Isamu Noguchi stands atop the white marble Slide Mantra in front of the U.S. Pavilion
05/19

Representing America:
Isamu Noguchi at the 1986 Venice Biennale

By Glenn Adamson

Isamu Noguchi is not happy with the mulch. It is June 1986. He is standing in front of the United States Pavilion in the Giardini della Biennale. It is supposed to be a moment of triumph. Slide Mantra, the monumental sculpture that is the anchor of Noguchi’s presentation here at the Venice Biennale, has just been set in place.

It is the first time that the U.S. Pavilion has been dedicated to a single artist. Standing nearby is John Coppola, Program Manager for Arts America, the division of the United States Information Agency (USIA), which has accorded Noguchi this honor. They are looking at the bed of pine bark on which Slide Mantra, heavily, sits.

Slide Mantra has been carved in seven pieces from 120 tons of raw marble in Querceta, Italy. The sculpture has had a long road here: First traveling by truck to Mestre, the mainland city that faces Venice across the lagoon, it was then craned onto a barge, which set a course right down the Grand Canal—its only possible route, as it would have been too tall to pass under any of the low footbridges that cross Venice’s other waterways.

Upon arrival at the docks near the Giardini, it was put on another truck, carted through the leafy park to the forecourt of the U.S. Pavilion, and, finally, craned once more into place.

The pine-bark mulch, not readily available in Italy, was brought especially for the display all the way from America. But Noguchi says it is the wrong color and texture. Coppola, taking a deep breath, says, “OK, Maestro. What do you want?”

“Sawdust.”

Coppola orders the mulch dug out and dispatches someone to find a woodshop, somewhere in Venice, and bring back as much sawdust as they can. Finally, the job is completed. The group reconvenes. Noguchi peers down at the bed of sawdust surrounding Slide Mantra.

“It’s the right color, but the wrong texture.”

Everyone looks at one another. Noguchi wanders off and returns with a small scrap of wood, nicked off a two-by-four during the installation process. He hands it to Coppola. “This.” A carpenter is enjoined to shave a great pile of similar pieces by hand.

They are spread on top of the sawdust, and, at last, Noguchi is pleased.1

This anecdote is just one of many that crowd around Noguchi’s presentation at the 1986 Venice Biennale. It is an especially telling incident, capturing not only his sheer force of will—a leitmotif of these stories—but also, and equally importantly, his interest in aspects of aesthetic experience that most artists of his generation would have considered beneath their notice. For the reason Slide Mantra needed a soft bed is that it is, indeed, a slide.

It originally was conceived in 1966, as one of many ideas for “play equipment,” but never developed further than a small plaster model. The completed work combines the scale and grandeur of classical architecture with a disarming lightheartedness. As Noguchi liked to say in connection with it, “Art is something to be felt through a child’s buttocks.” Kan Yasuda, who assisted Noguchi’s longtime Italian collaborator Giorgio Angeli in the fabrication of Slide Mantra, recalled the artist making many trips down the sculpture’s length, having it re-carved until he judged it to have the right speed.2

Noguchi gave his Venice exhibition an interrogative title, not necessarily intending to provide an answer: What Is Sculpture? Add the word “anyway” to the end of the title and you’ll get his meaning exactly. He wanted to show that art was not a bounded category; that it need not be admired from afar; that it could meet its public more than halfway. At this late date in his career, he also wanted to showcase his own extraordinary breadth. Noguchi contained multitudes—and he wanted everyone to know it. And so, inside the pavilion, he placed several works of radically different character, each reflecting a facet of his wide-ranging interests.

First, visitors encountered Tetrahelix, a direct transposition of ideas from his close friend the architect, futurist, and polymath Buckminster Fuller. The sculpture was constructed under the supervision of structural engineer Paul Weidlinger. It is composed of interlocking steel elements in a configuration of ascending triangles, akin to those in Fuller’s geodesic domes (which were first displayed, as it happens, in Italy, when Fuller presented a cardboard version at the 1954 Milan Triennial). Noguchi’s decision to place Tetrahelix in the central atrium of the pavilion reflected his symbolic interpretation of the shape as, “the mysterious link of creation, its possible core,” and his association of it with the deep structures of physics and biology.3 Though probably only coincidentally, it was the one element of his exhibition that connected to the Biennale’s overall theme: “Art and Science.”

Two sculptures, Beginnings and Ends, respectively, offered a parallel encounter with fundamentals. Their titles suggest a liminal state, just prior and subsequent to a more resolved form, an interpretation reinforced by Noguchi’s use of stones as found objects. Beginnings consists of five such stones, all andesite—a fine-grained igneous stone he favored at this stage in his career—arranged in a circle. They are an excellent demonstration of an observation made by curator Henry Geldzahler (about whom more in a moment), “No one knows better than Noguchi when to leave things as he finds them.”4

In Ends, a block-shaped work of Swedish granite, Noguchi used slabs left over when a rectangular core was cut out, revisiting an idea that he had explored in 1974. The cutting and drilling marks from this process are left on the surface, a kind of found ornament or sign system. Additional punctuation is provided by dovetail-like keys plugging some of the holes. “It’s the waste in the world that makes for the beauty of the world,” Noguchi told an interviewer in 1986, “the accidents, the things that people don’t even know about. Nature is constantly throwing off waste and all this awareness of the texture of the world is lost through machine-making.”5 In this respect, Ends is a kind of rejoinder to minimalism, particularly Tony Smith’s Die, fabricated in 1968, and Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) of 1969. This is an art historical context for Noguchi’s work that has been obscured by a general tendency to emphasize his Japanese influences; to the extent that he is described as a “minimalist,” it is almost invariably in relation to Zen. And, while this is not wrong—Beginnings is a fairly direct allusion to Japanese rock gardens—in the context of the Biennale pavilion, Noguchi’s stone sculptures were also statements of sculptural authority.

Ends (1985) in Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?, Venice Biennale, June 29–September 28, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM/ARS

In the same gallery as Ends, Noguchi presented a group of nine architectural models, some of which dated back all the way to the 1930s. Most were design studies for “playscapes” and parks, but he also included This Tortured Earth (1942–43), a work developed during World War II as a sort of abstract memorial.6 All recently cast in bronze—another noble material with strong associations to Italian art history—for various traveling exhibitions, the small scale of these objects made them a puzzling inclusion for most observers. Clearly, Noguchi wanted to show that he was not just a sculptor, but a shaper of space. There was also a connection to Slide Mantra, which originated as one of Noguchi’s designs for playground equipment. Yet, given the difficulties that Noguchi had in realizing these ideas—not a single one of the models he showed in the pavilion had led to a completed project—it is easy to conclude that he was also motivated, at least in part, by frustration and a desire to put his ideas back in the public view.7

Finally, and controversially, Noguchi filled two of the pavilion’s galleries with Akari, the mulberry-bark paper and bamboo lamps that he had been making with a workshop in Gifu, Japan, since 1951. He saw connections here: the spiral construction of the lights echoing that of Slide Mantra and Tetrahelix; their illumination making a dialectical pair with the heavy stone of Ends.8 “I don’t have much faith in objects,” Noguchi said a couple of years later. “I tend to believe in the space around an object, or in non-material things.”9 One gallery of the pavilion was occupied by a large, round Akari lamp, 200 centimeters in diameter; it was set in a monumental frame fabricated to Noguchi’s specifications by carpenters on Shikoku. He viewed its display here, a sphere in a cube, as a Vitruvian moment, “The containment of nature by man.”10 Another gallery was given over to a miscellaneous assortment of Akari ovoids, pyramids, and cubes set on a wooden platform. And it was here, strangely enough, that Noguchi made his real provocation—and incurred the derision of the international art establishment.

  • Akari display in Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?, Venice Biennale, June 29–September 28, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07223. ©INFGM/ARS

Today, at a time when art and design have a lively cross-disciplinary exchange, this controversy may be a little difficult to understand. Part of it was the context: when Noguchi’s participation in the Biennale was announced, there was a general expectation that he would deliver a ravishing array of sculpture, stately, sober, and suitable to the occasion. This had certainly been Geldzahler’s intention when putting Noguchi’s name forward for consideration. Coppola remembers that the curator’s rationale essentially consisted of the single sentence, “Isamu Noguchi, one of the foremost sculptors of the twentieth century, has never had a museum show in Europe.”11 Commercially available lamps were certainly not what he had in mind. Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, which represented Noguchi, puts the point nicely: “It was not grand, and Henry was a very grand guy.”12

Geldzahler and Noguchi were “the Biennale’s odd couple,” as Vanity Fair noted at the time: “The avatar of the evanescent is celebrating an artist whose subject is God.”13 Renowned for his adventurous taste and outsized persona, Geldzahler had almost single-handedly brought contemporary art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in his work there between 1960 and 1977. (He had also previously curated a group show for the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale in 1966.) By the mid-1980s he was a living legend, working in an official capacity as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City, and in a somewhat less official capacity at P.S.1, the energetic avant-garde outpost in Long Island City, founded by Alanna Heiss. Knowing an opportunity when she saw one, Heiss had invited Geldzahler to join her team there when he went independent: “He could be my curator,” she told him, “as long as he raised the money and never came to the office.”14

When Arts America invited Geldzahler to curate the 1986 pavilion, he talked it over with Heiss, who also had extensive experience staging projects at the Biennale.15 They considered other, younger, more self-evidently progressive candidates (Richard Artschwager among them), but eventually settled on Noguchi, whose studio was nearby in Long Island City. Initially, Coppola recalls, the proposal was submitted under the auspices of the Japan Society, but he remembers thinking, “Half the time, people don’t realize that Noguchi is an American, so another museum would serve everyone better.”16 Thus, Heiss took on the role of sponsor for the project, with P.S.1 as the official organizing institution. Additional support was provided by the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, then in the process of assuming responsibility for ongoing maintenance of the pavilion building.

  • Isamu Noguchi with Henry Geldzahler at a press conference for the 1986 Venice Biennale at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 143745. ©INFGM/ARS

It was to prove a logistical nightmare. The problems began right away: Geldzahler approached Noguchi and was turned down flat. (Geldzahler paraphrased his reaction as: “You’re trying to kill me…I don’t need to be put on a pedestal and admired, I want to work.”)17 It seems that he was reluctant for two reasons. First, he had the painful memory of being interned by the U.S. government during World War II, in a camp in Arizona. Noguchi had not been compelled to go—only Japanese Americans officially domiciled on the West Coast were forcibly displaced—but when he naively went of his own accord, hoping to provide architectural and artistic support, he discovered, to his horror, that he had entered a nightmare. Trapped by bureaucracy, he suffered deprivation alongside the other prisoners.18 The experience understandably left him permanently embittered toward the U.S. government. It may be that his inclusion at the Biennale of This Tortured Earth—made just after his release—was a pointed allusion to this harrowing time.

The second reason that Noguchi was unwilling to take on the Biennale was more straightforward: he felt that such an honor was long overdue. He had never had the kind of official recognition that other artists of his generation had received, and rightly concluded that this was at least in part due to his ethnicity. So, when Geldzahler placed before him the opportunity to represent America on the world stage, it is not surprising that he was extremely dubious. What swayed him, ultimately, was the prospect of significant financial support. There would be a major publication, and he would have the opportunity to realize Slide Mantra—not an insignificant expense. It was the prospect of realizing this monumental sculpture in a high-profile public venue that ultimately sealed the deal.

Though the government itself had nothing like the budget for such ambitions, Geldzahler felt confident in making promises because he had a private funder in his pocket. This was United Technologies, which had already supported one of his exhibitions—Pop Art 1955–1970 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia—and had verbally committed to supporting the U.S. Pavilion as well, but subsequently withdrew their support. Ultimately, funding was patched together for the project: the USIA increased its contribution to $150,000, covering about half the total costs; the balance was provided through a contribution by Philip Morris, Europe, which Heiss secured, further supplemented by donations from a group of private art patrons led by Raymond Learsy—then a member of the National Council of the Arts—that also included Louis Auchincloss, Agnes Gund, and Ray Nasher.19

It was in this context that Noguchi created his eclectic retrospective with its shocking inclusion of commercial lighting design. Geldzahler pleaded with him not to give such prominence to the Akari—a message echoed by many others, among them Coppola, Glimcher, and even Mark di Suvero, Noguchi’s neighboring sculptor in Long Island City. All were convinced that the move would elicit a withering critical response. In this they were absolutely correct. The press was baffled by the presence of the lamps, interpreting the move as brazenly promotional and completely inappropriate. Matters were not helped by the fact that similar lamps were available for purchase at retail outlets in Venice, including the gift shop of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation.

London art critic John Russell Taylor wrote that the real question posed by Noguchi’s exhibition was not What Is Sculpture? but rather, “How little can you get away with and still be called sculpture? The shell-like marble slide outside is certainly impressive, but for the rest one mostly has the impression of having wandered unawares into a Conran lighting showroom.”20 William Packer of the Financial Times was equally scathing: “To celebrate his exquisite refinement by an exhibition dominated inside by a miscellany of his paper lamps, outside by a massive marble slide, was merely silly.”21 And Robert Hughes, writing in Time, dismissed Slide Mantra as “spectacular but rather banal,” and complained about the “plethora” of lamps. “Alas,” he concluded, “the pavilion does less than justice to the range and depth of Noguchi’s art.”22 Even a generally supportive reviewer in Artforum, who claimed to consider Noguchi’s transgression of aesthetic categories a positive thing, remarked that the Akari “embodied most forcefully the apparently irresolvable contradictions of his work.”23 Most importantly, perhaps, Noguchi was overlooked for the Golden Lion, the grand prize of the Biennale, which went instead to French conceptualist Daniel Buren. It was the view of Shoji Sadao, one of Noguchi’s closest creative collaborators, that it was the inclusion of the Akari that lost him the award.24

  • “U.S. art snubbed at Venice,” Washington Times, July 17, 1986, 1B, 3B. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2045_1986. ©INFGM/ARS

Noguchi, so famed for his incendiary temper, took all of this more or less in stride. Certainly, he could not say he had not been warned. In private, he attributed the negative response to cultural differences. In a short unpublished text about his decision to show the Akari in Venice, he wrote, “In the West, people are accustomed to objects. The idea of no object, of space and luminosity, an awareness of the atmosphere and of that which touches our perceptions in indirect, non-linear, and non-literal ways, is, I am afraid, simply not understood.”25 He was more forceful in rejecting the implication of self-interest. In an interview (also unpublished) with curator Kazue Kobata, Noguchi said that the Akari were “the one thing that I’ve done out of pure love. Nothing to do with commerce or anything. It was not [to] make a lot of money…it’s too luxurious for just a lighting fixture. And yet I do it out of [a] kind of idealism.”26

This was not entirely candid—after all, Noguchi had incorporated an Akari Foundation all the way back in 1967, which put proceeds from lighting sales to charitable use, initially to support other artists and to “promote the flow of art between the United States and Japan.”27 By the mid-1980s, he had decided to put this income stream toward the support of his own legacy. As Dakin Hart, Senior Curator of The Noguchi Museum, puts it, “He eventually came to believe that the best thing he could do for other artists was to crystalize his vision as clearly as possible.”28 This means that Akari sales were indeed of vital importance to Noguchi at this time. Yet in the context of his Biennale exhibition, which he clearly considered a manifesto of sorts, it does seem unlikely that product placement was his true motivation. He was making a statement about the encompassing nature of his sculpture, which included functional objects in its scope: “Art proliferates outwards (towards life) as well as inwards towards art.”29 Geldzahler, in a typical flight of rhetoric, went so far as to compare the artist to the Virgin Mary lifting her cloak in an encompassing gesture: “[This] is an image I have of Noguchi, sort of lifting his robe to allow more and more art to emanate from it, to include more and exude more.”30

The deep consideration of functionality that Noguchi brought to his pavilion was arguably the most prescient aspect of the entire project, anticipating by two decades the art world’s embrace of design typologies and “relational aesthetics.” Slide Mantra is an unacknowledged precedent for the spectacular works of Carsten Höller, while Noguchi’s willful presentation of design commodities in an art context finds correspondences in the work of Jorge Pardo, Franz West, and Takashi Murakami, among others. Back in 1986, though, none of these developments were visible on the horizon, and Noguchi, at the age of 81, was just a little too ahead of his time. As Glimcher put it, “This was the curve he wanted to throw. And nobody caught it.”31

One reason that Noguchi may have felt so confident presenting his lighting in Venice is that he had just had a sensational success with Space of Akari and Stone, presented by the Seibu Museum of Art at the Yurakucho Art Forum, in 1985. A collaboration with the architect Arata Isozaki, an avatar of poetic postmodernism then in the prime of his career, the exhibition presented Noguchi’s sculptures alongside over one hundred Akari lamps in various settings, including a traditional interior with tatami mats. Some of the lights were imprisoned within angular mesh cages, evoking contemporary industrial aesthetics, while a contrasting organic note was provided by large ikebana flower arrangements. “I tried to show the many different situations in which Akari could function,” Noguchi said, “for example, the limited space of poverty, or the luxurious space of wealth.”32

Isozaki had initially been dubious about the prospect of showing the Akari in such profusion, not because of disciplinary considerations, but because he thought so many lamps together would produce “an unearthly atmosphere.” The prospect reminded him of Obon, the Buddhist festival of the dead: “Hence wholly apart from any consideration of designs better or worse, I inevitably found his lighting displays saddled with somewhat distasteful overtones.” But ultimately, he came to feel that the project had achieved something transcendent: “a commanding presence,” compounded from the pairing of “the hard, dense weight of stone together with the soft, airy buoyancy of paper…a space simultaneously receptive to cool, light-absorbing masses of stone and warm, light-emitting forms.”33

The success of the Seibu exhibition motivated Noguchi to invite Isozaki to collaborate with him again in Venice, repeating this dialectical formula to achieve a similarly magical scenography. It was a good idea because the U.S. Pavilion definitely required some touch of genius. The building was (and is) both uninspired and uninspiring, an exercise in cramped classicism. Designed by the Beaux-Arts architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, it was completed in 1930. Heiss remarks that it resembles “a Chase Manhattan annex in a shopping mall somewhere in the Midwest.”34 She was enthusiastic about Isozaki’s commitment to the project, figuring that he would be able to help control Noguchi’s towering ego and ensure a beautiful, minimal installation. But in early 1986—just a few months before the opening—Isozaki’s involvement in the pavilion’s design came to an abrupt end. Lack of funding was the pretext, but Heiss hypothesizes that the real reason was personal: Noguchi felt this younger, dynamic figure “was going to steal his thunder.”35 He instead asked his longtime associate Shoji Sadao, who could be relied upon to occupy a quietly supportive role, to help him with the installation.

  • Venice Biennale floor plan draft. The Noguchi Museum Archives, NFP_PRO_036_005. ©INFGM/ARS

There was also a political aspect to this turn of events, for was it not strange that a Japanese architect should design an American pavilion? In the interview that Kobata conducted with him during the run of the Biennale, Noguchi mulled over this matter, intermingling the question of Isozaki’s involvement with his own:

I think it’s better to be kokusai [international] than national. Artists have to be. In this new Venice exhibition that I have now, you might almost say that I deliberately went out of my way to be more Japanese than necessary, because it’s an American pavilion, and I put in these Akari—a Japanese name, derived from a Japanese lantern. Obviously Japan. And everything in it, excepting for the slide, was made over here [in Japan]. Of course, I even suggested that Isozaki get involved! That was going too far, you might say. I said to Henry Geldzahler, “Too bad Isozaki’s not an American.” He said, “He’s doing something in Los Angeles, isn’t he?” I said, “Yes, he’s doing their museum.” He said, “That makes him an American, doesn’t it?” I said, “Sure, that makes him an American.” So I felt quite alright. I could be an American without being too American.36

This passage encapsulates Noguchi’s famously complex and contradictory feelings about his identity as a Japanese American, which the Biennale commission had placed under a white-hot spotlight. It is better to be kokusai—literally meaning “beyond the seas”—Noguchi says, more nationless than cosmopolitan. From beginning to end, he approached the pavilion in this spirit. It was a syncretic exercise, Italian marble out front, dark stone from Shikoku within, a classical temple crossed with a Zen garden. And, perhaps, this was ultimately his most important rationale for including the Akari, the lamps that caused so much trouble. For Noguchi, they represented not just an unclassifiable position between art and design, but were also culturally hybrid objects. Made of bamboo and mulberry-bark paper by traditional artisans in Japan, they were, in Noguchi’s view, nonetheless perfect for the U.S. Pavilion:

It’s a marriage between ancient technology and the electric light, which is so peculiarly American. Thomas Edison and the bulb. The light that lights the world today is an American invention. As a matter of fact, as you know, [Benjamin] Franklin was known as Mr. Electricity, he gave the awareness of this power from which eventually Thomas Edison developed the electric light bulb. Here in the American Pavilion you have all of these threads weaving together, making for our modern time, which has come from America, gone to America, in and out.37

Many years earlier, in the harrowing context of a wartime internment camp, Noguchi had written: “To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities. The racial and cultural intermixture is the antithesis of the tenet[s] of the Axis Powers. For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.”38 It had been more than four decades since that terrible moment. But in his selection of work for the Biennale, Noguchi was tacitly making the same argument. He did go to Venice intending to represent America, but it was an America understood in aspirational terms: the country at its best, a “nation of all nationalities,” a land that was itself kokusai.

  • Typescript draft of “I Become a Nisei” (October 1942), Isamu Noguchi's unpublished essay for Reader's Digest on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_028_002. ©INFGM/ARS

While Noguchi’s exhibition was not a critical success in its own day, it did pave the way in many respects. To begin with, his ambition permanently altered the dynamics of the U.S. Pavilion, which hereafter became a much more significant event, focused on a single artist and supported by extensive external fundraising. It also inaugurated a period of acclaim for Noguchi himself. During the short two years between 1986 and his death in 1988, the artist was given the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, awarded the Medal of Arts by President Reagan, and received the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure, one of the highest cultural honors bestowed by the Japanese government. Noguchi, predictably, had complicated feelings about all of this. His initial instinct was to turn down the Medal of Arts, though he eventually relented, and he attributed his belated recognition in Japan to the anointing he’d received at the Biennale, which made him suspicious of the whole affair: “They probably wouldn’t have given it to me if I were Japanese; only because I was a bona fide American, accepted as such, that I was permissible to be recognized…I can be an American or I can be a Japanese, but I cannot be both or in between.”39

“Both and in between,” however, is exactly where Noguchi’s legacy resides. The original Slide Mantra is in the United States, in Bayfront Park, Miami, which Noguchi designed in 1986. (Invited to do a sculpture for the site, he had characteristically responded: “No. Your park is terrible. You need a new park!”40) Though damaged by a hurricane in 2005, the work was subsequently repaired and can still be seen and used. Almost exactly 7,000 miles away, in Sapporo, Japan, a dark double of the work stands. Completed posthumously by Noguchi’s principal stonecutter Masatoshi Izumi, Black Slide Mantra was erected in Odori Park in 1992; it is said that the site was selected so the piece would be visible even in the snow. The material selected was African black granite, which Noguchi had previously employed for his fountains at the Supreme Court Building in Tokyo (1974); according to Izumi, the hardness of the granite meant that Black Slide Mantra had to be made in fifteen pieces, with more rounded corners than the original design.41 The architectural critic Alexandra Lange, visiting in 2016, commented, “It sits next to several generations of metal and plastic play equipment, shaming everything around it with its exquisite craftsmanship.”42 And Izumi remarked, rather beautifully, “When I watch people having fun sliding down it in the refreshing Hokkaido air, it seems to me that the hearts of the stone and the people are sliding together, breathing life into that space.”43 And so, children and adults alike can test Noguchi’s premise, coming into contact with one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, backside first.

As to the Akari, history has borne out Noguchi’s vision even more emphatically. Both independently and in concert with other aspects of his work, the lamps have been shown in one significant exhibition after another since the late 1990s: an installation at Takashimaya department store in New York, designed by leading architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams (1994); Light Sculptures at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Montreal (1995); and focused exhibitions at The Noguchi Museum itself—one centered on the selection shown at the Biennale (2009), and then, in 2018, in Sculpture by Other Means, as if to answer the rhetorical question posed in Noguchi’s U.S. Pavilion title. What is sculpture? This is. Meanwhile, Akari sales have continued to provide vital economic support to The Noguchi Museum, just as the artist intended.

  • Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Long Island CIty, New York, February 28, 2018–April 14, 2019. Photo: Nicholas Knight. ©INFGM/ARS

One likes to think Noguchi would have been pleased, but it’s unlikely he would have been surprised. Best to give him the last word. When the critic Benjamin Forgey paid him a visit in the fall of 1985 in Shikoku, where the artist was at work on the Biennale, Noguchi told him, “I’ve put myself in this prominent position. Now I’ll have to deliver, or else I’ll be a fake you know.” But then he turned reflective, speaking, as he often did, about his goal of making a sculpture that could transcend its historical moment, speaking more to the vastness of past and future than to the narrow concerns of the present. This has been the fate of the 1986 pavilion. Considered a failure in its day, the exhibition looks better and better as the years roll by. As Noguchi told Forgey, “Eventually, everything turns into time. Time takes care of things.”44


Glenn Adamson is a curator, writer, and historian based in New York. He has previously been Director of the Museum of Arts and Design; Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Victoria and Albert Museum; and Curator at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. Adamson’s publications include Thinking Through Craft (2007); The Craft Reader (2010); Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990 (2011, co-edited with Jane Pavitt); The Invention of Craft (2013); Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio (2016, co-authored with Julia Bryan-Wilson); and Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (2018). His newest book is Craft: An American History (2021).

Produced by Alex Miller.

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


1 This account is drawn from an interview with John Coppola conducted by the author on November 18, 2020.

2 Quoted in Kan Yasuda, “Soliloquy on the Essence of Art,” in Isamu Noguchi, Human Aspect as a Contemporary: 54 Witnesses in Japan and America (Tokyo: Shikoku Shimbun, 2002), 101. A longer version of this comment appears in the same source, quoted by the fashion designer Issey Miyake: “If they keep climbing up and sliding down over and over again, they should be able to understand a little bit about what sculpture is all about from their buttocks.” Quoted in Issey Miyake, “Message Beyond Space-Time,” in Isamu Noguchi, Human Aspect as a Contemporary, 145. In fact, when the pavilion opened to visitors, they were quite reluctant to take a spin. Even children—at least the sort of children who are brought to the Venice Biennale—knew enough not to touch the art. This problem was addressed readily enough by positioning an attendant next to the sculpture, who encouraged people to remove their shoes and give it a try.

3 Quoted in Henry Geldzahler, Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?, exh. cat. (Long Island City: P.S.1, the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1986), 31. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_245_001

4 Geldzahler, Isamu Noguchi: What Is Sculpture?, 11.

5 Unattributed interview with Isamu Noguchi, typescript, c. 1986, 13. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_068_001.

6 Four of the models were from Noguchi’s proposal for Riverside Drive Park (1961–65). The others were Play Mountain (1933); Swimming Pool for Josef von Sternberg (1935), an unrealized project for the Hollywood filmmaker’s house by Richard Neutra; Contoured Playground for Central Park (1939–41); United Nations Playground (1952); and This Tortured Earth (1942–43).

7 For more on Noguchi’s playground designs, see Arely Ramírez Moyao and Mara Garbuno, Isamu Noguchi: Playscapes (Mexico City: Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, 2016). When The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum opened in 1985, it included a gallery of such architectural models. 

8 Both of these points are mentioned in a typescript statement for the Biennale, dated May 29, 1985, in which Noguchi writes: “This exhibition is based upon the spiral. The spiral slide at the entrance opens one’s eye to time and the universe. In the room to the left on entering is a two-meter diameter AKARI Light suspended between squares top and bottom. Opposite this, to the right, is a cube of black granite, heavy in implication. The other two rooms show this earth, as earth and as light—as stone and as AKARI.” The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_249_014.

9 Quoted in Rhony Alhalel, “Conversations with Isamu Noguchi,” Kyoto Journal 10 (Spring 1989): 33. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2067_1989

10 Unattributed interview with Isamu Noguchi, typescript, c. 1986, 23. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_068_001.

11 Author’s interview with Coppola. The accounts given by Coppola and Alanna Heiss are correctives to previously published accounts of Noguchi’s selection, notably that given in Masayo Duus’s biography, The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006). The Arts America panel had taken over the management of the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale in 1980. It did not choose artists directly but rather selected existing shows to be restaged in Venice (as was the case in 1980 and 1982) or appointed a curator to propose a new exhibition (as was the case with Marcia Tucker of the New Museum in 1984). This same logic was applied in 1986: Geldzahler was selected by the panel, and then it was he who put forward Noguchi’s name, after discussing the matter with Heiss.

12 Author’s interview with Arne Glimcher, November 17, 2020.

13 Kurt Andersen, “Venetian Class,” Vanity Fair (July 1986): 94–95. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2037_1986.

14 Author’s interview with Alanna Heiss, November 24, 2020.

15 Heiss had been involved both in the Aperto, an emerging art section of the Biennale introduced in 1980, and fringe events held elsewhere in Venice alongside the official Biennale programming.

16 Author’s interview with Coppola.

17 Unpublished interview with Henry Geldzahler, c. 1984–86, Henry Geldzahler Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 7.

18 This passage on Noguchi’s reluctance to participate is based on the author’s interviews with Coppola, Heiss, and Glimcher. On the artist’s experiences in the camp, see Hayden Herrera, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015), ch. 20. This time was also the topic of the exhibition Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center, held at The Noguchi Museum, January 18, 2017–January 28, 2018.

19 Author’s interview with Coppola. Philip Morris contributed $75,000 and private donors $90,000—credited as the Committee for the 1986 American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Michael Brenson, “In Venice, the Biennale Sinks into a Sea of Ambiguity,” New York Times, July 13, 1986, 29. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2042_1986.

20 John Russell Taylor, “Slipping So Easily into the Surreal,” Times (London), July 1, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2033_1986. Jane Addams, writing for the Washington Times, echoed this judgment: “Many visitors were perplexed by the space given over to his Akari…which gave the small galleries where they were installed something of a Bloomingdale’s look.” Addams, “U.S. art snubbed at Venice,” Washington Times, July 17, 1986, 3B. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2045_1986.

21 William Packer, “Larger Seems Smaller than Usual: The Venice Biennale,” Financial Times, July 3, 1986, 29.

22 Robert Hughes, “Egos, Kitsch, and the Real Thing,” Time (July 14, 1986): 67. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2044_1986.

23 Charles Hagen, “Isamu Noguchi: United States Pavilion, Biennale,” exhibition review, Artforum 25, no. 2 (October 1986): 144. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_CLI_2048_1986.

24 Shoji Sadao, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (New York: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2011), 118.

25 Isamu Noguchi, “Akari and Anzai,” typescript, c. 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_255_012.

26 Isamu Noguchi interviewed by Kazue Kobata, typescript, August 24–26, 1986, 65. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_088_001. Kobata was an adjunct curator at P.S.1. See her obituary: Alanna Heiss, “Passages: Kazue Kobata,” Artforum (May 9, 2019), https://www.artforum.com/passages/alanna-heiss-on-kazue-kobata-79830.

27 Certificate of Incorporation of the Akari Foundation, Inc., November 1, 1967. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_013_003.

28 Author’s conversation with Dakin Hart, November 30, 2020. The Akari Foundation was renamed The Isamu Noguchi Foundation in 1980. Bonnie Rychlak, who served as Noguchi’s studio assistant and curator from 1980 until the artist’s death, confirms that he intended Akari sales “to support his legacy after he died.” Author’s interview with Bonnie Rychlak, November 25, 2020.

29 Isamu Noguchi, “Akari in Venice,” typescript, c. 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_255_010.

30 Unpublished interview with Geldzahler, 9.

31 Author’s interview with Glimcher.

32 Noguchi, “Akari in Venice.”

33 Arata Isozaki, “To Envision a Living Space: The Isamu Noguchi Exhibition Installation,” typescript, c. 1985. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_229_002.

34 Author’s interview with Heiss.

35 Ibid. Heiss recalls that Isozaki kept the fee he was paid for work on the project. Her analysis is tacitly substantiated in a letter that Noguchi wrote to Geldzahler: “I am as embarrassed as you must be about Isozaki,” he writes, but then moves on to a detailed account of his own installation ideas, which could be executed by Shoji Sadao, whose fee “would be considerably less I am sure than Arata Isozaki.” Isamu Noguchi, letter to Henry Geldzahler, February 25, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_250_007.

36 Noguchi interviewed by Kobata, 65. Isozaki’s building for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was completed in 1986.

37 Unattributed interview, typescript, c. 1986, 9. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_068_001.

38 Isamu Noguchi, “I Become a Nisei,” typescript, 1942. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_005_001.

39 Noguchi interviewed by Kobata, 63–64.

40 Quoted in Alhalel, “Conversations with Isamu Noguchi,” 33.

41 Author’s correspondence with Masatoshi Izumi, December 2, 2020; my thanks to Fumi Ikeda for assistance in conducting and translating this exchange.

42 Alexandra Lange, “A Journey to Isamu Noguchi’s Last Work,” Curbed, December 1, 2016, https://archive.curbed.com/2016/12/1/13778884/noguchi-playground-moerenuma-japan.

43 Author’s correspondence with Izumi.

44 Quoted in Benjamin Forgey, “Noguchi in Shikoku,” Landscape Architecture Magazine 80, no. 4 (April 1990): 58. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_1000_1990.


Representing America: Isamu Noguchi at the 1986 Venice Biennale 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.

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