By Matthew Kirsch
- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
By Matthew Kirsch
“I had built a garden, to which I was devoted…The overflow from the pump I had formed into a brook. To this was attached my earliest feeling of guilt, for I stole a rock from a neighbor’s wood to place there. Each time Haruhiko san came to call, I expected him to recognize his rock.”1
While Isamu Noguchi offered this scene from his childhood in Chigasaki, Japan, in his 1968 autobiography A Sculptor’s World as a winking prediction of his future, it also illustrates what he saw as distinguishing him from his twentieth-century sculpting peers: as a born disciple to the inherent qualities of that most tradition-bound of sculptural materials, stone.
As other sculptors continued to advance the premises of assemblage, acknowledged and recontextualized a source of America’s economic backbone through shaped and welded steel, or began to shape the earth itself as a literal endgame for accepted notions of sculpture, Noguchi remained steadfastly attached to a material that he would have struggled to afford during the first decades of his career.
A willingness to experiment with material and expanded contexts for sculpture in concepts for play, dance sets, furniture, and industrial design were partly practical considerations for Noguchi. When, in 1949, he abandoned his studio practice to travel in search of the origins of sculpture in public spaces throughout the world, he found stone to be the common denominator in functionality, expressiveness, and universality in the dolmens of Carnac, Avebury, and Stonehenge; the linga of India and Nepal; the carved vertical phalluses and horizontal megaliths in villages in Bali, Sumatra, and Java; and the stone lanterns and charismatic floating stones of gardens throughout Japan.
His encounters with the Japanese garden, a composed abstraction of nature with stone as a presiding element in dialogue with the ephemeral, inspired a new rationale for Noguchi in how to punctuate space as an animated and dynamic environment. With its centuries-old accepted modes of composition and modern-day disciples, Noguchi valued stone as a tradition that he could both draw from and react against.
A defining moment in his career, the commission Noguchi completed at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris was a formative experience in putting into practice all that he had absorbed in his study of public spaces in the previous decade. It would also help him to attain a stream of future collaborations with architects.
The garden at UNESCO began as a straightforward commission for Noguchi to create an outdoor patio for delegates outside the Secretariat Building on the campus that Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi, and Bernard Zehrfuss had designed on the Place de Fontenoy. However, a change in siting of one of the buildings meant that the delegates’ patio would overlook a sunken area.
Noguchi subsequently prevailed in his proposal to expand the scope to an immersive garden that would harmonize the plot between the buildings. Noguchi’s envisioning of a Japanese-inspired garden hinged on obtaining an abundance of raw stones, and he found it only appropriate to source those stones from Japan. Much to his surprise, he struggled with UNESCO’s approved budget for the project and had to convince Japanese benefactors to subsidize his vision.
With the help of master gardener Mirei Shigemori, Noguchi traveled to sites on the Inland Sea, Okayama, Shodoshima, and Shikoku to obtain stones. Delays in the construction of the campus hindered Noguchi’s efforts; he practiced creating rock groupings in Tokushima as he lobbied to be present for the grading of the lot back in Paris. In a foreshadowing of his future site-specific projects, he discovered that the mock stagings undertaken in Tokushima had to be revised and massaged in response to the actual space.
While Noguchi adopted some of the conceits of traditional gardening—a horai (sacred mountain) grouping is tucked within the garden—he acknowledged that his garden was anything but a Japanese garden. The grading of the site necessitated that he resolve different levels of terracing, which he unified with a long connecting ramp, a concept adapted from Kabuki theater.2 At the threshold of the long ramp on the delegates’ patio, he included a massive menhir with incised characters—an emphatic gesture that denies the subliminal artfulness of the Japanese gardener and underscores his intent: “Man’s hands are hidden by time and the many effects of nature, moss and so forth, so you are hidden. I don’t want to be hidden. I want to show. Therefore I am modern.”3
Noguchi described the commission for the First National City Bank building as a difficult one, due in part to the irregular plaza layout formed by a curve in West 7th Street. What probably clinched his decision to work on this commission for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was the budget afforded him for the project, a budget that allowed him to seek out stone in Japan.
He found a granite source that he claimed was only discovered a few years earlier, in a remote area near Mount Tsukuba that required clearing a path through a forest and a ravine. Noguchi was effusive about this gray-green stone: “Coming upon it as if guided by fate I have become so enthusiastic about it that nothing else will do.”4
Later, Noguchi supervised stonecutters in Japan in the cutting and shaping of the eight stone elements composing the three monumental carved works. The central and largest element is a stone structure in the form of a standing right angle, what Noguchi described as a symbol of energy, and his vertical solution to the oddly shaped, red-brick plaza footprint. Elsewhere, three planters in the plaza were populated by natural river stones with a green color, found near Tokushima, and vegetation from various parts of Texas.
Sadly, at some point in the 1970s, the natural stones disappeared after the plaza underwent a renovation.
Arguably Noguchi’s signature New York project, the Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in the Financial District illustrates Noguchi’s spatial problem-solving and seemingly paradoxical intuition—in this case, balancing the 60-story height of SOM’s International-style skyscraper with what Noguchi came to regard as “my Ryōan-ji.” An allusion to the famed, spare Kyoto rock garden that is observed from a temple porch, the comparison speaks not only to the clean sparsity of his contribution, but also to the viewer’s physical remove from it, either in looking down into the circular space from a parapet on the plaza level or from a great height above it, or from within the adjacent offices below the plaza.
Blessed with a budget that could support his vision, Noguchi sought out time- and river-eroded stones from Japan, enigmatic examples that could convey a certain weight and mass to counter their setting. In interviews, Noguchi commented on the scarcity of these stones, which, by that time, had been stripped from the rivers after becoming a prized currency for wealthy Japanese, who tastefully appointed their residences with these microcosmic specimens of nature. Due to delays in the project, the largest stone Noguchi had scouted (and the one he coveted most) was sold by a dealer, and Noguchi scrambled to track down its new owner in the south of Japan to buy it back.
The overall vision he hoped to achieve was that the river stones would appear to levitate (aided by just a few jets of water) rather than passively settle on the modulated and contoured white granite mosaic surface. In his insistence that the ground plane of this hybrid garden-fountain is essentially the one true product of the sculptor’s hand and mind, he toys with the idea of the transposition of nature and culture.
Nearly fourteen years after Noguchi’s UNESCO sculpture gardens were met with praise, his ensemble of five Japanese granite stones, Landscape of Time, at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in Seattle, proved that a compositional exercise inspired by centuries-old tradition could still be too radical for some.
A panel convened by the General Services Administration for its Art in Architecture Program, an initiative earmarking half of 1 percent of the Federal Building’s budget, selected Noguchi’s proposal for the adjoining plaza. Noguchi offset the 37-story tower and the herringbone-patterned brick of the plaza’s floor with minimally carved boulders, creating a landscape that “exists separately” as a reflective space for passersby. As with his preparations for UNESCO, Noguchi spent a great deal of effort fine-tuning the Seattle commission’s arrangement, this time at his studio yard in Mure, Japan.
While the spare composition was met with some consternation—a U.S. Congressman mocked the “common, everyday granite rocks” as an exorbitant expenditure of taxpayer dollars in the National Enquirer, likening it to the pet rock craze—another critic from the Seattle Times found her initial disdain wear away with time.
Noguchi’s commission for the Cleveland Museum was also his second for a Marcel Breuer building—albeit indirectly, as Breuer’s addition to the museum was completed a decade earlier. The site on the lawn was hemmed in by a mass of hedges on the far perimeter, and cut in half by a driveway to the museum’s entrance. Noguchi compared this to the garden approach of a traditional Japanese teahouse (the roji, or “dewy ground”), as it would involve the spectator in the experience.
Initially, Noguchi proposed a four-piece composition, including a mound of cut Aji stone boulders paired with a stone ring laid flat on the ground. But it was revised to place 8-foot-tall vertical stones in the front court and, by using the hedges behind the gentle slope as a natural proscenium, two horizontally oriented stones to echo the slope.
While two stones seem to emerge from the grass, one of the horizontals is set on two granite props that intimate a sense of artificiality, highlighting Noguchi’s hand. The props are a recurring motif in Noguchi’s late stone works, borrowing a functional aid from the process of stonecarving and repurposing it as a presentational device. As he faced recurring critiques questioning his use of minimally worked stone in his public projects throughout the 1970s, the choice seemed to comment on the nebulous line between finished and unfinished.
And perhaps in response to criticisms of the raw appearance of the stones in Landscape of Time in Seattle, Noguchi sculpturally worked the three basalts that make up Passage; each basalt illustrates Noguchi’s strategy of playing areas of aging, ocher crust against areas of the stone’s dark interior, revealed through high polish.
As Los Angeles neared its bicentennial in 1981, a Japanese-American community group asked the Los Angeles-born Noguchi in 1979 about contributing to a revitalization project in the Little Tokyo area.
While his immediate response to the initial architectural drawings for the group’s proposed plaza was to eliminate a theater building altogether (pressing his belief that the plaza itself could serve both as a functional theater and community space, day and night), he compromised and advised that theater building be pushed to the back of the site so that its wall could serve as a boundary for the plaza.
He also suggested that the entire red-brick plaza be raised above street level both to neutralize a natural slope and, through use of multi-level tiers, to maintain a theatrical character for the public space. His plan centered on a large central circular area broken up by different elevations, some with stands of jacaranda and other trees for shade, another with a circular, black mosaic fountain. These risers could be used either by performers or by the seated audience, depending on the event.
Typically, when Noguchi was commissioned for a public space there was an expectation that some form of monumental sculpture would be included. Noguchi set just two, minimally worked basalts titled To the Issei on one fan-shaped riser, serving less as a focal point than as spectators to or participants in the everyday events of the plaza. As if to play with that expectation, Noguchi characterized the space as a meeting place on the order of a European town square or Italian piazza, where life exists as ceremony and “the whole empty space is really a sculpture.”5
Just a few years after he and Noguchi were forced to abandon their collaboration on a playground for New York’s Riverside Park, the architect Louis Kahn began work on the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, translating the mass and geometry of classical architecture to an unadorned concrete and travertine backdrop for art. Noguchi only visited the finished Kimbell after Kahn died in 1974. Its vaulted concrete porticos admitted light into the interior through neatly concealed skylights, creating a tension between light and dark, weight and airlessness, that appealed to Noguchi enough that he would subsequently include an adapted barrel vault in the floating gallery at The Noguchi Museum.
As a tribute, and with the support of the Fort Worth art dealer Shaindy Fenton, Noguchi proposed a gift to the Kimbell: an installation of four basalt stones for a recessed courtyard, placed in counterpoint to the rhythm of the building’s porticos. Art historian Dore Ashton commented on the stones’ placement, with their concrete footings laid before the basalts even arrived on site: “He seems to measure out the sight lines, as he would in a theater, so that visitors moving around the building would be guided back again and again to the structure itself.”6
A site of experimentation on nearly every level, Noguchi’s studio and refuge for the last twenty years of his life in the stonecutting village of Mure, in Shikoku, Japan, became a regular destination for the sculptor. It is where he claimed that he was able to make work for himself, and where his method of relaxation was through working with a crew of assistants on his basalt and granite sculptures.
Outside of his walled studio yard, however, and up the hillside behind a merchant’s house recovered for his personal residence, he and his dedicated assistant, Masatoshi Izumi, continued their work with stone, molding a hillside space into Noguchi’s vision of a modified nature—for no intended audience but Noguchi himself. Drawing on lessons from his own previous gardens as well as the paradoxical artful artlessness found in the temple gardens of Japan, Noguchi first had a part of a hill graded to create a stepped environment. From this baseline, he added a number of punctuating elements: a dry waterfall of raw boulders that shadows the irregular stone path ascending from beside the house; a stone stage at the lip of the ravine overlooking a bamboo grove; an accenting retaining wall of raw boulders that was one of Izumi’s specialties; and a stream of simple stones that flows to unite the different elevations.
Noguchi tasked Izumi with the addition of one final feature to be carried out after the inevitable: Izumi sited a bisected and repaired Mannari granite boulder containing Noguchi’s ashes on the upper tier of the garden to overlook the distant Inland Sea. Unfortunately today, like many other gardens throughout Japan, this work’s reliance on the convention of use of the surrounding landscape as borrowed scenery (shakkei) is threatened by encroaching development.
1 Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, New York: Harper & Row, 1968, 12
2 See Mark Treib’s excellent study, Noguchi in Paris: The UNESCO Garden (San Francisco and Paris: William Stout Publishers and UNESCO Publishing, 2003).
3 Rhony Alhalel, “A Conversation with Isamu Noguchi,” Kyoto Journal 10 (Spring 1989): 35
4 Isamu Noguchi, to Gordon Bunshaft, April 27, 1960, The Noguchi Museum Archive.
5 William Wilson, “Noguchi Comes Home,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1980
6 Dore Ashton, Noguchi: East and West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 177