Isamu Noguchi, born Isamu Gilmour, is an American sculptor who spent more than sixty years creating abstract works in stone, based on organic, and geometric forms.
Noguchi’s Japanese father, Yone, was a rising poet living on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. He met Noguchi’s American mother, Leonie Gilmour, through a classified ad he took out for freelance editorial work in 1901. Yone returned to Japan. He appeared to have little regret at leaving a six-month-pregnant woman behind.
Noguchi was born in 1904, in the city of Los Angeles to Leonie Gilmour, an Irish-American writer and teacher, and Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet. Noguchi’s parents met when his mother was hired to assist his father with English. By 1913, Noguchi’s father remarried, and started a new life, distancing himself from his son.
Noguchi’s mother moved to Japan, where the young Noguchi attended Japanese and Jesuit schools. Noguchi lived in Tokyo, Omori and Chigasaki. While living in Japan, Noguchi gained an appreciation for its landscape, architecture, and craftsmanship. At the age of thirteen, Noguchi’s mother sent him to a boarding school, Interlaken School located in Rolling Prairie, Indiana.
Upon graduating high school in Indiana, Noguchi spent a summer in Connecticut tutoring the son of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Although Noguchi received training from the Borglum, who would become the Mount Rushmore sculptor, it was said that Noguchi was talentless.
Noguchi entered Columbia University as a pre-med student in 1922. His mother moved to New York in 1924, and encouraged her son to study sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. While in Manhattan Noguchi became acquainted with the work of the Surrealists, and with contemporary abstract sculpture. By 1927, these interests led him to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship, where he worked with modernist sculptor, Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi left Columbia and focused on his art full-time. This is when Noguchi began using his father’s name. Before long, Noguchi’s academic work was soon shown in exhibitions at the da Vinci School, the National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
While in Paris, Noguchi worked as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, whose New York gallery exhibition the previous year had been extremely influential for the young artist. While teaching Noguchi methods of direct carving in wood and stone, Brancusi communicated to Noguchi his aesthetic and relationship to his materials. From Brancusi, Noguchi became interested in the idea of leaving the marks of his tools on his sculpture to signify an ongoing connection between sculptor and material. However, after leaving Brancusi’s studio, Noguchi began creating his own sculptures, many of which initially echoed the form, themes and materials of his mentor.
Noguchi’s sculptures began as simple geometric shapes, but he soon moved toward more organic forms, sometimes merging the two. While in Paris, Noguchi also became part of the Bohemian community, meeting artists such as Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis and Jules Pascin.
Noguchi’s fellowship expired in 1929. He returned to New York, and had his first solo exhibition at the Eugene Schoen Gallery. His work was met with positive reviews, despite a lack of sales. To make money, Noguchi created portrait busts including well-known artists such as George Gershwin, Martha Graham, and Buckminster Fuller. During this time, he traveled to Paris, Beijing and Japan. In Kyoto, Noguchi first saw the Japanese pottery, and Zen gardens that would influence much of his work.
Noguchi found little acceptance for his abstract sculptures. While his portrait work increased his popularity, and earned Noguchi a living, he felt it was stifling, and in the thirties he moved to Mexico City. In Mexico City, Noguchi worked on a large three-dimensional mural with the painter Diego Rivera. Although not his own project, the mural was closer in scale to the large pieces he longed to create. Noguchi’s work in Mexico City won him the opportunity to create the entrance to the Associated Press building in New York. Thereafter, Noguchi was able to work on a large scale projects of his own.
“To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school,” he said. “I am always learning, always discovering.”
Internment Camp and WWII
“To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities.” Noguchi added, “For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.”
In the winter of 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This order permitted the U.S. military to round up Japanese-Americans in California, Oregon and Washington State, and to move them inland into internment camps.
At that time Noguchi was 37, and living in New York. He was exempt from Roosevelt’s order, yet he went anyway. By then, Noguchi had made a name for himself with large-scale works such as that of 50 Rockefeller Plaza. Even so, the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor made him, as he writes in his autobiography, not just American but a second-generation Japanese immigrant. Noguchi somehow believed that by opting for internment he could improve the standing of Japanese-Americans, and demonstrate their commitment to the American war effort. Noguchi was sent to the Poston War Relocation Center. This would be the largest internment camp in the U.S., located near the Arizona-California border.
Nothing came of his efforts, and though he tried to leave to continue his advocacy outside the camp, it took months to obtain permission. Despite his voluntary internment, Noguchi had to complete a loyalty questionnaire, quizzing him about his views of Japan’s emperor, his language abilities, his membership in Japanese organizations and how many Caucasian references could vouch for his patriotism. Noguchi created few works during the seven months he was interned.
In 1943 Noguchi was back in New York, where his art exploded into new forms with angrier overtones. “This Tortured Earth,” is a wall-mounted square of scarred and divot-marked bronze, and hi, The World Is a Foxhole, features a ball and a small sail in precarious balance. Noguchi shifted into the biotic forms that would later characterize his most famous work.
Certain matters haunted Noguchi throughout life. Due to his father’s fame, Noguchi’s birth in 1904 resulted in a newspaper headline in Los Angeles. At that time, Leonie was living in a tent town on the outskirts of the city. The article included, “Yone Noguchi’s Babe Pride of Hospital. White Wife of Author Presents Husband With Son.” The article foretold what Noguchi would contend with for the rest of his life; the public recognition that he would retain mixed identities. “After all, for one with a background like myself the question of identity is very uncertain,” Noguchi said in 1988, the year of his death.
After World War II, Noguchi returned to Japan. He continued to create sculptures, and was given the opportunity to work on larger site-specific pieces. Among these were gardens and fountains which combined his interests in sculpture and architecture. While his proposal for the Hiroshima Monument was not accepted, his involvement in the cultural exchange between Japan and America was important. For Noguchi, Japan was both his past and his future, providing him with a history of craftsmanship as well as aesthetic inspiration. Noguchi would return to Japan constantly throughout the remainder of his life to study, create, and live.
Noguchi’s mother was his strongest influence. His mother is considered a fascinating, yet tragic figure, who haunted Noguchi’s expression. “I think I’m the product of my mother’s imagination,” he once said. Leonie was a graduate of what became known as the Ethical Culture School, which stressed both “manual and academic training.” She followed this with a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, and studies at the Sorbonne. “She kept hoping I would eventually become an artist,” Noguchi said. She got her wish however, dying of pneumonia in 1933 at age 59, she was never able to see her son’s artistic promise fulfilled.
Brancusi taught Noguchi, “You’re as good as you ever will be at the moment. That which you do is the thing.” Some of Noguchi’s greatest output came from collaborations, including dance sets for Martha Graham, garden designs for architects, and eventually his coffee table for Herman Miller, and his Akari light sculptures, paper lanterns now universally copied. Noguchi’s famous table design came about when it was used to illustrate an article written by George Nelson on, “How to Make a Table.” This table would become Noguchi’s famous coffee table, introduced in 1947, and reissued in 1984.
Other notable commissions include the gardens for the UNESCO Building in Paris, five fountains for the Supreme Court Building in Tokyo, and a large mural for the Abelardo Rodriguez Market in Mexico City.
Gold Medal, American Institute of Arts and Letters, 1977
Brandeis Creative Arts Award, 1966
New York Architectural League Gold Medal, 1965
First Prize (Logan Medal), 63rd Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 1959
Guggenheim Memorial Fund Fellowship, 1927
“It’s only in art that it was ever possible for me to find any identity at all.”
Noguchi died in December of 1988 at the age of 84, after a career that spanned more than six decades.
Even in death, Noguchi has gardens in Paris, Jerusalem, and New York, and outdoor sculptures and environments in seventeen American cities. The great body of work that he leaves behind is a testament to the ties he forged between East and West.
Rather hope to be remembered, not for any particular body of work, but it is said that he hoped to be remembered for contributing “something to an awareness of living.”
Walking in his museum garden with his friend Dore Ashton, Noguchi once said, “I have come to no conclusions, no beginnings, no endings.”
Noguchi’s objective, it is said was to create, and enhance public spaces, which established him as a critical figure in the worlds of post-war art, architecture and design.
The photos in this gallery were taken while on writing assignment for the Tokyo Weekender Magazine, at the Noguchi’s Museum, located in Mure, Kagawa, Japan.
To visit the museum
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan
3519 Mure, Mure-cho, Takamatsu-city Kagawa, 761-0121, Japan