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Noguchi’s Vision for
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

Isamu Noguchi bought the property that would become The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in 1974. He quickly put the space to use: moving much of the sculpture from his studio across the street, and beginning to turn the yard—then full of junk—into a garden. The Sculpture of Spaces, a 1980 exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art (which grew out of Imaginary Landscapes, his most comprehensive and coherent retrospective) got him thinking more concretely about his legacy as a maker of “environmental situations.” His ideas had by then begun to take root in this space and to become a tangible realization of his point of view.

The conversion from private refuge to public space began in early 1982. The resulting “sort of museum,” as he called it, began accepting private visits by appointment in the late spring of 1983. Two years later, on May 11, 1985, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum formally opened to the public on a seasonal basis with limited hours.

To outward appearances, The Noguchi Museum may appear to fit fairly comfortably into the category American art museum. But Noguchi despised categorization, and it really does not—any more than the commonly accepted definition of sculptor fit Noguchi himself. The Museum, which contains not just all of the work and work product that Noguchi left when he died, but also his archive and most all of his worldly possessions, is best understood as a functional analogue simulacrum of his mind. Here the synthetic juxtapositions between seemingly disparate materials, subjects, disciplines, and techniques that animated his extraordinary hybridity—which so often rises, in his hands, to the level of alternative, better seeming futures—continue to fire, as they did in his life, like still-active synapses.

Noguchi intended this garden museum—garden having gradually risen to the top of the list of metaphors he used to explain what he wanted sculpture to achieve—to be a public resource and an enduring empirical testament to the one indispensable thing in its permanent collection: his point of view. To some extent every museum is its own species, but this one is still unusual—a separate genus or even family—museum as total work of art, designed and established by the artist in his lifetime to epitomize and preserve his work and perspective. It is also critically important to understand that it was created, like so much of his work, in direct defiance of what Noguchi regarded as the art world’s overwhelming obsession with money and as an explicit counter to its homogenizing, market-driven, object-oriented consumerism.

The Museum was meant to speak for itself, as an example of what Noguchi described to Patsy and Ray Nasher (Ray Nasher would, not coincidentally, go on to establish a museum of sculpture) as “a sort of transformation of space into a particular place of earth awareness and of our place in it.”

As that characteristically expressive but unpackable description suggests, Noguchi was also more than capable of manifesting his point of view in language. Assembled from interviews, correspondence, and published statements, what follows is a composite view of the development of his understanding of the mission and operative values of this civic, sculptural institution.

Dakin Hart
Senior Curator

 

Editorial Note: Excerpts from unpublished sources and otherwise unreviewed transcripts have been very lightly edited for accuracy and clarity. We have chosen not to remove most of the verbal tics that appear in raw interview transcripts in order to maintain Noguchi’s voice as completely as possible.


 

  • Shigeo Anzai. “Air, Stone, Mind, Nothingness • Photo Essay • Anzai on Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Long Island City New York, 1985.” Artforum, (1985): 98-103. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2026_1985. ©INFGM/ARS
[The Museum is] going to be like Isamu’s studio. Unlike most museums, where the sculptures are put on pedestals or behind glass, this place will maintain his character as well as his spirit and taste. It’s going to be more personal, intimate. It’s going to be unorthodox.
Miles M. Kubo [first director of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum], in Amei Wallach, “A One-Man Showplace,” Newsday, February 19, 1985, 4–5. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_OS_2003_1985.

1949

In the creation and existence of a piece of sculpture, individual possession seems less significant than public enjoyment. Without this purpose the very meaning of sculpture is in question.

By sculpture we mean those spatial and plastic relationships which define a moment of personal existence and illumine the environment of our aspirations. An analogy of this definition is found in the temple sculpture of the past. There, the forms, communal, emotional, and mystic in character fulfill their purpose.

It is apparent therefore, that the function of sculpture, as here defined, is more than merely the decoration of architecture or the treasure of museums. Both of these outlets, worthy though they may be, are but extensions in kind of private ownership. It is not necessary to dwell here on the decline of the third, the original and most potent outlet, religion.

In the technological order that is life today, another channel must be opened for sculpture if that art is to fulfill its larger purpose.

Isamu Noguchi, “A Proposed Study of The Environment of Leisure” [for the Bollingen Foundation], c. 1949. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_010_019.

c. 1959

I have felt that anything to do with three dimensions in any medium was a valid province of sculpture, especially where the ends sought were those of heightening the sense or sculpture—those qualities of mass, weight, space, order, or even disorder, and lightness—timeless and timely. That is to say an appreciation of matter in space through which flows a spirit.

My tendency has been more and more to be concerned with basic elements and space. It is a symptom of our times, I suppose, this desire for oneness. We see it in the painters, the large all-embracing participation with the audience, like with hi-fi. The problem of sculpture is to get rid of pedestals—painters have discarded their frames. I want sculpture equal to myself walking.

I may say that I have become impatient with clutter and decoration. This makes it very difficult for me to work with others, such as architects, for they suspect me of wanting to take over everything.

I am concerned with the spaces that interlock with form. This is sculpture. The human being and his myth is needed within this relationship, both as participant and as viewer.

In ideal situations, the result should be a celebration of our awareness. In actuality, the opportunities are rare. I have found them occasionally in the settings for the dance and in the making of gardens. Yet such outward manifestations are projections of our introspection. After each bout with the world I find myself returning chastened and contented enough to seek within the limits of a single sculpture, the world.

I believe that it is through art that we now discern the new frontiers of mystery and perception. Is it possible that the time may be at hand when, others having faltered, the artist and the spirit he serves, may be welcomed? Soon the museum may turn into a temple.

Isamu Noguchi, “[Untitled Artist Statement],” c. 1959, unpublished, Stable Gallery records, 1916–99, bulk 1953–70. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

1968

To be a human being as well as an artist is difficult. There is such a fictional aura about being an artist today. The aura is so inflated that an artist must play a game. I’m afraid I cannot play it. I’m not good at going out with the right people or beating my own drum. Also, I don’t hang around with artists, or critics or museum people. I’m just not interested in the business of art.

In a sense, I value nonrecognition—or failure. I think success is a very dangerous thing, because you become immediately less free than when you were less successful. So, I’m still a struggling artist—at least in my own eyes. Possibly, people think otherwise. But that’s how I like to look at myself. It’s what keeps me going.

Isamu Noguchi and John Gruen, “The Artist Speaks: Isamu Noguchi,” Art in America 56 (March–April 1968), 29.

1973

ISAMU NOGUCHI: I was interested in the relationship of the movement and the space and how they interrelate, you see. To me, just to do a sculpture and plunk it down there really doesn’t mean much; I mean, what sculpture? What shape? In that sense, I don’t think I like sculpture very much. But when it becomes so integral that you no longer are even conscious of it as a sculpture, then I think it’s good…Although I do sculpture, I’m not that keen about selling the stuff…Of course, if somebody just buys it and uses it, I have nothing to say. They might put it in a museum with a lot of other things where it may or may not look all right—I don’t know. But I mean a space problem is a challenge to me which I’m interested in. Or else I’m not interested in it. If I’m not interested in it, it becomes a thing that you are doing for certain requirements which are too restrictive of what you might want to do. Or it may be too big for me. I mean I just won’t tackle something that requires me doing something which is not art, you know, but that I become a decorator or a landscapist, you know. I’m not. I’ve had all kinds of jobs offered to me which I considered to be not restrictive enough. For instance, I remember when they were building this military headquarters in Washington—it wasn’t the Pentagon, it was something else—a huge complex of buildings. They wanted me to do the whole ground floor area, inside and out. I’m not interested in that sort of thing. I want a given space which I can call my own and I’ll do something with it. I’m not interested in just landscaping, per se. It’s got to be a work of art. To me a work of art has limits. It makes a certain space you see.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you know, one of the things that interests me, because you’ve frequently talked about art being useful and doing things—I suppose the Detroit foundation is a great example of many different ideas combined. But what do you think of a small object as a work of art, as an object of contemplation? I mean does that…?

ISAMU NOGUCHI: Oh, I do that too. It isn’t that I disdain it. It’s just that I worry about its ultimate purpose so far as the general life on this earth is concerned. That is to say, it depends so much on museums and how it’s related to the museum and the collectors and so on. It’s a very dubious sort of outlet for art, I think. I mean I generally dislike collectors. I would rather not know where my things go. If I know that they’re going to somebody’s sort of living room, I’m not that happy about it. If they go to a museum and I happen to see it in a museum and it looks all right, naturally I’m pleased. But it’s questionable you know. So I don’t have much faith in myself as a kind of object-maker with a sure audience. My audience I’m afraid is…I think it might develop after I’m dead, you know, in a way like Brancusi. I don’t think Brancusi ever had much of an audience when he was alive. There were a few people. He was known by reputation in a vague way. He wasn’t that well known because he just didn’t exhibit and so on. I’m afraid that a lot of the prejudice which I sort of blamed Brancusi for I think applies to myself.

Isamu Noguchi and Paul Cummings, oral history interview with Isamu Noguchi, transcript,  November 7–December 26, 1973. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

1977

Miller: What is your attitude toward the art museum space?

Noguchi: Although I tend to think the museum’s function has been that of a repository and it will probably continue in that sense, it is changing a bit. The museum space is a limited space. You’re putting works of art there. I think most artists would agree it would be more ideal if they had something to say about that space. A garden environment is flexible in the sense that as people walk through it, they see things being changed especially when nature is involved and the changing seasons. Within the museum context usually space consists of rooms. You might have a little open room but within those room spaces nature doesn’t enter so much. You are then disposing of art in this space. You are playing a social function because people go there and you have to make it interesting for people; they are able to walk around, to see things, and so forth. Actually when you consider the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic experience such as the museum space gives you, it is not entirely different from the type of experience people used to have when going to churches, temples, piazzas, places of congregation; places where they go to spend a bit of leisure time to recuperate from the workaday world. In 1949 I got a Bollingen Fellowship to make a study of leisure space. I took a trip around the world for a couple of years looking at evidence of how people use space. To my special interest is the sculptor’s participation in the creation of space. It is more than architecture you might say. It goes back to prehistoric times, Prehistoric artists would place some stones in a line or circle. They created a unique space-place space—it all hangs together. It’s not an abstract space, but a unique space place. There’s a difference between merely space and place. For me I think of the museum space as a continuously changing entertainment. This is something new and pertains more to theater than to the kind of spaces which one had where the sculptor makes a real contribution of permanency. I’m a little bit confused as to how it all relates. But I think there’s a kind of slowly appearing appreciation on the part of museums also that their space can function more in the sense of a unique space than just as a space for showing art objects. I’m being asked occasionally by art museums to do a room. You find, in particular, artists in California who are interested in space, not in objects in the space but just the space itself, and especially how light moves in space. In fact, the people I’m thinking of place nothing in the room. There’s just light. This results in a museum without any objects at all. So when you get people to go to a museum without being bothered by objects, then you get pure space.

Nancy E. Miller and Isamu Noguchi. Transcript of “A Conversation with Isamu Noguchi,” Albright-Knox Art Gallery (July 8 1977), 4. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum Archives, MS_WRI_046_001.

1978

Now, you see, I’ve been saying to you repeatedly, for God’s sakes, don’t let’s make this, you know, a monologue, because I don’t find anything more boring than art being explained, you know. If I went to a museum and somebody tagged along and said, “now this is this and this is that,” you know, I’d get out of the museum as fast as I could go, you know. And, and especially I feel this is true of sculpture. Sculpture is a silent art that is, ah, in my sense of the word sculpture, you know. Ah, it’s an art that doesn’t move in my sense. You can make a sculpture move, you know, like Sandy Calder or you can make them make noises, you know, like some robots you know, ah, but that, I mean, the reason I say sculpture is a silent and an immovable thing, you know, to me has its own particular virtues, because something that is silent speaks in a different way than with words, you see, and that which is inexplicable with words is that which sculpture is about, and that which is incompatible with movement is what sculpture is, you see.

People move. You don’t have to have the sculpture move. It’s the people that move around it, you see, and it’s the relationship of the sculpture or sculptures or the relation to spaces, you might say, which is accomplished by the movement of people. The very fact that they have two legs and can move is the complement of sculpture. When you have sculptures that move, you are kind of making a redundancy. The thing is doing something it’s not supposed to do, you know. It’s like a rock that’s creeping around, you know. It’s, ah, something wrong. It’s unnatural.

And, ah, the same is true to me if it’s a gong and makes a noise you know. It becomes a gong, you see, and you might say also on the same basis it should not have usefulness, but ah, this, this, I draw the line because I think sculpture is a highly useful thing because it has a relationship to people you see, whether it’s ah, ah, an image let’s say, something that you pray to or not, it’s still moving you, and the very fact that it moves you is its usefulness. And, ah, you know, my attempts at sculpture are along those lines having to do with ah, ah, space and with the ah, involvement of people, you see. It’s not just an abstraction that you can take a photograph of and ah, and ah, and know it, you see.

That’s the reason to me photographs of sculptures are very inadequate. I mean, a motion picture could be a little bit more adequate if the motion picture moves itself. Otherwise, it becomes, again, a static state and, ah, to me the experience of sculpture is what is important and ah, you know, nowadays, where so much is a matter of reproduction, you know, where you don’t really get the experience, excepting second-handedly, and in a false way, because you can take a photograph of a painting, let’s say, and it might be quite ah, ah, as the painting is. But with a sculpture, it’s a different sort of a thing entirely and it ah, the experience, the expression, the experience of sculpture is, ah, that kind of experience, you might say, that you get in sitting in a chair. You feel comfortable, or you go through a door. That is already an experience—you go through a passage, you see.

You, ah, you, you, you can stumble over a stone and fall flat on your head. That is also an experience, you know, but it is your contact with reality that is the sculptural experience and I wish you could get this into the movie and into this film. If you’ll find for instance, some way of making it not a monologue, I’d appreciate it so much because, you know, a monologue is so boring. I mean, I would suggest if you just cut out everything I’ve said, you know, practically, and replace it with silence, if you will, or music if you can’t have silence or something, you know. Shock people into appreciation that sculpture is a matter of silence, you see, and that all the noise in the world doesn’t help one little bit, and speech is a real, real, you know, hindrance, because it puts ideas into people’s heads that that that that don’t belong there. If you go in to see a piece of sculpture or see a cathedral, you don’t want somebody explaining the thing to you. I hate these crowds with somebody with a megaphone explaining things to them. I get away as fast as I can from these explanations, you know, and ah, ah, I must say that a television film with an artist trying to hold forth on his own work is about the most boring thing I can think of. Please bear this in mind.

You got to take my integrity, you know, as much as possible because I do not intend it to be explained. You see, if you people can’t understand it without my explaining, well, you see, it’s missed its point; it hasn’t succeeded.

Isamu Noguchi, Interview with Bruce Bassett [filmmaker working on a movie about Noguchi], September 2, 1978. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_049_006.

  • Noguchi's Imaginary Landscapes, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. 1978. Photo: Marie Cieri. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07182. ©INFGM/ARS

1980

The solution attempted was to retain as far as possible the idea of “Imaginary Landscapes,” but to redefine it in more limited terms as “The Sculpture of Spaces.” I wished to show that it is space itself which gives validity to sculpture—beyond objects there is always the situation, the time, the performer and the spectator. All are in alignment, as Einstein might have said, in constant flux.

Isamu Noguchi, “The Sculpture of Spaces,” Isamu Noguchi: The Sculpture of Spaces (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 5.

1981

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your letter of March 6th informing me that The Queen and Humpty Dumpty will be included in your permanent installation, and I look forward to their new life of constant visibility.

As for your suggestion that I make a gift of This Place, I am going to have to ask for your patience for a while. My hesitation in making this gift to the museum stems from the fact that I have finally decided to go ahead and enlarge my studio, making it into a museum which will be administered by my foundation. This seems to be the best solution as other alternatives, such as my queries to you concerning the possibility of its being administered by the Whitney Museum, seem to involve too many questions which cannot be easily resolved.

I hope you will understand, therefore, that I won’t be in a position to disperse the work here until things are more firmly established.

With all best wishes,
Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Tom Armstrong [director, Whitney Museum of Art], March 20, 1981. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_140_009.

1982

I would like nothing better than to be able to help [support Erick Hawkins Dance Company] personally, but at the moment I have initiated the building of an annex to my place here in New York which will eventually be transformed into a museum. I’m appalled by the fact that it is taking far more dough than I have and I’m thrown into the uncomfortable position of having to worry about it. Artists, of course, have the habit of getting into projects out of an interest which is not fed by money…The problem of money is a disagreeable one for artists. I occasionally feel that I have immunized myself against it, but then I suddenly find I’m back in the soup.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Erick Hawkins (former Martha Graham dancer, choreographer, founder of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, and Noguchi collaborator), April 2, 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_270_014.

 

There is a pattern with me which probably starts from my not really belonging or ever having proper credentials. Everything I have done, especially those in public places, has been an imposition on my part, doing things I was not asked to do. In this way I was obliged to dig out of myself as well as from the advantage I took of others the field of sculpture in spaces.

My intention has been that sculptures go beyond objects or as individual works of art. It is the air between I am concerned with, an awareness of space which I felt could be enhanced by a sort of sculpture rather than diminished.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Edmund P. Pillsbury (director, Kimbell Art Museum), June 2, 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_095_004.

1983

My conviction as sculptor had finally led me to concentrate on the unique confrontation with matter that working directly with natural boulders involved. My concern to preserve the evidence of this continuing experimental development was the decision to establish a museum. A GARDEN MUSEUM would tie together as well the other aspects of my involvement with environment: theater sets, the gardens, light sculptures (Akari). However, except for the last, none lent them­selves to reproduction, and this seemed the one way I had of being able to endow the Museum upon which I had foolheartedly embarked.

Isamu Noguchi, “[Untitled Statement],” Isamu Noguchi at Gemini 19821983, exhibition catalogue (Los Angeles: Gemini G.E.L., 1983), unpaginated.

 

It was not its fault that it worked itself into a museum. Or maybe it happened because of a confluence that flowed together. (There are no furnace passages or redwood stanchions in New York, alas.) More a place for silence and meditation—a temple? rather than what is known today as [a] museum…

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Michael McClure (author of an introduction to the catalogue quoted above), February 22, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_280_011.

 

I thank you for the magazine article from Creative Art of 1933. I’m pretty sure I haven’t got a copy so it will go directly into the files which I’m trying to develop in relation to the museum which my studio is now in the process of being transformed into.

How interesting it is to see some of the same things appear in the article, such as the Portrait of My Uncle which is here as well as the Abstraction of 1928 from the Marie Sterner collection which I have also acquired.

I’m having a ball putting things in their proper order and hope you may be able to visit the place any time after May 1st when I expect to have it more or less as I would like it.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Gregory Hesselberg (son of actress and politician Helen Gahagan Douglas, one of Noguchi’s portrait subjects), March 10, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_009_002.

 

Most recently, since last summer, I have been trying to transform my place in New York into a “museum.” The intention is to give everything away, or share responsibility with an institution, to somehow encroach upon a future time by leaving a record of a certain order. How long that would survive I do not think of. Do I want freedom, or am I trying to define a purpose?

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Gautam Sarabhai (member of the Sarabhai family of Indian industrialists), March 16, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_330_005.

 

Dear Bucky:

I’m sorry to hear from Priscilla that you feel our friendship betrayed by my rather despairing attitude toward the quality of life that science has brought and your importance to me in this awareness.

The benefits, as you have pointed out, come to us only through profits to giants. Industry is their tool not ours and art becomes more and more subject to their economy. To question the values of our ever aggrandizing world was, I thought, shared by you. It was in this sense of shared belief that I added to your praise of Bali—“If only industry did not overwhelm them”—the tourist industry as well.

Perhaps I fail in optimism—I do not fail in my deep regard for our long friendship and unbounded gratitude for all you have taught me.

My studio is quickly turning into a museum which I wish you would visit as soon as your schedule permits.

Ever with love,
Isamu

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to R. Buckminster Fuller [Noguchi’s longtime friend, the futurist], April 19, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_246_025.

 

I am saddened that you will be unable to be here for the exhibition and for the party I am having for the people who have helped me to make my studio open as a museum. To make a museum will of course take time but at least I was able to make it look like a museum and until such time when I am able to organize it for people to visit. Even then I don’t want the general public but only those who are really interested and willing to make an effort.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Ryunosuke Kasahara [Japanese art dealer], May 3, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_045_026.

 

You will recollect our very pleasant dinner together with Shaindy [Fenton] in which I said I would be glad to participate in your exhibition provided it could be indoors. I explained that I had been concerned with sculpture outdoors as lacking the environmental relationships that gives significance to its experience. This is why I was enthusiastic about the Kimbell Museum; the reason why I have felt responsible as an artist to become Increasingly involved with the total site-sculpture relationship, a preoccupation that has been with me since the 1930’s.

A documentary film was suggested two years ago to which I agreed on condition it did not focus on my sculpture or personality but on a broader historical review of site, use, and sculpture. The film director then submitted a script entitled “A Sense of Place,” which pleased me as I explained to you at table. Imagine my consternation therefore upon seeing your letterhead “Sculpture: A Sense of Place.”

The phrase is not mine and is common enough. But I had read into it a relevance to what I had been doing in creating gardens and the like, as a sort of transformation of space into a particular Place of earth’s awareness and of our place in it. That this should be the province of sculpture was perhaps far fetched. The idea is not shared by most sculptors as being an irrelevant encroachment on the integrity of their work. Henry Moore once told me that in making sculpture he is not concerned with where it will be put. As to outdoor work I am told he says “the bigger the better” and as these are enlargements an architect is at liberty to suggest the scale he considers appropriate. An arrangement that leads to what is happening to sculpture today.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Patsy and Ray Nasher [Dallas art collectors], September 20, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_082_003.

 

I have just returned from Japan where I became totally immersed in making a garden at my place there with the result I could not write and only now am able to tell you this. That my work should be accepted in the way it has is to me my greatest pleasure. It is in this same spirit that I’ve been making this garden which is really not for “anybody” but for the land, the place and the people in the future—a communication beyond time and into the space of our earth.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Edmund P. Pillsbury [Director of the Kimbell Art Museum], November 25, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_GAL_095_020.

1984

I myself am trying to set up a museum here, using my own work as a prototype. You might say it is a record for those who wish to pursue sculpture, a record which might serve as pertinent to those who have such a life long endeavor in mind. Sculpture, as you know, has taken off into every direction and will be needing a focus and a channeling based on a philosophic reduction of possibilities. Sacrifices give a depth to those possibilities. We all criticize laissez faire but I personally believe in difficulties to be overcome.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to James R. Houghton [chairman of Corning Glass, now Corning, Inc., and philanthropist], June 7, 1984. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_176_009.

1985

Last night, I was really suddenly…it all flowed back into me, everything I was trying to push out. I was really amazed. It’s conceivable that art or artists, whatever I signify by that term—it generates something that moves people into another dimension and comes back to them. That’s what art does to people; they suddenly feel enriched and that life is worthwhile. And with this museum I seem to have hit it right off. I’m amazed.

I’m not a partisan of any religion, but there was a certain respect that religion promoted. Maybe that’s what we need now, to share an im­pulse, some common agreement that something is worthwhile other than having just a comfortable house. You can call it religion. You can call it art. It’s the space beyond.

Isamu Noguchi, in Amei Wallach, “A One-Man Showplace,” Newsday, February 19, 1985, 16. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_OS_2003_1985.

 

To me, the word “distinguished” is derogatory. If I have shows every once in a while, it’s because then they say, “Okay, he’s an artist.” But I’m not really centered on the idea of making expensive things and all that coterie stuff. I’m always trying to get away. I’m suspi­cious of other people—and of myself. And so I always feel, “You’re not where you’re supposed to be.”

He’s collaborated with so many different peo­ple. This was an opportunity to collabo­rate with himself.
–William Lieberman, chair­man of the department of twentieth-cen­tury art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Artists dream of gathering their work; once the space became avail­able, Isamu couldn’t not do it, he says. I doubt that he questioned the impulse. His belief in his own vision is so clear there’s no strain.
–Henry Geldzahler, curator and art historian

I had this place for ten years, using it just for storage. A photoengraving busi­ness had been here before, and the gar­den was reeking with the wrong kind of fumes. It was an inhospitable thing. But then more and more of my more recent sculpture wasn’t being seen because it couldn’t be taken to a gallery; the floors would have caved in.

When I began making sculpture, the times were hopeful—people believed. Now people don’t. And why should they spend time making things that take time expecting them to last into another time? I do exactly that. I do things as if time was going on forever. I know damn well it won’t, but the idea that things will last is part of the emotion that the object should give you. If you abandon that, you’re into tricks.

I make everything more difficult. If I don’t have accidents and ob­structions, I don’t think my work would be that interesting. I value difficulties. The more problems you have, the better off you are.

Isamu Noguchi, in Jesse Kornbluth, “Noguchi Does It His Way: The Sculptor’s New Museum,” New York Magazine, May 20, 1985, 78–90. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2035_1985

  • Isamu Noguchi and visitor in the garden at 32-37 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City prior to the development of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, with End Pieces and Bench. c. 1978. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 143721. ©INFGM/ARS

When you do a park or a gar­den, you in a sense circumvent time. It’s a kind of fortuitous gift above the head of the critics. It’s like playing God. It’s an extension of God’s pur­pose, you see. I’m not playing God. I’m his assistant. If you become involved with ideas and work, it transcends the personal, and you are communi­cating with time and with people in the abstract and in the future, not for personal display. Then you have a kind of perspective which leaves you free from concern for personal applause.

Isamu Noguchi, in Sandra Earley, “Noguchi: the Park Designer and Sculptor, at 80, Is Still Ahead of Everyone,” Miami Herald, August 11, 1985, K1, K3. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_OS_0243_1985.

 

1986

KR: It’s no secret that your major sculptures are normally high end items. But recently you did a series of metal sculptures, a limited edition, that would be affordable to art collectors. Could you tell us a little bit about that? I mean the idea behind it.

IN: When I do a park, I’m really doing a sculpture that everybody can afford because it doesn’t cost them anything to get into it. When things are in a private collection, you can’t see it. When things are in a museum so long as its up and shown properly, it’s O.K. But museums aren’t to be trusted either. If people see it, the seeing is your possession. You don’t have to buy it, really. I wasn’t being altruistic per se. I thought it would be nice to be more visible. Because if you make things too expensive and too heavy to be shown, you’re practically invisible. That’s the reason my museum has made visible that which is otherwise invisible.

KR: You have created your own museum in New York as a repository for your great body of art work. I would think that would be the ultimate victory in an artist’s life.

IN: A case can be made that artists are always working for a museum, this imaginary museum, you know. Their whole life is a kind of museum. They are trying to inhabit this space which is their world. Brancusi, for instance; his studio certainly looked like a museum. In fact, he had everything covered over with a white cloth. He’d lift it up and show it to you and carefully put it back again.

….

KR: The basis of your museum is that you didn’t trust a real art museum to …

IN: I didn’t think they would be interested first of all. I did it because there was no other alternative really. I didn’t build it out of pride. I did it out of despair.

Isamu Noguchi, interview with Kitty Roedel, February 13, 1986, MS_PROJ_241_002

I define the reason for the Isamu Noguchi Museum as a desire to show the totality of my work as an evolving relationship significant to our time. This spans the development of sculp­ture in America, of which I have been a part, from the first quick appreciation here of Brancusi with the arrival of modern art, to the present.

The museum shows in particular my own part in the widening ideas of environment starting in 1933; my experimental approach to struc­ture and the theater during the 1940s, and my search for a sculpture outside the confines of the studio since then.

The major part of the museum is occupied by my later research into the sculpting of stone that I came to regard as the matrix of sculpture. In counterpart are to be seen my love of paper and light, and when needed my resort to metals.

This is called a garden museum as a meta­phor for the world, and how an artist attempted to influence its becoming.

Isamu Noguchi, in Milton Esterow and Sylvia Hochfield, “Isamu Noguchi: The Courage to Desecrate Emptiness,” ARTnews 85, no. 3 (March 1986), 103–109. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_0294_1986.

 

Isamu Noguchi: I’m very independent.

Kazue Kobata: And you didn’t have to worry about who would think about me doing this or that, or what time…?

IN: Yeah, I think that kind of fear I did not have. Although I was isolated, I wasn’t afraid of being isolated. I didn’t know anything else, first of all. How can you wish for not being isolated unless you were not isolated? So long as you’re in perfect isolation you’re, that’s your natural state.

However, I started this conversation by mentioning that I wish that the people around here did not treat me quite this way. I’m not very community-minded. My place in New York, I made into a museum. It’s a public thing, it doesn’t belong to me, everything. People think I’ve done an awfully great thing, some sort of a great public benefactor. I don’t think of it that way at all. I don’t mind saying it’s not mine; but I don’t like saying it belongs to some place. ‘Cos I don’t know the people, I distrust the people, I…But I feel the same way about the people here too, for that matter, you see. However, I wish I didn’t feel that way…

KK: And he’ll [Shigeo Anzai] be photographing in the museum?

IN: Yes. He’s going to take a look. I think you’ll be interested in the museum…as an example of one artist who couldn’t make it into the social world of art. A lone wolf.

Isamu Noguchi, interview with Kazue Kobata, transcript, August 24–26, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_088_001.

  • Portrait of Isamu Noguchi with Magic Ring in Long Island City. 1977. Photo: Renate Ponsold Motherwell. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04100. ©INFGM/ARS

I didn’t know any museum that wanted to denote the space I would need if I were to have some kind of explanation of what I was trying to do in my work. You see, my work could be passed into a museum’s basement for whatever purpose. That is why I am not sympathetic to what museums are trying to do. My museum is not an ordinary museum. It is a partisan museum. I don’t know if it was such a good thing to do but I felt obliged to do it, that is all. I’m trying to beat my own drum.

The areas are all different aspects of the same thing. I don’t say that I lay a law down as to how to do things. It is always a discovery. Each time is different. If it isn’t different there is no interest. In nature, everything is different. No two things are alike because of the circumstances of the genetics of the interaction with whatever comes along. If things are standardized now because of industrialization, well, we are killing nature. Nature in us is atrophied. We begin to want to see everything that way, machine-made, like automobiles. I think that is why we prefer things which have been transformed industrially: To make them not touched by human hands.

I don’t say that I’m at the end of my changes. I do what I do in the hope of bringing it out in the open. You see, it depends on how you are and what your attitude is. There are no hard and fixed rules.

I can’t [ensure the Museum’s future]. It’s a kind of worry. It’s a worry in any case. Suppose you do nothing. Eventually then you die. And they start quarreling over to who it is going to go. Then the government comes along and sees themselves to some of it. Where does it stay? Suppose it does land in a museum or is auctioned someplace. Who owns it? It’s a very dubious future in any case.

Isamu Noguchi and Robert Tracy, “Isamu Noguchi: Art and Dance,” in Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs (New York: Proscenium Publishers, 2001), 1–11.

  • Isamu Noguchi with Ikeda Masuo in the garden at the Vernon Blvd. warehouse in Long Island City. 1977. Photo: Ruiko Yoshida. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04121. ©INFGM/ARS

1987

The acceptance of art then, as now, seemed to be in the regressive grip of authority. I soon found myself having bronze castings made from the balsawood sculptures which I could not sell. Like all clay sculptures, those I made at the American Academy in Rome in 1962 were cast in bronze. How absurd it is that a reproduction is taken seriously while each step in the process removes it further from the artist and the sculpture he first made. For me it is the direct contact of artist to material which is original, and it is the earth and his contact to it which will free him from the artificiality of the present and his dependence on industrial products. So I returned to gardens and to carving stone.

When the time came for me to work with larger spaces, I conceived them as gardens, not as sites with objects but as relationships to a whole. I would say this came from my knowledge of the dance theater, where there is evidently a totality of experience by the audience.

Through gardens I came to a deeper awareness of nature and of stone. The natural boulders of hard stone—basalt, granite, and the like—which I now use are a congealment of time. They are old. But are they old as sculpture? One day about thirty years ago I split one. Eventually I was able to make it mine, a “sculpture” of my time and forever. I called it Myo. These are private sculptures, a dialogue between myself and the primary matter of the universe. A mediation, if you will, that carries me on and on one step after another. Most of these have been carved of individual boulders; others have no such reference. Each comes from the complex reaction of the moment and is not reproducible.

The making of an art of meditation does not allow for conception of transferral. It comes from the moment, the moment which may take years. To counter the passing, I would seek the enduring. From the depth of time-consuming hardness to find the lasting and essential, by using modern tools on the oldest medium, there is an attempt to push the discovery of sculpture onward a notch. Masami Sasao is my assistant in carving. Masatoshi Izumi helps with everything else in this endeavor.

To understand our changing perception of reality, I might add that now photographs seem to have superseded actuality in that they are more accessible than the real. Visual information has taken over and sculpture becomes reduced to validation, no different from photographs. In contrast to this, my view is that sculpture is the art which can only be appreciated in the raw, relative to man’s motion, to time’s passage, and to its constantly changing situation.

The photographs in this catalogue make reference to sculptures which may be experienced only by visiting the museum. The space sculptures shown in Area 11 would require travel to their site.

This Museum and catalogue attempt to define my role as a crossing where inward and outward meet, East and West. There already is a continuity by others, and it is my hope that this Museum may expand to become a center for presenting related concepts and helping in their realization.

Isamu Noguchi, “Preface,” The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (Abrams: New York, 1987), 11–12.

 

A museum is, I suppose, a repository against time. Fragile objects need protection, but even without the need there is a semblance of eternity, a sense of permanence that is implied by a museum, and a removal from time’s passage. Is it the enclosure, roofed or unroofed, that creates this impression?

Isamu Noguchi, “Area 3,” The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (Abrams: New York, 1987), 55.

My executors who are also board members of the Foundation are requested to use their best judgement in how things are resolved. My thought for the Museum which is the main function of the Foundation, is that it would gradually find its own justification and that this would be aided by whatever I have left, whether possessed by me or in the air.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Isaac Shapiro [Noguchi’s attorney], March 23 1987. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_014_006

I had felt that we were fortunate in not having our Foundation tied in any way to large corporations which have managed to take over or otherwise have their names blemished in the public eye—which have come to equate art with money. To have our Foundation perceived as being beholden to some Japanese corporation as a catspaw for their reputation would do us great harm.

If you feel that the money I have earned for the Foundation does not allow for 5 or 10 thousand dollars to be spent on advertising, I will gladly pay for it out of my own personal funds.

I grant I do not know where my individual works are sold to, but you must know that I have repeatedly declined to do work for corporations. The one exception is the California Scenario garden which I thought I was doing as an exception for an individual developer Henry Segerstrom, and was only told after I had finished it that it was for the Prudential Insurance Co.—who naturally refused to pay the bill I submitted to Segerstrom.

I think what has happened to art is appalling—its subservience to money and publicity. I personally am in no way worried if people have stopped coming to the Museum. Maybe all the people interested in what I do have already seen it. I do not equate public attendance with its worth and if some funds such as the DCA dries up so be it. If you say I’ve got to make a lot more money I suppose I could do that too by making reproductions—bronze castings like Henry Moore.

I appreciate that you are concerned for the museum’s survival. I’d rather have it closed down if needs be.

I’m going to Tokyo on the 16th to see what I can do about the catalogue which I had thought would be the best way of advertising the place—without putting the place in jeopardy.

Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Allen Wardwell [former director, Asia Society Galleries and subsequently of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum], May 9, 1987. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_004_023.

 

I didn’t particularly want to build a museum. It is by no means an ego trip. I was driven to do it out of necessity. I didn’t know of any museum that would devote the kind of space I would need to explain what I was trying to do in my work. On the one hand I didn’t expect spe­cial treatment. On the other hand I thought I deserved this museum. It is not an ordinary museum. It is parti­san. I don’t know if it was a good thing to do, but I felt obliged to do it—that is all…

The areas are all different aspects of the same thing. Each one is a discovery. Each time is different. If it isn’t differ­ent, there is no interest. In nature everything is different, too. No two things are alike—because of circumstances, the interaction with whatever comes along.

Isamu Noguchi and Robert Tracy, “Artist’s Dialogue: Isamu Noguchi,” Architectural Digest 44 (October 1987), 72, 76, 81, 83, 86. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_1001_1987.

  • Isamu Noguchi giving a tour of The Noguchi Museum. 1988. Photo: Eugenie Coumantaros. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04285. ©INFGM/ARS

1988

Why do you do anything? Because you can’t get anybody else to do it. I wanted some protection for the future, that is, when I’m no longer here. I tried to get the Whitney, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art to help. They couldn’t see their way, so I tried to help myself.

Many museums are really in­terested in spectacles, in blockbuster shows, in categories of things to put in a show. Or else the work disappears into the museum’s basement at some point, and it comes out occa­sionally—like at the Whitney, for in­stance. And that situation wasn’t entirely satisfactory to me. I’m glad it turned out the way it did. I’ve given things to vari­ous and sundry museums, but there is no particular incentive now for an artist to give things. You don’t get anything, no tax write-off, no nothing. You just give.

Isamu Noguchi and Meghan Holland, “Isamu Noguchi’s Garden Museum,” Promenade (April–September, 1988), 72–77. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_1001_1988.

Noguchi has become very sophisticated in matters of technology, engineering and plumbing. In his museum he also maintains tight control over his oeuvre and image. The secret to his genius, however, is knowing when to impose his will and when to let nature take over. A brief walk in his garden confirms that his discrimination is working.
Suzanne Muchnic, “Isamu Noguchi's Garden of Stone, Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1988. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2035_1988.

1989

Well you see, I do it for myself. I do sculptures for myself. I don’t ask anybody. I don’t do them for commissions. I am mostly in the business of rejecting commissions. I would like to point out that this park I am working on right now I did not do as a commission. I was asked to do a sculpture and I said, “No. Your park is terrible. You need a new park!” That’s how the whole thing started. So you see, we are guilty in every which way. We don’t only want to create a sculpture for ourselves but also want to fix up the world so we can put the sculpture in some place, the way we want it.

I think a terrible thing is happening to the arts. There is a kind of proliferation, an enormous irresponsibility. Painting and sculpture are to be seen all over the place. This trend has infected Japan already. As in many other places on earth, beautiful locations are being destroyed for the benefit of a few rich. What lets loose this creativity is greed. The question is: are you with the people or are you with the elite? This is actually happening to one of my latest projects. I am building this park in Miami, it is a big public park. The main features are really not done yet, but they want to stop me from doing it. You know, the better you are, the worse you are. I have totally given up the idea of doing sculpture. The idea of doing art as such is sort of ruined by the art business. Everywhere, the establishment puts down their rules and everything is dictated by what will sell and what is conceived as the proper area of attention. One is beyond their comprehension; their ignorance is alarming. We have to educate them, but we should understand that learning takes time. I was shocked for a while but now I have got into the swing of it; I think it’s rather nice. Why? Because everything is a challenge. You have to answer challenge with a creative effort. That’s the only thing you can do.

Today, you know, the gardens [of Kyoto] are no longer the same. They have been taken over and cosmeticized. Too much maintenance is anti nature. Now everything tries to look like Ryoanji. That is to say, success spoils. I remember once I happened to turn the radio on in New York and Marcel Duchamp was being interviewed. He was asked what he thought about “Nude Descending a Staircase” and Duchamp replied, “I am so sick and tired, it has been so consumed by the public that I do not recognize it anymore.”

That’s exactly what I mean. As times change, perceptions of art change; now art makes me sick. That is, the art business. I adore art, my life is devoted to it; therefore, it makes me doubly sick. I am not saying that things can be avoided, but we must manufacture our own capacity of perception, and I don’t know if that can be taught. It’s a kind of hunger. Maybe deprivation is being overwhelmed by information. The tendency today is toward too much information; everything is reduced, translated into information and understood as knowledge. Art is something other than information and knowledge. It cannot be taught in the same sense as you can teach the sciences. The questioning is more important than the answers. You have to have questions of your own.

Isamu Noguchi and Rhony Alhalel, “Conversations with Isamu Noguchi,” Kyoto Journal, Spring 1989 [published posthumously], 32–37. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2067_1989.

  • Portrait of Isamu Noguchi with Brilliance. Photo: Shigeo Anzai. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04266. ©INFGM/ARS

 


Produced by Alex Miller.

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