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Black and white photograph of Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi, and Yoshiko Yamaguchi standing in front of a tea house at the Urasenke Konnichi-an estate, Kyoto, 1952
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Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
September 27, 2019 – December 8, 2019

Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan is a major traveling exhibition focused on the consequential friendship between Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Saburo Hasegawa (1906–1957). In his lifetime, Hasegawa was among the most renowned contemporary Japanese artists in the United States, and credited with introducing European abstraction to Japan in his role as an art historian, critic, and art theorist.

Their relationship was kindled during Noguchi’s visit to Japan in 1950, as both artists sought to understand the fragmented postwar world and the potential of art in reassembling it. Together, they undertook a wide-ranging study of traditional Japanese design, culture, and aesthetics; visiting historic sites, and debating modernization with the ultimate goal of making modern art in Japan through the “true development” of its traditions. Comprising more than 80 contemporary and subsequent works by Noguchi and Hasegawa, the exhibition traces influences of their dialogue.

This exhibition premiered at the Yokohama Museum of Art, January 12 to March 24, 2019; and was on view at The Noguchi Museum from May 1 to July 14, 2019.

U.S.-born sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Japanese painter, theorist and teacher Saburo Hasegawa (1906–1957) both reacted to the catastrophic effects of the war by questioning how art could balance tradition and modernity, Japanese culture and foreign influences, past and present. They were both committed to modernist practices, such as the removal of the inessential, truth to materials and a utopian belief of the power of art to improve society, but felt that modernism needed a new direction, one that could be provided by a deep exploration of Japanese art and design. Together, they visited historic gardens, palaces and temples around Kyoto to immerse themselves in traditional Japanese culture.

The exhibition traces the work, ideas and mutual influence of these two artists, one well known and the other little known outside Japan but who had strong ties to San Francisco. Focusing on work made in the decade following their meeting in 1950, the exhibition is organized around a series of themes that bring out the resonances between Noguchi’s sculptures and design work and Hasegawa’s explorations in painting, printmaking and photography. Situating the work of both artists side by side forcefully reveals their innovative fusion of Japanese tradition and modernist form and shared aesthetic sensibilities.

Around the time he met Noguchi, Hasegawa abandoned oil painting in favor of ink (sumi); he employed traditional materials and techniques to create abstract imagery. His work from the 1950s includes abstract calligraphy, rubbings, brush paintings, monotypes and block prints, and he often employed traditional formats such as folding screens and hanging scrolls.

Noguchi’s work was also profoundly impacted by his time in Japan with Hasegawa. For example, the iron, wood, and rope sculpture Calligraphics (1957) shows the influence of Hasegawa’s abstract calligraphy. The stele-like works Sesshu (the title is a nod to Hasegawa’s favorite ink-wash painter) and Orpheus (both 1958) are made of folded sheets of aluminum inspired by origami and kiragami.

Hasegawa spent the last years of his life in the United States, where he played a key role in transmitting Japanese philosophy and culture to the American avant-garde. After a year of professional successes in New York in 1954, Hasegawa moved to San Francisco to teach drawing and Asian art history at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) and lecture and teach the practice of tea ceremony at the now-defunct American Academy of Asian Studies. Hasegawa felt more appreciated in the U.S. than in his native Japan and believed that it was only in America that he could develop an abstract art rooted in Asian tenets.

Hasegawa’s death of cancer in 1957 at the age of 50 put a stop to that trajectory. It is fitting that San Francisco, the city where he left a strong legacy as a teacher and where his work was first exhibited (in 1952, at the Legion of Honor), is a venue for this first substantial consideration of Hasegawa’s work outside Japan.

The story of the friendship between Noguchi and Hasegawa and their shared artistic concerns adds nuance to the usual narrative of postwar art. Their practices do not fit neatly into any group, movement or style — in part because their profound interest in tradition was shared by few of their peers — but Noguchi’s and Hasegawa’s concern for balancing old and new, local and global, abstraction and representation seems as pressing, and complicated, today as it was in 1950.

  • Nodate tea ceremony in Nara with a group including Saburo Hasegawa (second from right) and Isamu Noguchi (far right), 1950. The Noguchi Museum Archive. ©INFGM / ARS

Organized by The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan is curated by Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at The Noguchi Museum, and Mark Dean Johnson, Professor and Gallery Director at San Francisco State University; with Matthew Kirsch, Curator of Research at The Noguchi Museum.

The exhibition is made possible through lead support from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Transportation assistance has been provided by ANA (All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd.).

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