By Matthew Kirsch
- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
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By Matthew Kirsch
In 1962, Isamu Noguchi began conducting an extended exploration of stand-alone sculpture at open-air workshops and studios adjacent to quarries and stonecutting facilities—first at Pietrasanta, Italy, and then, in 1969, in Mure, Shikoku, Japan. These residencies signaled not only a shift from the isolation of Noguchi’s previous studios to industrial village settings abutting nature but also a creative renewal through exposure to freshly sourced stone. Observing the mechanics of stone being cut at its point of origin, Noguchi witnessed the imprecision involved in fracturing marble and the logistical foresight and skill necessary to make granite cleave somewhat predictably. He arrived at new insights into the inner composition of stone as a natural register of the external and material conditions that shaped it on a geological timescale and as a measure of earthly existence beyond human quantification. This led him to gradually incorporate the life of stone as an overarching theme in his work.
In its semi-processed state, stone inspired Noguchi as a model to imitate and as a source of contradictions to reconcile in his own sculpture. Relating his failed attempt at negotiating shipment of the “beautiful waste” he saw at black-granite quarries in the south of Sweden during a visit in 1972, Isamu Noguchi was effusive:
The search for expressive potential in stone, even extending to its afterlife, so to speak, can be found in the many instances when Noguchi repurposed fragments and other remainders from his own practice. Sensitive to the particularities of stone from different locales and to the visual evidence of its quarrying and unearthing, Noguchi readily accommodated “the accidents of its being and making”2 into his own processes, working with specimens large and small. Noguchi also found and reclaimed stones, either in natural or previously worked and discarded states, and recast them in forms and uses of his own invention.
For a sculptor so readily identified with stone, Noguchi developed a familiarity with this material incrementally, dictated by a resourcefulness established in his lean years. Throughout the 1940s, Noguchi purchased precut slate and marble castoffs and discards for his sculptures from New York stone suppliers at a discount. (At the same time, Noguchi based a handful of sculptures around driftwood, experimenting with a readily available, timeworn and nature-eroded material.) When Noguchi created a garden for the Reader’s Digest Building in Tokyo in 1951, a project that earned him only a nominal fee in exchange for valuable experience, he learned to repurpose stones unearthed during grading and excavation, using them minimally as accents and as focal points in the spirit of traditional Japanese garden making. More ambitiously, Noguchi utilized the basalt rubble dug up on the site of the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (1960–65) as raw material for sculpting its terrain and for fashioning five embankments on its western overlook.
Noguchi’s involvement in higher-profile landscape and garden projects in the late 1950s initiated a greater appreciation for stone and, somewhat improbably, considering the sculptor’s precarious financial existence, greater efforts to seek out variants from sources in Japan. His earliest and most impressive searches included the eighty-eight tons of stone he collected from Shikoku, Japan, for his UNESCO Garden in Paris (1956–58)3 and the coveted stones eroded by the flow of the Uji River that he acquired for his Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York (1961–64). Noguchi would later install three Uji River stones, which he dubbed “spin-offs” of the Chase garden, in Areas 1 and 2 of his Museum. For Noguchi, acquiring stones from around the world and incorporating them into his gardens and landscapes amounted to an act of transforming or recontextualizing them. He reasoned that resiting them within his gardens served “to enoble [sic] the stones,”4 while also symbiotically transferring some meaningful vestige of nature from the stones’ origins to these new settings.
A handful of works Noguchi made from disused millstones provide an interesting parallel to this thinking. Found all over the world as common grinding tools, millstones have remarkably complex surfaces, with their radiating furrows for moving grain in and out, and raised areas for grinding called lands. Decommissioned millstones are a common sight in rural settings and gardens in both the East and West, displayed as a reminder of the passage of time. Previously, Noguchi had included at least one millstone in his UNESCO Garden, sunk into a gravel bed alongside the ramp connecting its lower garden to the Delegates’ Patio.5 Variation on a Millstone #4 (1963) appears to be Noguchi’s own sculptural emulation of the bed-stone element of a millstone, imitating its essential contact with earth, and falling neatly within Noguchi’s established vocabulary of placing sculpture directly on the ground plane.6 With Variation on a Millstone #2 (1962), Noguchi (quite literally) elevated an altered millstone element beyond its previous utility, reorienting it to an upright position atop a wood and steel-plate base. Two Variations were exhibited at the gallery Cordier & Ekstrom in 1965 alongside a carved and polished serpentine form perched on a pane of tempered glass titled Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp (1963–64), a reference to the artist who introduced the concept of readymade objects into art. As Noguchi later summarized his matter-of-fact transformation of these millstones, “I made them mine and I made them sculpture.”7
The unique studio arrangement Noguchi enjoyed in Mure aligned the critical puzzle pieces required to enable his exploration of hard stone: state of the art stonecutting tools, access to regional stone of different characters and mineral compositions, and, most crucially, time. There he developed a practice rooted in improvisation, inspired purely by proximity to stone. With no predetermined outcome, Noguchi studied the inherent physical character of a stone before making any contact with it. Everything that followed his initial breakage into a given piece of stone became part of an expanded dialogue, one that eventually included the residues of his process.
Though Noguchi worked with diverse materials throughout his career and revisited certain preferred ones like aluminum and stainless steel, stone’s quality of endurance held special significance for him, as did its ubiquitous presence in nature and in the built human environment he observed in different cultures. Noguchi viewed stone as a “congealment”9 of time and as a useful, symbolic reference point for bringing the human timescale into relief. In the last two decades of his career, Noguchi made something of a personal project of seeking the undefinable point at which “rock becomes more than a rock”10 to reiterate stone’s relevance as a through line in the greater continuity of sculpture. The conceptual overlap between a material imbued with unquantifiable history and compressed geography with his time-dependent process became inseparable.
Narrow Gate (1981) exemplifies how Noguchi internalized the industrial processing of stone as a creative outlet. The work began its life as an end piece split from a large basalt column at Mure, the kind of rough and irregular discard typically removed from the desirable core mass during the dressing of stone. Noguchi cut this end piece into smaller components before reassembling them into a reconstituted whole. In the placement Noguchi chose for it in Area 1 of the Museum, Narrow Gate is positioned to emphasize the interior face marked by horizontal slashes resulting from stone drilling and splitting, which he further embellished into an even, rhythmic pattern. On its exterior face, his own markings are subordinate to the basalt’s mostly unspoiled outer crust, which acts as an index of how stone ages in nature. In viewing Narrow Gate from its less frequently seen side, we are directly confronted with evidence of Noguchi’s splitting and reconstruction of three distinct pieces, dismantling the illusion of seamlessness on its front.
Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing, installed in the Museum’s garden, is another instance of Noguchi capitalizing on a sizable fragment resulting from the stone-splitting process. Compared to the uniform markings on the face of Narrow Gate, the pattern that remains from stone splitting on Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing is broken and interrupted by raw surfaces and areas of chisel-pointing. These marks and the oversized fragment’s silhouette must have suggested to Noguchi the radiating locks of hair and stance in common depictions of the deity Shiva as the cosmic dancer the Nataraja. Noguchi’s convoluted title refers to the sculpture’s origins as a basalt remnant from The Great Rock of Inner Seeking, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, one of Noguchi’s largest basalt sculptures at close to nine feet in height. The word “seeking” appears in both titles, referencing Noguchi’s long periods of creative incubation at the Mure studio, corroborated by his inscription of the working dates 1975–81 on Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing.
Petroglyph (1972) appears to be either a cap or a protuberance from a basalt column. Noguchi used a core drill to create intersecting channels on its face—a modern approach to etching or mark making on a stone surface that inspired its title, which alludes to the historic use of stone as a vehicle for graphic communication, common across ancient cultures. Noguchi also drilled a channel on its underside, suggesting a sort of tunneling into the unseen. It’s worth noting that at some point during the 1970s, Noguchi and Izumi bought 150 tons of basalt from Sendai, Japan, and had it shipped to Mure. This single haul would last Noguchi for years.11 These instances when Noguchi reclaimed basalt fragments and residues illustrate that even with larger specimens at his disposal, his flights of inspiration fluctuated in scale.
Noguchi did just about everything to a stone that hand and machine tools can do: from surface polishing, to revealing glimpses of stone’s interior essence, to turning stones into self-contained structures by creating open chambers within them where light and air could enter. In Core (Cored Sculpture) (1978), located in the Museum’s garden, Noguchi used a core drill to puncture the basalt’s uneven crown and excavate a central passage extending through its full height; he drilled two portholes into its front and back. Attentive to revealing the unseen essence of stone, Noguchi grew interested in the cylindrical by-products of coring and set them aside in the studio yard at Mure. Incising minimal features on their seemingly uniform surfaces, Noguchi evoked human anatomy, as in the floor piece Core Composition (1982). The diminutive scale and dimensions of these cores also recalled the sculptor’s portrait busts, such as in the imposing countenance of Warlord (1978). Noguchi had his assistants polish the top and bottom of one squat basalt core, Untitled (1978), to further accentuate their rounded and off-axis surfaces, lending the sculpture a precarious quality. The diameter of this particular basalt core roughly matches the opening at the top of the aforementioned Core (Cored Sculpture), a possible connection corroborated by Noguchi’s snapshot of the basalt core being polished in sight of Core.
In the same spirit, Noguchi reclaimed the small, ovoid Aji granite stones that he termed “practice” stones, used by his studio assistants at Mure to test their consistency in point-chiseling. Noguchi made angled cuts into the stones, sometimes arraying their bisected halves to expose a polished, darker core. In the case of Practice Muse (1978), he incised a fissure that convincingly made the stone look as if it were cut in two, suggesting latent energy concealed within. At other times, Noguchi left the Aji stones whole (at least seemingly so) and made notches in individual stones to fit them together in clusters recalling natural rock formations. Practice Rocks in Placement (1982–83), located in the Museum’s garden, is perhaps the purest indication of Noguchi’s fondness for these Aji stones. He laid out a constellation of eighteen practice rocks of varying size on a garden bed, describing the result as “impersonal parts that become a whole, like a necklace.”12
Noguchi’s concentration on small Aji practice stones and basalt core pieces offered a counterbalance not only to his work on human-scale granites and basalts in the studio yard but also to macroscale projects like Philip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit (1971–79) and Sogetsu Center in Tokyo (1977–78) that dominated his time and energy in the mid-1970s. Throughout this period, Noguchi suffered from a herniated disc that required two surgeries, the latest occurring in the summer of 1978. Working with smaller specimens of stone was likely as much a physical necessity as a creative reset.
After Noguchi showed some of these smaller private sculptures at Pace Gallery in New York in 1980 and at Galerie Maeght in Paris the following year, he began considering ways to simulate weightlessness, define self-contained spatial settings for smaller works, and introduce material contrasts in a series combining granites, basalts, and jasper elements with steel supports. In Torso (1982), Noguchi chose to offset the inherent contortions of a mostly unworked piece of pale granite (“the ideal fragment which seems almost always more charming than the whole”13) by placing it on a folded and welded support of hot-dipped galvanized steel.
During the 1970s, Noguchi acquired a handful of pieces of stone known as kan kan ishi (“clink clink stone”), which he identified as obsidian, originating from a rock face near an unnamed temple in the vicinity of Takamatsu, the port city closest to his Mure studio.14 Noguchi’s identification of kan kan ishi as obsidian may be incorrect, as it is described elsewhere as another regional volcanic stone, an andesite known as Sanukite (a name deriving from Sanuki, a historical province predating modern-day Kagawa Prefecture). The largest piece Noguchi turned into the imposing sculpture Heart of Darkness (1974), but most of the recovered fragments were smaller in scale, with a natural horizontal orientation. Kan kan ishi, a volcanic stone, has a glass-like appearance when polished, a treatment that Noguchi used judiciously. It is also known for its resonant properties,15 and Noguchi referenced this aural component in a series of sculptures. For Sounding Stone (1981), Noguchi rested a shard on wood supports strung with wire, which he displayed with a wooden mallet.16 This simple format was apparently more functional than two ambitious structures Noguchi had fabricated to float obsidian pieces vertically. He slotted Suspended Not Suspended (1981) on an aluminum plate (an attempt he deemed “half realized”17) and suspended Untitled (1981) on a wire within a tubular stainless-steel armature, resulting in a reliquary-like display.
In reevaluating these smaller stones and discards, Noguchi essentially promoted them from their place as part of the backdrop of the studio yard at Mure, an environment that Noguchi began personalizing soon after his assistant Masatoshi Izumi had an eighteenth-century merchant’s house reconstructed on the site as Noguchi’s residence in 1969. The geographical significance that Japanese stone held for Noguchi made the many unused slabs of granite from his larger projects irresistible to him. Large pieces of Shodoshima granite related to his interior space Heaven (Tengoku) at Sogetsu Center were eventually installed as focal points and semi-architectural features in a garden that Noguchi and Izumi created on the hillside above Noguchi’s residence in the early to mid-1980s. One massive fragment became The Mountain in the Mountain (1983–85), a topographic sculpture with small craters and other carved areas. Its sprawling profile, laid across other crudely cut granite remnants, both mirrors and merges with its mountainous surroundings. Another processed and squared piece of this granite was installed as a ledge on which a large prototype for Noguchi’s galvanized steel Sky Mirror (1982–83) rests, before tapering and disappearing below a mound of raw granite boulders. To enter and leave this garden, visitors climb a steep stone staircase that is trailed on one side by a dry waterfall of accumulated natural boulders, evocative of a famous fourteenth-century arrangement by Muso Soseki that Noguchi photographed at Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto.
It should come as no surprise that Noguchi imported many of the lessons—and occasionally, unused materials—acquired from his commissioned garden-making experiences into his own private environments in Mure and Queens. The two personalized garden spaces served as windows into the imperceptible maturation and deterioration occurring at his many disparate public landscapes, where he used stone as the enduring foil to the changing surroundings. As Noguchi explained:
These words imply that despite stone’s apparent resistance to nature and time, Noguchi’s preference for the material in both public space and for private sculptures carried with it an acknowledgment of the slow and inevitable final trajectory in its transformation, its gradual erosion. Returning to and reclaiming the stone remnants and by-products of his sculptural practice, however, suggests that for Noguchi stone sculptures always occupied a more liminal status between birth and death, finished or unfinished, paused or in process. When he “made them [his]” and “made them sculpture,” it seems that Noguchi found a point where he could suspend time, at will, at least for a moment.
Many of the titles Noguchi chose for works found in the Museum’s galleries speak to similar transformations, emergences, and states of becoming that resulted from his dialogues with stone—instances when Noguchi felt their matter attained both personal meaning and a sense of finality. As he described it:
In Area 3, Noguchi installed one especially potent concentration of recovered works, placing Resonance (1966–67) and The Seeker Sought (1969)—both originating from the same piece of basalt—close to End Piece (1974), a reworked waste piece (displayed on a corten steel armature) descended from a Swedish granite sculpture at Mure, Energy Void (1972–73). Another aspect of Noguchi’s repurposing is found in the many adapted solutions for the display of sculpture that he employed. For instance, while Noguchi used rough-hewn granite discards from Mure as bases for the majority of the heavier stone sculptures in the first-floor galleries, he placed a handful of sculptures (including Resonance and The Seeker Sought) on distinctive bases fabricated from Japanese pine recovered from an abandoned structure in Japan. The Noguchi Museum’s origin as a private display space, extending the atmosphere of experimentation in Noguchi’s studio, is very much in evidence, although often hidden in plain sight.
Matthew Kirsch is Curator of Research and Digital Content at The Noguchi Museum.
Produced by Alex Miller.
Copyediting by Stephanie Salomon.
Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Transcript of interview with Isamu Noguchi for Venice Biennale, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives (MS_WRI_068_001), 13.
2 Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 98.
3 Bert Winther-Tamaki, in Art in the Encounter of Nations: Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001), and Marc Treib, in his study Noguchi in Paris: The UNESCO Garden (San Francisco and Paris: William Stout Publishers and UNESCO, 2003), each discuss how Noguchi imported stones of Japanese origin to impart significance in his early gardens.
4 From a letter requesting removal of stones from Joshua Tree, California, to use in his California Scenario, Costa Mesa, California. Isamu Noguchi, letter to Rick Anderson, Joshua Tree National Monument, August 1, 1980. The Noguchi Museum Archives (MS_PROJ_195_004).
5 A millstone can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of a grid of detail photographs of the UNESCO Garden in Martin Friedman, Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1978), 68. Two other millstones appear in later photographs at the far end of the garden, though it is unclear if these were Noguchi’s own additions. The archive has no record of where exactly Noguchi acquired his millstones.
6 There is no photographic evidence of Variation on a Millstone #4’s only known installation as part of Noguchi: Stone Sculpture at Cordier & Ekstrom in New York in 1965. No hole is drilled in its rim for the pin of a pedestal, leading The Noguchi Museum curators to believe it is the only Variation meant to be installed in a horizontal orientation. Variation on a Millstone #1, another vertically oriented millstone on a wood and steel plate base, was also shown in this Cordier & Ekstrom exhibition.
7 Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 114.
8 Isamu Noguchi, interview for Venice Biennale, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives (MS_WRI_068_001), 12.
9 Noguchi’s friend Dore Ashton placed special emphasis on Noguchi’s use of this word in the context of stone in Noguchi East and West (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1993), 162.
10 Isamu Noguchi, interview in Friedrich Teja Bach, Constantin Brancusi: Metamorphosen plastischer Form (Cologne: Dumont, 1987), 291.
11 Kenneth Frampton, “Noguchi Revisited.” Normal Magazine (Summer 1986): 33.The Noguchi Museum Archives (B_CLI_2001_1986).
12 Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 38.
13 Ibid., 132.
14 Noguchi mentions the temple in Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 72. Fumi Ikeda and Mihoko Masuda, staff of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure, believe that Noguchi was referring to Renkou-ji Temple near Sakaide, Kagawa Prefecture. Noguchi learned of kan kan ishi from a priest at nearby Kokubun-ji Temple.
15 Kan kan ishi instruments can be found at souvenir shops near Sakaide. Two twentieth-century Japanese instruments similar to lithophones, the sek kin and the hokyo, are made up of plates shaped from Sanukite.
16 The Noguchi Museum has occasionally invited artists and musicians to engage directly with Noguchi’s kan kan ishi sculptures. In 2014, the Museum hosted Labor of Love, a five-hour durational performance by Lesley Dill and Ernesto Pujol in which the artists were set up at two tables with drawing implements and scrolls to respond to the Museum environment by entering a near-meditational state based around continuous drawing. The artists struck Noguchi’s Sounding Stone at half-hour intervals to mark their trading of drawing stations and scrolls. The Museum commissioned birth/death, a composition for Sounding Stone, a second untitled kan kan ishi sculpture, and strings by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, violist, composer, and lecturer in composition and viola at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. The piece premiered at The Noguchi Museum in February 2017. (http://leilehualanzilotti.com/birth-death)
17 Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 132
18 Noguchi interviewed about Momo Taro, c. 1978. The Noguchi Museum Archives, AV_M16_018_c. 1978, at 21:50.
19 Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 124