Isamu Noguchi in Greece

Noguchi in Greece,
Greece Within Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi in Greece

Noguchi in Greece,
Greece Within Noguchi

By Objects of Common Interest


Introduction
By Dakin Hart, Senior Curator

Maybe you lay on a rock by the shore, or in a sunbeam on the floor of your room. You were young, just coming into conscious being. You closed your eyes, turned your face to the sun, and let the wave of warmth flow through you. For a moment your mass became energy.

Who would you be and what would you expect from the pitiless waste of existence if you had not been that sort of child? Had you not drunk life from the source? Been baptized in light? Had the opportunity to learn what it means to be at once nothing and part of everything?

To those who are open, some environments have that potency: the power to suffuse and alter our core matter. There are as many names for this as there are ways to think and talk about it. But the search for such experiences of place is why many of us travel: looking to be marked. There are minds with the force and consistency to burn through and remake us too. If we’re lucky, maybe we have a few such encounters in a lifetime.

Greece, and all that the word connotes about how we absorb history, culture, and place, is one of those nexuses. For some, Noguchi’s way of thinking—an ocean of clarity worth drowning for—is another.


 

  • Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, c. 1949. Photo: Isamu Noguchi.
    The Noguchi Archives, 04391. ©INFGM/ARS

Objects of Common Interest

As Greek designers and architects living and working in New York we share with Noguchi the in-betweenness of two worlds. Our cultural split, like his, lies within the essence of our work. We have long been intrigued by Noguchi and have informally researched him for some time. A few years ago, our interest became more formal when we began talking with The Noguchi Museum. With the publication of the Museum’s archives online, we gained access, along with the rest of the world, to the specific information we needed to make sense of our intuitive connections.

As Noguchi’s friend R. Buckminster Fuller wrote, “Isamu traveled on and on … as the intuitive artist precursor of the evoluting, kinetic one-town world man.”1 Noguchi first became acquainted with Greece through the classical myths his writer mother read to him and later on through his own travels. As Noguchi told it, “I started a custom of stopping in Greece on my various trips to and from Japan. There I had found a worker who could block out simple forms in Penteli marble which I could work on later in New York.”2

This feature unfolds the significant connection between Noguchi and Greece that goes well beyond the artist’s quest for the country’s magical white marble, tapping into the transformative relationship between him, the place, and its people. A place he was initially introduced to through mythology but later discovered so personally that he once described it as his “intellectual home.”3

“Isamu [has] always been inherently at home—everywhere,” Fuller explained. Living and working between East and West, with a dual identity and a borderless freedom, he was intuitively receptive, continuously absorbing inspiration and abstract references that sculpted his work and personality in a unique, unparalleled way.

Through a creative and investigative approach, we have combined an amalgam of information, experiences, and moments in time into this interpretative documentation, which allows the reader to embark on a nondirected, visual journey inspired by Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, which Noguchi carried with him. Of Greece, Miller wrote:

“Light acquires a transcendental quality. It is not the light of the Mediterrenean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and the windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known.”5

Noguchi in Greece
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece, c. 1950s. Photo: Isamu Noguchi.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07883. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi in Greece

“I think of Greece with greatest fondness and would like to visit there again as I used to during the ’50s when I would get marble from a dealer there. There was a group with a gallery–they had a magazine in which I was reproduced, and my friend Nata Melas who married the architect who did all those lovely places for tourists, and there was Mr. Kapralos, and of course during the early times, Kiriokos Ghika and his wife who I took to an Italian opera.”6

Noguchi traveled frequently and was introduced to Greece’s creative and intellectual scene during his visits, creating strong friendships and bonds. He exchanged correspondence with many of the friends that he made until his death in December 1988. On his last trip to Greece in the summer of 1988 he had attended the Delphi Conference at the personal invitation of the curator Katerina Koskina.

Presented here in a visual collage are letters, photographs, and notes related to the network of people that surrounded Noguchi while in Greece, alongside works of Greek artists and elements that seduced and captivated Noguchi under the Greek light. Together these offer a framework for introducing and understanding the context within which Noguchi circulated.

“I am interested in space—and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects, and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and—why not?—the essence of life itself.”7
  • Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, July 5, 1979.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_002_008. ©INFGM/ARS

“Athens was all white marble then—or so it seemed—reflecting your beautiful sea and air. And the Acropolis was fairly deserted as I am sure it is no longer.”8

Dear Mr. Lorenzatos,

I can not enough thank you for sending your book of Haiku in Greek. I discovered it upon my return from Japan about 3 weeks ago. This is an addition to what I have to be thankful for to Ezra Pound. I will take your book with me when I return to Japan in 2 weeks to show the musician Takemitsu who I believe will do the music for Pound’s version of the Women of Trachis which it is proposed to present in the Japanese “Noh” manner. 

With gratitude and best wishes in the New Year.
Isamu Noguchi
9

  • Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, December 26, 1969. Zissimos Lorenzatos Archive, National Bank of Greece, Cultural Foundation/Hellenic Literary and Historic Archives (NBGCS/HLHA). Courtesy of Stephanos Troupakis (The Estate of Zissimos Lorenzatos).
  • Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, December 26, 1969. Zissimos Lorenzatos Archive, National Bank of Greece, Cultural Foundation/Hellenic Literary and Historic Archives (NBGCS/HLHA). Courtesy of Stephanos Troupakis (The Estate of Zissimos Lorenzatos).

Dear Mr. Lorenzatos,

I can not enough thank you for sending your book of Haiku in Greek. I discovered it upon my return from Japan about 3 weeks ago. This is an addition to what I have to be thankful for to Ezra Pound. I will take your book with me when I return to Japan in 2 weeks to show the musician Takemitsu who I believe will do the music for Pound’s version of the Women of Trachis which it is proposed to present in the Japanese “Noh” manner. 

With gratitude and best wishes in the New Year.
Isamu Noguchi
9

  • Isamu Noguchi, interview by Freddy Germanos,
    “A Famous Sculptor in Athens,” Eleftheria (Liberty), February 20, 1958.

“Have you been to Delphi? Of course you have, you are Greek. Anyway, it is there that you can see what I’m describing in its most perfect, most ideal application. Did you notice how well the space ties in with the objects and the movements of people, and how perfectly, how wisely the whole thing is framed by nature. Looking at the paths, don’t you get the impression that there are still people in togas still walking around as if time fossilized on the marbles and the stones”10

“Greece… Oh, it’s my love. I feel as if I were born here. I think that every artist who discovers Greece must feel the same…”11

  • Isamu Noguchi learning the Zeibekiko, a greek folk dance, at a tavern in Delphi, Greece, 1988.
    The European Cultural Centre of Delphi. Courtesy of Professor Paul Kalligas.
  • Isamu Noguchi learning the Zeibekiko, a greek folk dance, at a tavern in Delphi, Greece, 1988.
    The European Cultural Centre of Delphi. Courtesy of Professor Paul Kalligas.

“Greece… Oh, it’s my love. I feel as if I were born here. I think that every artist who discovers Greece must feel the same…”11

Greece Within Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, The Kite (1959), Man Walking (1959), and The Gold Mirror (1958), anodized aluminum.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07007. ©INFGM/ARS

Greece Within Noguchi

“I believed in Apollo and the Gods of Olympus before I knew of any other.”12

Archaic figures, standing columns, marble paved paths, recalling childhood memories and feelings surfacing upon facing places for the first time, the sight of untouched landscapes under the bright sun and light breeze, myths and history, poems and haiku. These are some of the notions, elements, experiences, and ideas that shaped Noguchi’s impression of Greece, and which he would continually draw on and translate in his own artistic work.

  • Isamu Gilmour (Noguchi), “The Greeks and Socrates,” 1922, high school essay.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_001_003. ©INFGM/ARS

“In this essay upon the relations of Socrates to Greek thought, I shall first give the historical and cultural background leading up to his time. The view that I shall present will appear to be, obviously, not in accord with the current conception of the childhood of mankind. I hope it will prove to be of interest both because of this difference and because of some grains of truth that may be formed therein. I will begin with the origin of gods.”13

“With my double nationality and double upbringing, where was my home? Where my affections? Where my identity? Japan or America, either, both—or the world?”14

  • Isamu Noguchi with Kouros (1945) at the exhibition Fourteen Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 10, 1946–December 8, 1946. Photo: Eliot Elisofon. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04336. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi with Kouros (1945) at the exhibition Fourteen Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 10, 1946–December 8, 1946. Photo: Eliot Elisofon. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04336. ©INFGM/ARS

“With my double nationality and double upbringing, where was my home? Where my affections? Where my identity? Japan or America, either, both—or the world?”14

“My first recollection of joy was going to a newly opened experimental kindergarten when I was about four where there was a zoo, and where children were taught to do things with their hands. My first sculpture was made there in the form of a sea wave, in clay and with a blue glaze.”15

  • Isamu Noguchi, Islands, 1946. Cement, burlap, wire mesh, plywood. Set elements for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart (1946). Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00149. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi, Islands, 1946. Cement, burlap, wire mesh, plywood. Set elements for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart (1946). Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00149. ©INFGM/ARS

“My first recollection of joy was going to a newly opened experimental kindergarten when I was about four where there was a zoo, and where children were taught to do things with their hands. My first sculpture was made there in the form of a sea wave, in clay and with a blue glaze.”15

“I had become steeped in the transformation of myth, in my sculptures, in the ballet Orpheus, and with the Greek cycle of Martha Graham.”16
  • Isamu Noguchi, interview by Catherine Frantzeskakis, “The American-Japanese Sculptor Isamu Noguchi Talks about Greece,” Zygos (Libra), 17 (March 1957): 9. Courtesy of Aikaterini and Ion Frantzeskakis.

“Brancusi made abstract art. And so I, too, started from abstract art. But it is still my impression that Brancusi was influenced much more by the Greek art of the pre-classical years than African art, which is considered the natural birthplace of abstract art.”17

“Under such conditions, I can say that I have a little of the consciousness of a Greek… Perhaps that allows me to make certain observations with love and understanding.”18

  • Portrait of Isamu Noguchi in Greece, 1988.
    Photo: Heinz-Gunter Mebusch.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06415. ©INFGM/ARS
  • Portrait of Isamu Noguchi in Greece, 1988.
    Photo: Heinz-Gunter Mebusch.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06415. ©INFGM/ARS

“Under such conditions, I can say that I have a little of the consciousness of a Greek… Perhaps that allows me to make certain observations with love and understanding.”18

Tracing Noguchi
Cover of Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1946).
Courtesy of Rachel Phillips and Burnside Rare Books.

Tracing Noguchi

Throughout the duration of this research, we have had the opportunity to take a step back and see our own work—which has always been driven by intuition, creative and conceptual curiosity, and material investigation—through a personal critical lens. 

Noguchi has been a reference for us not only because of the diversity of his work, and because he never accepted the confines of borders and creative limits, but also because of his open-mindedness, and how motivated he was by inspiration. Since our earliest days in New York, The Noguchi Museum has been a sanctuary for our creative meditations.

As our work has matured and our exploration expanded in scale, from objects to installations to architecture and space-creation, we have connected more with our Greek roots and have naturally turned to blending notions of our history, memory, and experiences in an abstract way. Here too Noguchi has provided many hints and signposts. As we investigated, it became almost essential to express how our study of Noguchi has affected our quest for abstraction. Noguchi’s impact on us is not unlike that of the Greek landscape, sun, and culture: not in any direct way related to formal expression, but the essential backdrops to our journey. 

Through photography, a subject becomes an object in a new world. With that in mind, we invited a number of international photographers, in whose work we see an interest in the notions and values that we have tried to attribute to Noguchi and Greece in this feature, into a creative dialogue. We gave them complete freedom to interpret our work in relation to Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, which Noguchi carried with him on his initial travels through Greece. We provided them with the following excerpts, which to us signify freedom and a familiar feeling of a first encounter with Greece.

“Light acquires a transcendental quality: it is not the light of the Mediterranean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known. No analysis can go on in this light: here the neurotic is either instantly healed or goes mad. The rocks themselves are quite mad: they have been lying for centuries exposed to this divine illumination: they lie very still and quiet, nestling amid dancing colored shrubs in a bloodstained soil, but they are mad, I say, and to touch them is to risk losing one’s grip on everything which once seemed firm, solid and unshakeable.”
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 41.
“We awoke early and hired a car to take us to Epidaurus. The day began in sublime peace. It was my first real glimpse of the Peloponnesus. It was not a glimpse either, but a vista opening upon a hushed still world such as man will one day inherit when he ceases to indulge in murder and thievery. I wonder how it is that no painter has ever given us the magic of this idyllic landscape. Is it too undramatic, too idyllic? Is the light too ethereal to be captured by the brush? This I can say, and perhaps it will discourage the overenthusiastic artist: there is no trace of ugliness here, either in line, color, form, feature or sentiment. It is sheer perfection, as in Mozart’s music. Indeed, I venture to say that there is more of Mozart here than anywhere else in the world. The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginning. If one could speak one would become melodious. There is nothing to be seized or treasured or cornered off here: there is only a breaking down of the walls which lock the spirit in. The landscape does not recede, it installs itself in the open places of the heart; it crowds in, accumulates, dispossesses.”
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 67.
Isamu Noguchi, “1949,” unpublished manuscript, undated.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BOL_022_00. ©INFGM/ARS
“I traveled with Henry Miller’s ‘Colossus of Maroussi’ and soon met his Hero Katsimbalis who introduced me to Uzo, and the delicacies to be found in the smallest bistros. His monologues on every nuance of history and gossip gave me insights I would never have known otherwise – unless with Miller’s book no better way exists to visit the Peloponnesus than on a bus that breaks down between Olympia and Epidaurus. Arrive at that omphalos of the Greek theater who else but I could see the heroes more clearly, I who had already made so many of the sets for the great Greek cycle of Martha Graham’s dances? I was brought up on Apolo by my mother after all, not Christ, and hardly needed confirmation excepting as delight of recognition and gratitude of its remaining. There was an almost unbearable familiarity. I had done the sets for Stravinsky and Balanchine’s Orpheus only the year before. In 1956 I was to do Clytemnestra for Martha remembering the Lion Gate and far vista of Mycenae.”
Isamu Noguchi

Marco Arguello

Marble Mirror

Marco Arguello photograph
Marco Arguello, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Marble Mirror, 2020.

Iwan Baan

Opal Bent Stool

Iwan Baan, Opal Bent Stool
Iwan Baan, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Opal Bent Stool, 2021

Yannis Bournias

Relativity

Yannis Bournias photographs
Yannis Bournias, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Relativity, 2021.

Lauren Coleman

Offerings

Lauren Coleman photograph
Lauren Coleman, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Offerings, 2020.

Brian Ferry

Layer Mirrors

Brian Ferry photographs
Brian Ferry, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Layer Mirrors, 2021.

Adrianna Glaviano

Formations

Adrianna Glaviano photograph
Adrianna Glaviano, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Formations, 2021.

Brooke Holm

Tube Chair

Brooke Holm photograph
Brooke Holm, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Tube Chair, 2021.

Naho Kubota

Tube Lights

Naho Kubota photograph
Naho Kubota, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Tube Lights, 2021.

Mathjis Labadie

Acrylic Bent Stool

Mathjis Labadie photograph
Mathjis Labadie, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Acrylic Bent Stool, 2020.

Jana Romanova

Side Tables

Jana Romanova photograph
Jana Romanova, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Side Tables, 2019.

Omar Sartor

Daydream

Omar Sartor photograph
Omar Sartor, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Daydream, 2021.

Matthieu Salvaing

Layer Stool

Matthieu Salvaing photograph
Matthieu Salvaing, study of Objects of Common Interest’s Layer Stool, 2019.

Stefanos Tsakiris

Hunky Dory

Stefanos Tsakiris photograph
Stefanos Tsakiris, study of Object of Common Interest’s Hunky Dory, 2020.

Special thanks to Dr. Nicolas Paissios for his incredible research and generosity, both of which made this feature possible.


Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis are Objects of Common Interest (OoCI), a studio operating within the realms of art, design, and architecture, blending projects in scale, from objects and installations to interactive immersive environments and interior spaces. Eleni and Leonidas received their academic education at Aristotle University in Greece and Ecole Supérieure d’Architecture de La Villette in Paris. They both hold master’s degrees in architecture from Columbia University in New York. They are also founding partners of the sibling studio LOT office for architecture. Objects of Common Interest focuses on creating still-life installations and experiential environments and objects, with an emphasis on materiality, concept, and tangible spatial experiences. OoCI aims to create projects that balance in time between the long-lasting and the ephemeral, and objects whose creative approach stems from an abstract realm enriched with layers of conceptual readings: moments of unfamiliar simplicity, sculptural and material self-expression, structural articulation. The work is rooted in an amalgamation of thinking and making between two diverse poles, Greece and New York, switching between the formal and the intuitive, embracing the handmade and the tactile, the experimental and the poetic. Leonidas and Eleni share a common vision in flowing seamlessly through interdisciplinary practices, focusing on concepts that blur the boundaries between the artistic and the pragmatic, between form and abstraction, merging their backgrounds in architecture and art.

Produced by Alex Miller.

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


1  R. Buckminster Fuller, Foreword in Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2015), 7.

2 Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, 35.

3 Isamu Noguchi, interview by Catherine Frantzeskakis, “The American-Japanese Sculptor Isamu Noguchi Talks about Greece,” Zygos (Libra) 17 (March 1957): 9. Translated by Daphne Kapsali. Courtesy of Aikaterini and Ion Frantzeskakis.

Fuller, Foreword, A Sculptor’s World, 7.

5 Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 2010), 41.

6 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, July 5, 1979. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_002_008.

7 Isamu Noguchi, interview by Freddy Germanos, “A Famous Sculptor in Athens,” Eleftheria (Liberty), February 20, 1958. Translated by Daphne Kapsali.

8 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, July 5, 1979. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_002_008.

9 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Zissimos Lorenzatos, December 26, 1969. Zissimos Lorenzatos Archive, National Bank of Greece, Cultural Foundation/Hellenic Literary and Historic Archives (NBGCS/HLHA). Courtesy of Stephanos Troupakis (The Estate of Zissimos Lorenzatos).

10 Noguchi, “A Famous Sculptor in Athens.”

11 Ibid.

12 A Sculptor’s World, 12.

13 Isamu Gilmour (Noguchi), “The Greeks and Socrates,” 1922, high school essay. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_001_003.

14 A Sculptor’s World, 11.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 29.

17 Noguchi, “A Famous Sculptor in Athens.”

18 Noguchi, “The American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi Talks about Greece,” 9.


Noguchi in Greece, Greece Within Noguchi has been made possible through major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

National Endowment for the Humanities logo