Photocollage of nine biomorphic ashtray designs in white plaster

The Sculptor and the Ashtray

February 12, 2020 – August 23, 2020

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was profoundly in sync with America’s mid-century obsession with the power of design to shape the modern world. Dual exhibitions The Sculptor and the Ashtray and Composition for Idlewild Airport testify to his interest in making sculpture everywhere out of everything. In the mid-1940s, the ashtray—even more than the martini shaker, the radio, or the barbeque—was an example of an object at the center of a predominant social ritual, the shaping of which was then becoming central to Noguchi’s conception of how to make socially relevant modern sculpture. In the late 1950s, air travel was a still-developing ritual of modernity, in the process of becoming synonymous with one-world culture.

The Sculptor and the Ashtray was inspired by an unpublished article written around 1944 by Mary Mix (Foley), an architecture and design writer at George Nelson’s Architectural Forum. It chronicles Noguchi’s efforts to design the perfect ashtray. Mix noted that this “commonplace gadget” was made and used across the full spectrum of material culture, from tacky novelty items and marketing swag designed by unknown “hacks” to solid-gold objets d’art conceived by the great artisans of the day for the coffee tables of monarchs.

Mix’s article documents Noguchi’s creation of two families of ashtray concepts. The first, handcrafted and biomorphic, was developed through a process of progressive refinement over nine modeled plaster prototypes. These are known from Mix’s account, and two images in the article’s layouts show them grouped together. Of the ninth iteration, which Noguchi seems to have considered the finished design in that line of thinking, Mix wrote that the ashtray appeared “not as a clever design, but as a natural object which grew inevitably and could be no other way.”

The other concept was a modular design conceived for industrial manufacture—to be produced “cheaply by the million” according to Noguchi. It consisted of arrays of standing bullet-shaped projections, to be produced in glass or metal, that could be set into other ashtrays as an accessory, and around which Noguchi designed two complete ashtrays, each with a slightly different scheme for facilitating easy cleaning. Noguchi referred to this version—which he viewed as the result of invention rather than craft—as “an American expression of the machine age.” He told Mix that “an artist who doesn’t take advantage” of America’s “facilities for machine manufacture…is just a fool!” It turned out, however, that the ashtray design was too complex for existing industrial techniques. Neither of the ashtray designs went into production.

The exhibition includes patent applications for Noguchi’s second concept, replicas of the designs contained within them, letters between Noguchi and his close friend R. Buckminster Fuller relating to the concept, recently produced exhibition copies of Noguchi’s (inextant) ashtray prototypes, and the original typescript of Mix’s article and two mockup layouts.

  • Spread from unpublished magazine article by Mary Mix, “The Sculptor and the Ashtray,” c. 1944. Printed proof with hand coloring. The artist’s studio at 33 MacDougal Alley, New York City, is pictured. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Ashtray design by Isamu Noguchi, pictured in unpublished magazine article by Mary Mix, “The Sculptor and the Ashtray,” c. 1944. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Notarized design drawing dated February 8, 1945, for a patent application for an ashtray design by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM / ARS

The Sculptor and the Ashtray 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 Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.