two decades later, in 1950, Noguchi returned to Japan. After receiving an invitation to exhibit photographs of his work at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo, Noguchi instead opted to create an entirely new series of terra-cotta works, which he produced for the exhibition in just one week at a ceramics facility in the city of Seto. Many of these works recall the elemental, hollow, segmented forms characteristic of haniwa. It was at this time that Noguchi acquired two of the haniwa in his collection from a sale of prehistoric pottery that took place at the Mitsukoshi Department Store before his own exhibition.13

Isamu Noguchi’s collection of haniwa and related ceramic works produced in Japan. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

Over the course of three periods of work in Japan, Noguchi would produce more than three hundred ceramic objects and immerse himself in the study of ancient Japanese ceramic traditions, which he saw as having a vital connection to the earththe literal ground of Japanese national history and culture. Upon his return visits in the 1950s, however, Noguchi found that traditional Japanese artistic traditions held a newly charged symbolism in a country still reeling from World War II and reckoning with the destructive consequences of its own wartime nationalism. While many young artists were turning away from Japanese traditions, looking instead to contemporary practices in the West for inspiration, Noguchi believed that it was only through looking to its own past that Japan could be reborn. In the catalogue for his 1952 exhibition of ceramic works at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Noguchi wrote, “An innocent synthesis must rise from the embers of the past.”14

Along with friends that included architect Kenzo Tange and artist Saburo Hasegawa, Noguchi drew a wealth of inspiration from the careful study and integration of traditional Japanese art with contemporary practice. He touched on the complexity of the moment in a 1978 interview when he said that “going back to Japan after the War, it was like going to a country that’s re-, newborn…they were searching [for] what it was to be Japanese…in a more fundamental way…they were interested in the Haniwa…and they wanted to go back even further to the Jomon…That gave them great satisfaction that they were really getting some place closer…to the beginning, to the axis mundi if you like. Something where they could have a common humanity, not just Japanese.”15 In this way, haniwa both embodied and transcended Japanese national identity, representing a profound tie to the full span of human history.

In 1952, the renowned potter Kitaoji Rosanjin offered Noguchi the use of a 200-year-old farmhouse on his property in Kita Kamakura, along with access to his kilns.16 It was there that Noguchi produced many of the ceramic sculptures included in his 1952 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura. For Noguchi, this borrowed home became its own work of art as he carefully altered the farmhouse to incorporate and interweave traditional and modern elements, including a carved earthen wall and custom lighting.17 Significantly, he placed one of his haniwa in a niche in the earthen wallquietly poised to preside over his studio. Noguchi’s appreciation for and display of his haniwa collection in his home in Kamakura are indicative of his broader philosophical approach to the past and the nature of tradition. As he expressed in a 1978 interview: “[A] tradition that does not change and adapt itself to [the] times is a dead tradition…[T]he essence of tradition is change…[M]ost people think of tradition… [as a] sort of a style which was of a certain period, when not at all, tradition is something that changes and lives.”18

Isamu Noguchi and Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s home and studio in Kita-Kamakura, Japan, c. 1952. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

This description in many ways speaks to Noguchi’s larger approach to ancient art and why he might have chosen to collect such work. Rather than approaching the objects merely as historical artifacts, Noguchi saw them as links in a chain to the past: as time-tested ideas to be actively used and adapted to contemporary life. These cross-temporal links united humans as artists and makers across centuries. 

“The ‘Arts’ Called ‘Primitive’”

In addition to developing a personal appreciation for haniwa, Noguchi seems to have made an effort to share his admiration for them with the West. In 1961, he donated a haniwa in the shape of a horse’s head to the Brooklyn Museum.19 He placed another haniwa on extended loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, which had been founded in 1957 by Nelson A. Rockefeller in New York City for the display of Rockefeller’s personal collection of so-called “primitive” art.20 This collection would serve as the foundation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas following the Museum of Primitive Art’s 1974 closure. The Museum of Primitive Art’s mission and practice of collecting and exhibiting ancient, indigenous, and non-Western art offers a telling case study for contextualizing Noguchi’s approach to collecting. Noguchi wrote about the museum’s opening for ArtNews in a piece called “The ‘arts’ called ‘primitive,’” a text that offers key insight into his thinking.21 In the review, Noguchi adds his own unique perspective to the debate around “primitivism” and the fraught practice of imposing an often fetishistic Western perspective on artwork of non-Western and indigenous cultures monolithically categorized as “other.” This was surely a complex issue for Noguchi, who spent a lifetime negotiating his own biracial identity and cultural hybridity and was often met with racist dismissiveness and stereotyping.

In the catalogue for the Museum of Primitive Art’s inaugural exhibition in spring 1957, Rockefeller explains that the institution was founded first and foremost as an art institution, distinct from “museums of ethnology and ‘natural history.’”22 Organized from an “esthetic point of view,” its aim was to “select objects of outstanding beauty whose rare quality is the equal of works shown in other museums of art….”23 While contemporary critics reviewing the museum’s opening generally focused on the aesthetic merits of work in the collection and their resonance with modernist Western art, or debated their place in a museum of art as opposed to an anthropological or ethnographic collection, Noguchi developed several unique arguments in his text.24 Although he found great beauty and sophistication in the work on display and recognized the importance of the collection, he objected to the “complete scramble as to provenance and period” of most of the works, as well as the fact that “titles and dates appear[ed] almost improvised or irrelevant.”25 He also criticized the museum’s overly narrow interest in the drawing out of “pointed inter-affinities…to the arts of our times.”26

In his review, Noguchi also outlined his own idiosyncratic definition of “primitive,” which focuses more on material and technological innovation than on any Eurocentric notion of “advanced culture” or “civilization.” Noguchi wrote: “Primitive is a word that often seems to apply better to later rather than earlier periods, and this with reference partly to the impermanent materials used, where the technological limitations themselves might be taken as an indication of primitivism.”27 In other words, older artifacts are not necessarily more “primitive” if there was sufficient technological innovation for their creators to make them from stable and enduring materials.28 From Noguchi’s perspective, sculptures that last and thus have the capacity to communicate beyond the strictures of time, were highly advanced, whenever they were made, or by whom.

  • Isamu Noguchi, “The ‘Arts’ Called ‘Primitive,’” ArtNews 56 (March 1957): 24–27, 64–65. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_0262_1957. ©INFGM/ARS

Another important aspect of Noguchi’s review of the Museum of Primitive Art is his critique of the lack of specificity around each object. He believed that the museum failed to approach the work on its own terms and was instead organized in the service of demonstrating ties to modern Western abstract art, another personal passion of Rockefeller. As Noguchi put it, “The intentions of the makers have been transcribed to our terms, we make them into works of art.”29 In a 1965 profile of Rockefeller and his prolific art collection, which happened to also include a number of Noguchi’s sculptures, Rockefeller is quoted as saying: “My interest in primitive art is not an intellectual one. It is strictly esthetic. Don’t ask me whether this bowl which I am holding is a household implement or a ritual vessel…I could not care less! I enjoy the form, the texture, the color, the shape. I am not in the least interested in the anthropological or the ethnological end of it. That’s why I founded this museum: to show that the art of primitive people could be treated on purely esthetic and formal grounds.”30 In comparison to Rockefeller’s strictly formal motivations, Noguchi’s own approach to collecting seems to have oscillated between careful study of certain cultures and practices and a more sweeping universalism that presumed a shared human tradition transcending time and place. Of course, Noguchi’s responsibility to these objects and their histories was far different from Rockefeller, given that he was not collecting work for display in a public institution but on the basis of deeply personal affinities.

  • Isamu Noguchi in Versailles, France, 1953. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08224.4. ©INFGM/ARS

It is difficult to piece together how much Noguchi knew about the makers, traditions, and cultures represented in his collection, and his depth of knowledge certainly varied. We do know that in 1955, two years before his review of the Museum of Primitive Art was published, Noguchi concluded a particularly active six-year period of international travel that saw him crisscrossing Europe and Asia. This activity was funded by a series of grants from the Bollingen Foundation. The purpose of these trips was his research for a book project on “the environment of leisure, its meaning, its use, and its relationship to society.”31 Although the book never materialized, Noguchi became an avid student of “sculptural practices” in different cultures (using his own broad interpretation of sculpture), and we know that he obtained a number of his collectibles during these trips.

Indonesian Performance Objects

Indonesia seems to have been a particularly compelling destination for Noguchi. Compared to the overall scope of his collection, he obtained a relatively large number of objects from Bali and Java during his first trip in 1950 and his return in 1953. Working across theater, dance, design, and architecture, Noguchi long maintained a commitment in his own work to exploring the broader possibilities and social relevance of art, and in Indonesia he found a place where performance traditions existed entirely outside the usual Western, categorical distinctions between art and life. He recalled Bali as a “magical island…the island where life and art are one.”32

  • Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04832. ©INFGM/ARS

One of Noguchi’s Indonesian collectibles is an intricately etched Balinese lontar, an illustrated palm-leaf manuscript recounting the story of Ramayana, a Hindu epic that is also dramatized in dance and theater performances in Bali. The lontar manuscript has Noguchi’s name inscribed with the date February 28, 1950 in the bottom left corner and the name of the artist, I Gusti Gede Raka. A famous dancer, gamelan musician, puppet master, and artist who toured internationally and came from the royal family of his village, Raka may have acted as a guide for Noguchi.33

  • I Gusti Gede Raka (Balinese); Lontar Manuscript (Ramayana); 1950; Palm leaf, wood, ink; 1 x 15 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (closed); Collection of Isamu Noguchi (Study Collection; Collectibles, C-V-55). Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, SC_COL_308. ©INFGM/ARS

While in Bali, Noguchi carefully studied his surroundings, taking detailed notes, and avidly photographing and sketching what he saw. He observed traditional dances, including the Topeng, a masked dance that recounts stories of past Balinese kingdoms and the ancestral world, which he described as “not a dance but theater.”34 He also documented the masked Barong dance, which can involve giant towering puppets and features a sacred Barong Ket mask, which can be seen in Noguchi’s personal photographs. While in Bali, Noguchi photographed numerous local carvers, and despite his limited funds and need to travel lightly, he collected approximately thirty carved wooden masks. Notably, this was years before the emergence of any organized large-scale tourist market in Bali.

  • Wood carver in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04840. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Wood carver in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photos: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04995. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Topeng performer in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04911. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Barong performers with Barong Ket mask in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 148347. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Barong performer with Barong Ket mask in Batubulan, Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 05005. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Barong performers in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04902. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi, Bollingen drawing of Topeng performers in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 11099. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi, Bollingen drawing of Topeng performers in Bali, Indonesia, 1950–53. Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 11168. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi’s Indonesian vocabulary lists, 1950–53. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BOL_026_010. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi’s collection includes masks of varying levels of completion representing a range of characters. Among these are Leyaks, or student witches, with bulging eyes and flared nostrils; the Penesar figure, the central storyteller and first character to appear in the Topeng dramas; Jatayu, a bird from the Ramayana story; and the Barong Ket, a powerful ruler of the jungle that is the central figure of the Barong dance.35 Interestingly, most of the Balinese masks Noguchi collected are unfinished Bondres, three-quarters- or full-face masks used in the Topeng to represent lowly and comedic stock characters. They have exaggerated expressions and often show pronounced deformities.36 Noguchi had enough characters in his collection that he could have potentially staged his own version of the Topeng and Barong, although we don’t know if that was ever his intention. We can speculate that for Noguchi, these masks—sculptures brought to life through performance and embedded in regional history, culture, religion, and everyday life—gestured toward art’s broader social purpose.

Noguchi would experiment with his own mask designs in costumes produced for dance productions and in sculptures made before and after his first visits to Bali. His first dance-related design was a series of now-lost papier-mâché masks for the Japanese dancer and choreographer Michio Ito’s 1926 production of William Butler Yeats’s At The Hawk’s Well, a play inspired by classical Japanese Noh theater productions. Noguchi would go on to design masks for Merce Cunningham’s The Seasons (1947) and George Balanchine’s Orpheus (1948). Later, he would design several abstract masks for Martha Graham’s Cortege of Eagles (1967) that ultimately were unused. His sculptures Mask (1952) and Okame (Atomic Head) (1954) demonstrate his continued fascination with the symbolic value of the sculpted face. In 1985, Noguchi wrote a short text for an exhibition catalogue on kawari kabuto, Japanese warrior’s helmets, which he described as “more mask than hat,” as they are “disguise[s] to transform the wearer into a personage of otherworldly ferocity.” Clearly captivated by the power of the mask as a form of art to be inhabited, Noguchi described how “this change of personality is through sculpture” and how masks can encourage an emotional or spiritual transformation within the wearer.37

Masks for dance and mask-inspired sculptures designed by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

The Indonesian tradition of Wayang Kulit, a form of shadow puppet theater, seems to have been another source of particular fascination for Noguchi. His collection includes thirteen of these puppets from Java and Bali representing a cast of mythological, religious, and folk characters. Noguchi produced numerous sketches of the Wayang Kulit, which is performed by a puppet master from behind a backlit white screen. Noguchi often spoke of theater and his own stage designs as total environments, and it’s not hard to imagine his delight at the microcosmic universe of the Wayang Kulit, brought to life with articulated shadow puppets. Years later, and perhaps informed by his appreciation for Indonesian puppet theater, Noguchi proposed including a large theater area for music, performances, and puppet plays in his unrealized design with architect Louis Kahn for a children’s playground in Riverside Park.38

Musical Instruments

In Indonesia, Noguchi also developed a deep appreciation for traditional gamelan music, which is integrated into performance and ritual traditions and has a complex multitonal quality produced by ensembles of percussion instruments. In his home in the village of Mure, which he established on the Japanese island of Shikoku in 1970, Noguchi strung up a large bamboo instrument called an angklung (used in Balinese gamelan) that could be easily mistaken for something else, including sculpture he might have made.39 Although there is no documentation of Noguchi having played music himself, in addition to the angklung, he collected a number of other musical instruments or sounding objects from around the world that represent an incredible range of sounds and traditions.

  • Isamu Noguchi, Bolligen drawing of gamelan musicians, Bali, Indonesia, c. 1950–53. Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 11124. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Angklung in Isamu Noguchi’s home in Mure, Japan, c. 1980s. Photo: Hiroko Oka. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 146943. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Gamelan musicians in Indonesia, c. 1950–53. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04896. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi’s collection features numerous bells, including a four-sided Mexican ceramic bell, perhaps obtained during travels in Mexico. This style of bell was popularized in the United States when designers Charles and Ray Eames used one as a doorbell for their famous home in California, Case Study House No. 8 (1949), which Noguchi visited and so likely would have seen.40 His collection also includes a Japanese bronze samurai horse bell and an Indonesian cow bell, as well as a range of other hanging bells of unknown origins.

Isamu Noguchi’s collection of bells. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

On the occasion of a 1950 exhibition in Tokyo, Noguchi displayed his model Bell Tower for Hiroshima (1950), a proposal for an 70-foot-tall monument adorned with hanging bells from all over the world, which he intended to be activated by the wind. Although this project was never realized, the bell seems to have held a lasting importance for Noguchi. Possibly inspired by a selection of the terra-cotta bells used in the model, Noguchi would later produce the poignant stand-alone sculptures Small Bomb (1957) and Bell Image (1956–57).

Isamu Noguchi’s unrealized model for Bell Tower for Hiroshima and two later bell-related sculptures. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

In 1946, while in New York, Noguchi befriended Geeta Sarabhai, a young Indian singer and percussionist, and a member of the influential Sarabhai family, who were progressive business leaders in India and major patrons of the arts. Sarabhai hoped to study Western music, and Noguchi introduced her to his friend the experimental composer John Cage, thereby initiating what would become a profound friendship and cross-cultural exchange for both.41 In a letter to Noguchi, Sarabhai wrote, “Isamu, You were right in asking me to work with a composer rather than study with a musicologist. John did a tremendous thing for mehe helped me find my roots in music. He also gave me an attitude to music and more than anything else, his vital and complete absorption in music gave me faith in it.”42 Cage would express a similar indetdebtness to Sarabhai, and his newfound appreciation for Indian music would inspire much of his work, including the score that he composed for Merce Cunningham’s The Seasons (1947).43 Noguchi maintained a relationship with the Sarabhai family throughout his life, often staying with them during his travels through India. In 1960, the Sarabhai family even helped him obtain a pair of traditional Indian tabla and bhaya drums for his collection, from the Lahore Music House (which, incidentally, is the same music shop in Delhi where The Beatles shopped for their first Indian instruments in 1966).44

Indian; Tabla and Bhaya; Collection of Isamu Noguchi (Study Collection; Collectibles, C-Apt-30, C-Apt-31). The Noguchi Museum Archives, SC_COL_031_CC-v, SC_COL_032_CC-v. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi’s first experiment with incorporating sound into his own work was his early design for Musical Weathervane in 1933, an ultimately unrealized proposal for an illuminated weathervane that would capture and make music of the wind. In his biography, Noguchi wrote, “The idea may have come from my stay in China, where small flutes made of gourds were attached to pigeons, and made a whooing sound as they flew about.”45 Although it is unknown when exactly he acquired it (perhaps on his first visit to Peking, now Beijing, in 1930), Noguchi’s collection includes one of these Chinese gourd instruments, called a ko-tze, designed to be attached to a pigeon’s tail and give sound to a bird’s flight. Noguchi likely would have appreciated the poetics of an improvised flying orchestra, as well as the use of sound as a toolan ancient tracking device designed to alert message recipients to the arrival of a carrier pigeon.

Noguchi would continue to incorporate instruments and sound into his work in different ways throughout his career. For a number of his designs for dance, Noguchi sculpted his own versions of musical instruments, although they were only props and did not produce sound. These included two balsa-wood lyres for George Balanchine’s Orpheus (1948) and Martha Graham’s Judith (1950), as well as costumes resembling bells and a collapsible church steeple with bells for Ruth Page’s The Bells (1946). A selection of Noguchi’s sculptures also actively incorporates elements of sound. Among these works are his unrealized Bell Tower for Hiroshima (1950) and his playable sculpture Sounding Stone (1981). Noguchi’s various garden designs and works that use water, including The Well (Variation on a Tsukubai) (1982), also allowed him to uniquely harness his natural aural surroundings. In an 1986 interview, Noguchi claimed: “Art is everywhere. The whole world is art. The only thing is, some people see it and some people don’t. If one is really awake, he will see that the whole world is a symphony.”46 For Noguchi, music proved to be an apt metaphor for his all-encompassing vision of art. He may have also found inspiration in thinking of his instruments as sculpted objects of sound, tools crafted for bodily use, and objects interwoven into local traditions and ritual, yet capable of resonating beyond prescribed cultural boundaries.

Stage sets and sculptures incorporating sound designed by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS
West African Furniture

In addition to the pigeon whistle, there are other examples of Noguchi’s work being directly influenced by his collectibles. His Rocking Stool in Wire Form (1954) was inspired by a wooden stool in his collection carved by a member of the Lega people, from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The stool originally belonged to Noguchi’s friend LIFE magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon, and the story of Noguchi’s fascination with the object was detailed in a 1956 LIFE article.47 Replete with a fantastic full-page multiple-exposure photograph by Elisofon of a seemingly delighted woman teetering on Noguchi’s stool, the article describes Noguchi’s fascination with the African stool. However, “as a man who fidgets when he sits,” Noguchi was apparently frustrated by the awkward way it rocked when tipped. With its rounded bottom, Noguchi’s tapered stool was designed to allow “fidgety sitters to tilt, rock back and forth and even spin around with a fair chance of not tipping over.”48

In a 1960s photograph by Hans Namuth of the upper floor living area of Noguchi’s Long Island City studio, one can see part of his collection of West African furniture, which in addition to the Lega stool included a range of benches, stools, and beds, mostly from the Ivory Coast.49 Noguchi seems to have deeply admired the design of his West African furniture and particularly the way the chairs were constructed to account for the stability provided by the sitter’s own two legs.

  • Upper-floor living area of Isamu Noguchi’s Long Island City studio, c. 1960s. Photo: Hans Namuth. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03276. ©INFGM/ARS

A revealing clip from Michael Blackwood’s 1972 documentary Isamu Noguchi gives a sense of Noguchi’s excitement but also his lack of specific knowledge about the actual makers or cultural traditions represented in his collection. Sitting in a chair carved by a Lobi maker, Noguchi says, “For instance, you know the Africans are so intelligent. Look what a wonderful chair this is. That’s a chair for you. You sit in it, like this, or lie down, whatever. You know, it fits anybody…because you see it has just one point, but your two feet act as the other two points.” Moving then to his own Rocking Stool in Wire Form (1954), he continues: “And on this you’re really sitting on a point…you don’t really need more than one point. And to me, furniture is one of those things we’ll eventually get rid of. This is about the way I like it.”50

Isamu Noguchi seated on Lobi chair, still from Michael Blackwood’s 1972 documentary Isamu Noguchi

Footage from the film Isamu Noguchi, 1972,
directed by Michael Blackwood
Courtesy of Michael Blackwood Productions

Noguchi never actually traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa, and aside from the stool from Elisofon, it is unclear precisely when and how he obtained the other pieces in his collection.51 On a more general level, however, Noguchi did seem to find a wealth of inspiration in the design of this furniture.52 As opposed to the typical Western appreciation of a perceived abstraction in African masks epitomized in Western museum displays, Noguchi was drawn to their innovation and efficiency as functional objects. Noguchi often expressed a desire to “bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living.”53 His appreciation for African furniture design seems rooted in this long-standing ambition to bring art into the realm of everyday life, including his own.

Isamu Noguchi’s collection of West African furniture. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS
A Spiritual Voyager

Noguchi spent much of his life traveling and often described himself as a citizen of the world. He wrote in his autobiography, A Sculptor’s World: “I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.”54 His friend and biographer Dore Ashton described him as a “spiritual voyager whose natural state of mind was one of exile.”55 His collectibles, representing so many different artistic and cultural traditions from around the world, are hallmarks of his lifelong wanderings, his ceaseless exploration, and more than anything else, his ambition to reconcile his own outsider status by understanding his position in a global lineage of object-making covering the full sweep of human history.

Despite their diversity, Noguchi’s collectibles likely represented something fundamentally shared for him: some cosmic unity to be found in what he called “yearnings of different times” or places.56 When he set out on his Bollingen travels, the horrors of World War II, and specifically the unprecedented destruction of the atomic bomb, had catalyzed Noguchi’s ambition to find art’s broader purpose, to understand its relationship to society, and to find examples of living traditions he could use to reinvigorate and remotivate the practice of sculpture. His collectibles seem deeply related to this aim. Considered today, they are illuminating examples of Noguchi’s interests. In our own deeply fractured moment, they also continue to represent, perhaps with shared urgency, the phenomenal scope and enduring power of the global artistic traditions that Noguchi so avidly sought throughout his life.

  • Isamu Noguchi in a Lobi chair in his Long Island City studio, c. 1960s. Photo: The Noguchi Museum Archive, 03919. ©INFGM / ARS

Text by Kate Wiener, Assistant Curator at The Noguchi Museum. 

Produced by Alex Miller.

Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to

1 There is also a hanging rectangular object on the pegboard that remains unidentified and is no longer in the collection of the Museum. The paper kite is also no longer in the collection. The Museum’s collection represents only the objects Noguchi retained through the end of his life. 

2 Our current research builds on the original cataloguing of the collection, which was carried out by Museum staff in the 1990s after Noguchi’s death and recorded in a typed card catalogue (also featured in The Noguchi Museum Archive). While the information in this card catalogue has provided us with crucial points of departure, many details are fairly cursory, and often speculative.

3 The surrealists, for instance, and notably André Breton, with whom Noguchi became acquainted in the 1940s in New Yorkto which many European avant-garde artists fled during the wardeveloped a unique approach to collecting and exhibiting non-Western art. See Christina Rudosky’s “A Short Introduction to the History and Theory of Collecting Objects in Surrealism (19241957),” which argues: “For the Surrealists, the collection and heterogenous display of objects was a radical poetic practice that symbolized the reversal of a world set on rationalizing its surroundings” (13). This essay appears in Moon Dancers: Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists, ed. Jennifer Field (New York: Di Donna, 2018), an exhibition catalogue that explores the surrealists’ practice of collecting Yup’ik masks. Noguchi’s collectibles also include a Yup’ik mask (SC_COL_102), acquired from the same dealer, Julius Carlebach, who sold objects to other artists, such as Breton, Man Ray, Barnett Newman, and Miguel Covarrubias. 

4 Isamu Noguchi,The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 286.

5 Ibid., 22.

6 Katherine Kuh, “An Interview with Isamu Noguchi,” Horizon 11, no. 4 (March 1960): 112. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_0660_1960. Quoted in Dore Ashton, Noguchi: East and West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 9. 

Letter to Renato Danese from Dore Ashton, March 18, 1988, The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_283_005This letter includes a draft of Ashton’s essay for Isamu Noguchi: Bronze and Iron Sculpture, exhibition catalogue (New York: Pace Gallery, 1988), 45.

Letter to Frederick Schultz from Thomas Swope, February 7, 1990. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_305_001.

9 Frederick Schultz, Egyptian Art: The Essential Object, exhibition catalogue (New York: Acanthus Gallery, 1987), 3.

10 Miguel Covarrubius, Mezcala: Ancient Mexican Sculpture (New York: André Emmerich Gallery, 1956). The Isamu Noguchi Personal Library, An inventory of Noguchi’s personal library can be found at

11 André Emmerich, Preface to Mezcala: Ancient Mexican Sculpture, 2. See

12 Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2015), 20.

13 Bert Winther-Tamaki, “The Ceramic Art of Isamu Noguchi: A Close Embrace of the Earth,” in Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics, ed. Louise Allison Cort and Bert Winther-Tamaki (Washington D.C.: The Arthur Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 24. Winther-Tamaki cites an interview with American collectors Victor and Osborne Hague (interview by Louise Cort, Washington D.C., 2002), who reportedly advised Noguchi to visit the haniwa exhibition at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in 1950, as the source of this information.

14 Isamu Noguchi, “Recent Work Exhibited in Japan,” in Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 95. 

15 Isamu Noguchi, interview with Dore Ashton, September 13 1978, 4647. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_047_004

16 Noguchi’s collectibles also include a number of Rosanjin’s ceramic works.

17 Isamu Noguchi, “Isamu Noguchi: Projects in Japan,” Arts & Architecture 69, no. 10 (October 1952): 2426. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_0256_1952.

18 Isamu Noguchi, interview with Bruce Bassett, January 21, 1978, 94. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_048_001.

19 This work remains in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection: Head from a Haniwa in the Shape of a Horse, 5th6th century. Low-fire earthenware pottery, reassembled from fragments, 6 x 5 1/2 x 12 1/4 in. (15.2 x 14 x 31.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Isamu Noguchi, 61.233. See Also see Brooklyn Museum gift acknowledgment, December 31, 1961. The Noguchi Museum Archives, LBD_60S_023_003.

20 Letter of appraisal from J. J. Klejman, December 21, 1961. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_341_023.

21 Isamu Noguchi, “The ‘arts’ called ‘primitive,’” ArtNews 56 (March 1957): 2427, 6465. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_0262_1957.

22 Nelson A. Rockefeller, preface to The Museum of Primitive Art: Selected Works from the Collection (New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1957) See

23 Ibid.

24 For other reviews, see for example, Hilton Kramer, “Month in Review,” Arts (May 1957): 4245 and “New Museum of Primitive Art,” Craft Horizons 17, no. 3 (May/June 1957): 3436.

25 Noguchi, “The ‘arts’ called ‘primitive,’” 25.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 64.

28 Noguchi would echo these sentiments thirty years later when asked in a 1987 interview about the controversial 198485 exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York He explained: “ I didn’t like it…rather pretentious, you know, trying to define primitive art as art, you know. It’s a presumption…as if art was a category that was superior to what they did, you know. That is pretending that it was a superior form of art that the primitives had happened upon, as if the art historical had a privilege to know something that innocent savages didn’t know.” Isamu Noguchi, interview with Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, February 22, 1987, unpublished transcript, 36. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_074_003.

29 Noguchi, “The ‘arts’ called ‘primitive,’” 25.

30 Francine du Plessix Gray, “Anatomy of a Collector: Nelson Rockefeller,” Art in America 2 (April 1965): 44. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_0750_1965.

31 Isamu Noguchi, “A Proposed Study of The Environment of Leisure,” c. 1949, 4. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_010_019.

32 Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 30.

33 Judy Slattum, “Playing with Fire: Men Who Perform Rangda,” The Quest (Autumn 1994): 30.

34 Isamu Noguchi, “1949,” unpublished manuscript, 14. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BOL_022_001.

35 While Barong Ket masks are sacred and not typically traded or sold, Noguchi’s mask would not have been protected, as it is unfinished and lacks ornate adornment.

36 We owe much of our knowledge about these masks and our gratitude to Judy Slattum, author of Balinese Masks: Spirits of an Ancient Drama (Singapore: Periplus; Tuttle Publishing, 2003), and her partner, Madé Surya, a Balinese educator, healer, mask carver, and performer of traditional mask dance, who generously reviewed photographs of Noguchi’s collection and shared invaluable insight. Conversation with Judy Slattum, Madé Surya, and The Noguchi Museum Curatorial Department, July 17, 2020.

37 Isamu Noguchi, “No Division Between Artist and Mask,” in Spectacular Helmets of Japan: 16th–19th Century, ed. Alexandra Munroe, exhibition catalogue (New York: Japan Society, 1985), 13. Also see The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CAT_0284_1985.

38 Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 177178.

39 Noguchi’s anklung is one of many collectibles that remain in his home in Japan.

40 For documentation of the bell at Charles and Ray Eames’s Case Study House No. 8, see United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, “National Historic Landmark Nomination: Eames House,” 2006, 5,; and Eames Foundation, “Exterior Tours,” In July 1951, Noguchi and his wife, actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, attended a tea ceremony at the Eames House led by Tea Ceremony Master Shizuye Sosei Matsumoto, with other guests including Charlie Chaplin, Ford Rainey, Betty Hartford, and Iris Tree.

41 David W. Patterson, “Cage and Asia: History and Sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 4850.

42 Geeta Sarabhai, letter to Isamu Noguchi, February 2, 1947. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_325_001.

43 Cage described the score for The Seasons as an “attempt to express the traditional Indian view of the seasons as quiescence (winter), creation (spring), preservation (summer), and destruction (fall).” James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 40.

44 See letter to Isamu Noguchi from M.S. Apte, November 23, 1960, The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_324_012, and letter to Isamu Noguchi from U. J. Pandya, July 15 1961, The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_065_010. According to Steve Turner, on The Beatles’ first day in Delhi the group first visited the Lahore Music House before arranging to purchase instruments at the Rikhi Ram store. See Steve Turner, Beatles 66: The Revolutionary Year (New York: Ecco, 2016), 353.

45 Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 21.

46 Robert Tracy, “Artist’s Dialogue: Isamu Noguchi,” Architectural Digest 44 (October 1987): 72. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PUB_010_005.

47 “The New Seat with a Neater Teeter: African art inspired its design.” LIFE 40, no. 6 (February 1956): 122, 125. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_OS_0593_1956.

48 Ibid., 125.

49 This photograph also pictures Noguchi’s Indian bhaya drum as well as an Indian string instrument called an ektara.

50 Michael Blackwood, dir., Isamu Noguchi, 1972 (30 min, color), Michael Blackwood Productions.

51 It is possible that Noguchi acquired this work through his friend the photographer Eliot Elisofon, who studied and collected African art, or the collector and dealer of African art Gaston de Havenon, with whom Noguchi was also acquainted.

52 In January 1988, Susan Vogel, executive director of the Center for African Art (now the Museum for African Art) in New York asked Noguchi to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition on African design. Although we have no evidence of Noguchi’s response, we can assume he declined the offer, as such an essay was never published. The offer at least indicates that Noguchi’s interests in African furniture and design were more broadly known. See letter to Isamu Noguchi from Susan Vogel, January 8, 1988. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_207_018

53 Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 159.

54 Ibid., 39.

55 Ashton, Noguchi: East and West, 16.

56 Isamu Noguchi, interview with Bruce Bassett, September 2, 1978, unpublished transcript, 28. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_049_006.