Noguchi in his studio

Noguchi in his studio,
photo by Kaz Inouye


The Queen

"The Queen," 1931
Terra cotta, 45" high


The Sun

"The Sun," 1966
Black granite, 37.5" diameter


Humpty Dumpty

"Humpty Dumpty," 1946
Ribbon slate, 58.75" high


Past Masters:
Isamu Noguchi, Sculpting a World Vision

The following excerpts are from a monograph published on the occasion of the first retrospective exhibition of sculpture by Isamu Noguchi held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968. The text is by John Gordon.

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles on November 17, 1904, and was brought to Japan two years later. His father was Japanese. His mother's father was Scotch-Irish (the family moved to Northern Ireland from Scotland), her mother was part American Indian. The conflict of East and West that complicated the relationship of his parents was to become the strength of their son. Born an American citizen, he was brought up in Japan and studied at Japanese schools until he was thirteen....

He was sensitive to his surroundings: his recollections of Japan are mostly of natural things--the sea near his house, potato fields, the pines of Hiroshige, the wood used in construction of his house, a stone for his garden, sunsets. As a boy he learned the use of carpenters' tools, to make carvings in cherry, and had his own garden before he was eleven.

He was sent to America to the Interlaken School in Indiana in 1918, where he was forced to display extraordinary self-reliance. He was left stranded when the school was taken over for a truck training camp by the U.S. Army. Months later he was befriended by Dr. Rumely, founder of the school, who arranged for him to go to public school in Rolling Prairie. Later on he arranged for him to be apprenticed to Gutzon Borglum in Stamford, Connecticut. Here his career began with a bust of Lincoln. But at the end Borglum told him he would never be a sculptor, so he fell back on Dr. Rumely's earlier advice to study medicine. After about two years of study at Columbia University in 1923 and 1924 and hard work in a restaurant at night to help pay the tuition, he came to realize that he had to be a sculptor. So, at his mother's suggestion he went to the Leonardo da Vinci School in Greenwich Village....

It was a visit to the Brancusi exhibition at the Brummer Gallery in 1926 that proved to be a major force in his life. He says, "I was transfixed by his vision." Only a year later he was in Paris on a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and with extraordinary good luck was introduced by the writer Robert McAlmon to Brancusi and went to work in his studio in the mornings.... His rare sensibility in the use of wood and stone was nurtured by his contact with Brancusi....

In 1929, he returned to New York. In order to make a living he began to do portraits in bronze and terra cotta, five at a time, in the old Carnegie studio building. The portraits met with instant success. Many of his sitters later became famous, and some were to remain life-long friends....

Travelling to Japan in 1930-31, he studied brush drawings with Chi Pai Shi in Peking and pottery with the famous potter Uno Jinmatsu in Kyoto. Knowledge and love of the arts and crafts of Japan proved to be fruitful. The terra cotta The Queen (1931) comes from this time.... Though simple and Japanese inspired, it is a sophisticated work which is definitely part of the western world....

Though he received almost universal acclaim from critics, Noguchi, like most artists of his generation had little financial success. in the 1940's he was forced to be inventive and economical. At this time he was intrigued by the fact that flat marble slabs, which were readily available in New York, were comparatively reasonable in price compared to the cost of large blocks. The remarkably successful Gunas and similar works ... were the result. Skeletal in form, ambiguous in meaning, occasionally with sexual overtones, they are somewhat surrealist in nature.... All are of fine, highly polished stones. With rare perception Thomas B. Hess wrote: "In America today where sculpture is the most unpopular, misunderstood and least practiced of arts, where the great majority of sculptors rely upon eccentricity or compromise, Noguchi has built an experimental art on the traditions of the past which is relevant to both present and future."

... Incorporating found objects in his work has not been a major interest, but bones and driftwood have been used. Sometimes the shape and surfaces of found stones have been improved.

The 1940's was a productive period in many areas for Noguchi. He produced a very successful coffee table for the Herman Miller Furniture Company and a three-legged lamp for Knoll Associates. Both are still available and both have been widely copied....

The most important event of the '40's was the artist's inclusion in 1946 in the exhibition "Fourteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art....

Noguchi is in most ways a product of America and in every way a citizen of the world. His natural sympathies for Japan have led him to probe her culture more deeply, but use of this knowledge is always filtered through his international point of view. His energetic and restless nature continues to lead him to all corners of the globe. He feels that he is caught in between the two poles of Greece and Japan and that the United States is the arena where the battle is being waged....

In his own words: "Sculpture may be made of anything and will be valued for its intrinsic sculptural qualities. However, it seems to me that the natural mediums of wood and stone, alive before man was, have the greater capacity to comfort us with the reality of our being. They are as familiar as the earth, a matter of sensibility. In our times we think to control nature, only to find that in the end it escapes us. I for one return recurrently to the earth in my search for the meaning of sculpture--to escape fragmentation with a new synthesis, within the sculpture and related to spaces. I believe in the activity of stone, actual or illusory, and in gravity as a vital element. Sculpture is the definition of form in space, visible to the mobile spectator as participant. Sculptures move because we move."

Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

Return to Gallery Walk Archives for articles in past issues

Go to Gallery Walk home page