Even the Centipede, monumental sectional ceramic sculpture of an abstract centipede

Noguchi Subscapes

June 15, 2022 – September 3, 2023

Noguchi Subscapes is a survey of Isamu Noguchi’s particular interest in the unseen and hidden: invisible forces, subterranean structures and their makers, spatial metaphors for the unknown, and the inner recesses of the self. This series of installations of around forty sculptures and designs, mostly drawn from the Museum’s collection and incorporating photographs from the artist’s archive, occupies nearly the entire second floor.


Above: Isamu Noguchi, Even the Centipede, 1952. Unglazed Kasama red stoneware, wood pole, and hemp cord. 165 5/8 x 18 x 18 in. Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; A. Conger Goodyear Fund, 1.1955.a-k. Photo: Nicholas Knight. © INFGM / ARS

Exhibition Tour

Curator’s Tour Video: Noguchi Subscapes

Video by Xuan Films

Curator’s Statement

Isamu Noguchi’s ultimate conception of sculpture was the manipulation of three empirical abstractions: the relationships that connect objects, spaces, and people; the sense of environment those connections produce when more than the sum of their parts; and the scaling of human awareness to such imaginary landscapes.

The term “subscape” comes from an essay about the largely unconsidered world below the level of the chair seat or table top by Noguchi’s sometime employer George Nelson—the designer, theorist, publisher, and all-around impresario of American midcentury modern design.1 Nelson’s interest in the “manifold wonders,” to be found in this “zone of nearly total invisibility,”2 stemmed from what he characterized as the fantastic “shock that comes with seeing familiar objects from a strange point of view.”3

In the article, written as a tale of discovery, Nelson recounts falling off his couch and inadvertently encountering “a region of whose existence,” he had been “almost totally unaware.”4 He likens the experience to arriving here from Mars. To design for this limbo, he says, is like penetrating the Iron Curtain or passing through Alice’s looking glass.5 Undaunted, and “armed with all the fresh advantages of the mouse-eye view,”6 he sets out to see what he can learn—despite some problems. “The use of a view camera for the subscape is impossible unless one chops a hole in the floor for the photographer,” he complained, and “illumination at subscape levels, whether by day or night, is very poor, lighting engineers showing no concern for the seeing requirements of dogs, infants or photographers.”7

Noguchi’s most famous job for Nelson was the creation of his iconic glass-topped coffee table for Herman Miller. It was designed to illustrate a now-lost article of Nelson’s entitled “How to Make a Table,” as well as to avenge the theft of a related design by a well-known furniture company while Noguchi was incarcerated in the Poston, Arizona, prison camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. With its transparent top and visible skeletal structure base, the table is a subscape revelation.

To understand why Noguchi was so taken with this undiscovered zone—a space most of us ignore or take for granted—it is helpful to listen to him. Here is how he explains Infant (1971), which can be found in Area 9 of the Museum lying on the largest, least-recognized pedestal in the world:

Ultimately, the floor as a metaphor for earth is the basic base beyond all others. Gravity holds us there. The floor is our platform of humanity, as the Japanese well know. The floor in its entirety graces all who enter. They partake in the experience of being sculpture.8
  • Isamu Noguchi, Infant, 1971. Miharu granite. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS

In other words, these fundamentals, of which we aren’t even consciously aware, are often the most significant baselines of our existence—their importance rendered invisible only by their scale. Earth, the underappreciated pedestal upon which humanity’s existence rests, is the archetypal example of this. In an excerpt from his autobiography, Noguchi expounds on how everything, seen and unseen, is connected below view:

In Japan the rocks in a garden are so planted as to suggest a protuberance from the primordial mass below. Every rock gains enormous weight, and that is why the whole garden may be said to be a sculpture, whose roots are joined way below.9

The sculptures in the exhibition represent different aspects of this hidden connectedness: the tunnels, caves, root systems, and rock formations that riddle Earth’s crust, as well as the creatures and forces that produce them. Noguchi’s orientation to the unseen surfaces in his conceptualization of the Greek hero Orpheus’s artistic vision as a form of blindness (symbolized in Noguchi’s design as a golden mask—a riff on the idea of a golden cage). This idea found a real world analogue in Noguchi’s association with the Japanese movement Sodeisha (“Crawling Through Mud Association”), a group of young rebel potters looking for ways to turn the traditions of Japanese ceramics on their head in order to establish themselves as modern abstract artists. The formation of Sodeisha was in part inspired by Noguchi’s ceramic sculptures of the early 1950s, such as Even the Centipede (1952). The studio in Kita Kamakura on the land of Kitaoji Rosanjin, where Noguchi hand-built these works, had an earthen wall that Noguchi excavated out of the hillside.

  • Interior of Isamu Noguchi’s earthen studio in Kita Kamakura, c. 1951–52. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03225. ©INFGM / ARS
  • View of patio from within Noguchi’s Kita Kamakura studio, c. 1952. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03232. ©INFGM / ARS

Worm Pyramid (1965), one of the least imposing objects on permanent view in the Museum—often treated as a tripping hazard rather than a small wonder of the world—is a testament to the ambitions of a creature whose very name, “worm,” is a derogatory synonym for unworthy of attention. Describing another easily underestimated early work in the Museum catalogue, Globular (1928), Noguchi explains never really finding an entirely convincing orientation for it, concluding with a characteristically perspective-warping statement about its final state: “The floatingness is now below.”10

But if there is a single object that is perfectly emblematic of Noguchi’s “subscapes” point of view, it is Boy Looking through Legs (1933), a self-portrait as a boy of nine or ten. Bent over double from the waist, limber for action, he surveys the world with bright blue eyes: backwards, upside-down, and through a forest of his own legs. Though it is not in the exhibition—as it’s out on loan—Boy Looking through Legs epitomizes Noguchi’s vocational interest not only in altering perspective, but in understanding how to make mountains out of molehills, or vice versa.

Dakin Hart
Senior Curator of The Noguchi Museum (2013–23)

1 George Nelson, “Notes on the New Subscape,” in Problems of Design (New York: Whitney Publications, 1957), 194–200, previously published as “Problems of Design: Notes on the New Subscape,” Interiors 110 (November 1950).

2 Ibid., 194.

3 Ibid., 198.

4 Ibid., 197.

5 Ibid., 195.

6 Ibid., 197.

7 Ibid., 198.

8 Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), 122.

9 Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968; Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2004), 40. Citation refers to the Steidl edition.

10 Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 232.

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Noguchi Subscapes is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council and from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.