Isamu Noguchi (November 17, 1904 - December 30, 1988) was a prominent Japanese American artist and landscape architect whose artistic career spanned six decades, from the 1920s onward.
Known widely for his sculpture and public works, Noguchi also designed stage sets for various Martha Graham productions, and several mass-produced lamps and furniture pieces, some of which are still manufactured and sold.
Among his furniture work was his collaboration with the Herman Miller company in 1948 when he joined with George Nelson, Paul László and Charles Eames to produce a catalog containing what is often considered to be the most influential body of modern furniture. His work lives on around the world and at the The Noguchi Museum in New York City.
Early life (1904-1922)
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, the illegitimate son of Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet who had gained great acclaim in the United States, and Leonie Gilmour, an American writer who edited much of his work.
Yone had ended his relationship with Gilmour earlier that year, instead planning to marry his true romance, Washington Post reporter Ethel Armes. After proposing to her, Yone left for Japan in late August, settling in Tokyo and awaiting Armes' arrival; their engagement fell through months later when she learned of Leonie and her newborn son.
In 1906, Yone invited Leonie to come to Tokyo with their son. She at first refused, but growing anti-Japanese sentiment following the Russo-Japanese War eventually convinced her to take up Yone's offer. The two departed from San Francisco in March 1907, arriving in Yokohama to meet Yone. Upon arrival, their son was finally given the name Isamu (勇, "courage"). However, Yone had taken a Japanese wife by the time they arrived, and was mostly absent from his son's childhood. After again separating from Yone, Leonie and Isamu moved several times throughout Japan.
In 1912, while the two had settled in Chigasaki, Isamu's half sister, Ailes Gilmour (known today as an early pioneer of the American Modern Dance movement) was born to an unknown father. Here the family had their own house built, a project that Leonie had Isamu "oversee". She also tried to nurture her son's artistic ability during this time, putting him in charge of their garden and apprenticing him to a local carpenter. However, they moved once again in December 1917 to an English-speaking community in Yokohama.
In 1918, Noguchi was sent to the United States for schooling. He first attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, a progressive boarding high school in Michigan. However, Noguchi only attended the school for one summer; it closed in August, and was converted into a motor truck training ground for recruits entering World War I. After a bout with Spanish flu, Noguchi found himself nearly abandoned, most of the camp's residents having left after the war's end. In December, Interlochen's director C. A. Lewis's wife brought him to nearby Rolling Prairie to attend school. After graduation, he left with Dr. Edward Rumely, Interlochen's founder, to LaPorte, where he found boarding with a Swedenborgian pastor, Samuel Mack. Noguchi began attending La Porte High School, graduating in 1922.
Early artistic career (1922-1927)
After high school, Noguchi explained his desire to become an artist to Rumely; though he preferred that Noguchi become a doctor, he acknowledged Noguchi's request and sent him to Connecticut to work as an apprentice to his friend Gutzon Borglum. Best known as the creator of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Borglum was at the time working on a huge set of equestrian sculptures for the city of Newark, New Jersey. As his apprentice, Noguchi received little training as a sculptor; his tasks included arranging the horses and modeling for the monument as General Sherman. He did, however, pick up some skills in casting from Borglum's Italian assistants, later fashioning a bust of Abraham Lincoln. At summer's end, Borglum told Noguchi that he would never become a sculptor, prompting him to reconsider Rumley's prior suggestion.
He then traveled to New York City, reuniting with the Rumely family at their new residence, and with Dr. Rumely's financial aid enrolled in February 1922 as a premedical student at Columbia University. Soon after, he met the bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, who urged him to reconsider art, as well as the Japanese dancer Michio Itō, whose celebrity status later helped Noguchi find acquaintances in the art world. Another influence was his mother, who in 1923 moved from Japan to California, then later to New York.
In 1924, while still enrolled at Columbia, Noguchi followed his mother's advice to take night classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. The school's head, Onorio Ruotolo, was immediately impressed by Noguchi's work. Only three months later, Noguchi held his first exhibit, a selection of plaster and terra cotta works. He soon dropped out of Columbia University to pursue sculpture full-time, changing his name from Gilmour (the surname he had used for years) to Noguchi.
After moving into his own studio, Noguchi found work through commissions for portrait busts, he won the Logan Medal of the arts. During this time, he frequented avant-garde shows at the galleries of such modernists as Alfred Stieglitz and J. B. Neuman, and took a particular interest in a show of the works of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
In late 1926, Noguchi applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his letter of application, he proposed to study stone and wood cutting and to gain "a better understanding of the human figure" in Paris for a year, then spend another year traveling through Asia, exhibit his work, and return to New York. He was awarded the grant despite being three years short of the age requirement.
Early travels (1927-1937)
Noguchi arrived in Paris in April 1927 and soon afterward met the American author Robert McAlmon, who brought him to Brancusi's studio for an introduction. Despite a language barrier between the two artists (Noguchi barely spoke French, and Brancusi did not speak English), Noguchi was taken in as Brancusi's assistant for the next seven months. During this time, Noguchi gained his footing in stone sculpture, a medium with which he was unacquainted, though he would later admit that one of Brancusi's greatest teachings was to appreciate "the value of the moment." Meanwhile, Noguchi found himself in good company in France, with letters of introduction from Michio Itō helping him to meet such artists as Jules Pascin and Alexander Calder.
Noguchi only produced one sculpture – his marble Sphere Section – in his first year, but during his second year he stayed in Paris and continued his training in stoneworking with the Italian sculptor Mateo Hernandes, producing over twenty more abstractions of wood, stone and sheet metal. Noguchi's next major destination was to be India, from which he would travel east; he arrived in London to read up on Oriental Sculpture, but was denied the extension to the Guggenheim Fellowship he needed.
In February 1929, he left for New York City. Brancusi had recommended that Noguchi visit Romany Marie's café in Greenwich Village. Noguchi did so and there met Buckminster Fuller, with whom he collaborated on several projects, including the modeling of Fuller's Dymaxion car.
Upon his return, Noguchi's abstract sculptures made in Paris were exhibited in his first one-man show at the Eugene Schoen Gallery. After none of his works sold, Noguchi altogether abandoned abstract art for portrait busts in order to support himself. He soon found himself accepting commissions from wealthy and celebrity clients. A 1930 exhibit of several busts, including those of Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller, garnered positive reviews, and after less than a year of portrait sculpture, Noguchi had earned enough money to continue his trip to Asia.
Noguchi left for Paris in April 1930, and two months later received his visa to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. He opted to visit Japan first rather than India, but after learning that his father Yone did not want his son to visit using his surname, a shaken Noguchi instead departed for Peking. In China, he studied brush painting with Qi Baishi, staying for six month before finally sailing for Japan. Even before his arrival in Kobe, Japanese newspapers had picked up on Noguchi's supposed reunion with his father; though he denied that this was the reason for his visit, the two did meet in Tokyo. He later arrived in Kyoto to study pottery with Uno Jinmatsu. Here he took note of local Zen gardens and haniwa, clay funerary figures of the Kofun era which inspired his terra cotta The Queen.
Noguchi returned to New York amidst the Great Depression, finding few clients for his portrait busts. Instead, he hoped to sell his newly-produced sculptures and brush paintings from Asia. Though very few sold, Noguchi regarded this one-man exhibition (which began in February 1932 and toured Chicago, the west coast, and Honolulu) as his "most successful". Additionally, his next attempt to break into abstract art, a large streamlined figure of dancer Ruth Page entitled Miss Expanding Universe, was poorly received. In January 1933 he worked in Chicago with Santiago Martínez Delgado, on a mural for the Chicago International Fair, then again found a business for his portrait busts; he moved to London in June hoping to find more work, but returned in December just before his mother Leonie's death.
Beginning in February 1934, Noguchi began submitting his first designs for public spaces and monuments to the Public Works of Art Program. One such design, a monument to Benjamin Franklin, remained unrealized for decades. Another design, a gigantic pyramidal earthwork entitled Monument to the American Plow, was similarly rejected, and his "sculptural landscape" of a playground, Play Mountain, was personally rejected by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. He was eventually dropped from the program, and again supported himself by sculpting portrait busts. In early 1935, after another solo exhibition, the New York Sun's Henry McBride labeled Noguchi's Death, depicting a lynched African-American, as "a little Japanese mistake." That same year he produced the set for Frontier, the first of many set designs for Martha Graham.
After the Federal Art Project started up, Noguchi again put forth designs, one of which was another earthwork chosen for the New York City airport entitled Relief Seen from the Sky; following further rejection, Noguchi left for Hollywood, where he again worked as a portrait sculptor to earn money for a sojourn in Mexico. Here, Noguchi was chosen to design his first public work, a relief mural for the Abelardo Rodriguez market in Mexico City. The 20-meter-long History as Seen from Mexico in 1936 was hugely political and socially conscious, featuring such modern symbols as the Nazi swastika, a hammer and sickle, and Einstein's equation E = mc˛.
Further career in the United States (1937-1948)
Noguchi returned to New York in 1937. He again began to turn out portrait busts, and after various proposals was selected for two sculptures. The first of these, a fountain built of automobile parts for the Ford Motor Company's exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, was thought of poorly by critics and Noguchi alike but nevertheless introduced him to fountain-construction and magnesite. Conversely, his second sculpture, a nine-ton stainless steel bas-relief entitled News, was unveiled over the entrance to the Associated Press building at the Rockefeller Center in April 1940 to much praise. Following further rejections of his playground designs, Noguchi left on a cross-country road trip with Arshile Gorky and Gorky's fiancée in July 1941, eventually separating from them to go to Hollywood.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was reenergized in the United States, and in response Noguchi formed "Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy". Noguchi and other group leaders wrote to influential officials, including the congressional committee headed by Representative John Tolan, hoping to halt the internment of Japanese Americans; Noguchi later attended the hearings but had little effect on their outcome. He later helped organize a documentary of the internment, but left California before its release; as a legal resident of New York, he was allowed to return home. He hoped to prove Japanese-American loyalty by somehow helping the war effort, but when other governmental departments turned him down, Noguchi met with John Collier, head of the Office of Indian Affairs, who convinced him to travel to the internment camp located on an Indian reservation in Poston, Arizona to promote arts and crafts and community.
Noguchi arrived at the Poston camp in May 1942, becoming its only voluntary internee. Noguchi first worked in a carpentry shop, but his hope was to design parks and recreational areas within the camp. Although he created several plans at Poston, among them designs for baseball fields, swimming pools, and a cemetery, he found that the WRA authorities had no intention of implementing them. Noguchi also realized that, despite his heritage, he had little in common with the internees, who he described as being mostly unintellectual, nonpolitical farmers. In June, Noguchi applied for release, but intelligence officers labeled him as a "suspicious person" due to his involvement in "Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy". He was finally granted a month-long furlough on November 12, but never returned; though he was granted a permanent leave afterward, he soon afterward received a deportation order. The FBI, accusing him of espionage, launched into a full investigation of Noguchi which ended only through the ACLU's intervention.
Upon his return to New York, Noguchi took a new studio in Greenwich Village. Throughout the 1940s, Noguchi's sculpture drew from the ongoing surrealist movement; these works include not only various mixed-media constructions and landscape reliefs, but lunars – self-illuminating reliefs – and a series of biomorphic sculptures made of interlocking slabs. The most famous of these assembled-slab works, Kouros, was first shown in a September 1946 exhibition, helping to cement his place in the New York art scene. He also designed furniture and lamp designs for Herman Miller and Knoll, and continued his involvement with theater, designing sets for Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring and John Cage and Merce Cunningham's production of The Seasons. Near the end of his time in New York, he also found more work designing public spaces, including a commission for the ceilings of the Time-Life headquarters.
Bollingen Fellowship and life in Japan (1949-1952)
Following the suicide of his friend Arshile Gorky and a failed romantic relationship with Nayantara Pandit, the niece of Indian nationalist Jawaharlal Nehru, Noguchi applied for a Bollingen Fellowship to travel the world, proposing to study public space as research for a book about the "environment of leisure."
In the ensuing years he gained in prominence and acclaim, leaving his large-scale works in many of the world's major cities.