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The DART Board: Isamu Noguchi

By Peggy Roalf   Monday December 30, 2019

Anniversaries are probably celebrated more by publishers than by lovers—so as a book-lover I’m taking this opportunity to end the year by celebrating a book that came into my hands a few weeks ago. 

The book, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (Steidl 2018) has actually been following me all year, beginning with the preview of  Epic Abstraction at The Met on December 10, 2018—so this is also, in a way, something of an anniversary. The show, which continues to occupy the entire top floor of the museum’s contemporary art terrain, opens (at least to my eyes) with the Noguchi pink marble Kouros (photo above, © Marco Palli). The piece is one of fifteen or so interlocking sculptures made by the artist between 1945 and 1948, using his extraordinary kit of abstract parts (see photo below, and below left) to create human-scale free-standing pieces that are held together by gravity. About this work, Noguchi (1904-1988) wrote, "You have to consider the weight of the material, the forces that conspire to hold up the figure — engineering problems, essentially. Everything I do has an element of engineering in it — particularly since I dislike gluing parts together or taking advantage of something that is not inherent in the material . . . there are no adhesives of any kind — only the stones holding themselves together."

I came across the book (which is in fact an autobiography) at that time, and was immediately swept into the world of this extraordinary sculptor, who during his studies at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art on New York City’s Lower East Side was told that he possessed qualities that would inform “the next Michelangelo”. With that idea in mind, and funded by a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1927, at age 27, he went to Paris to become Constantin Brancusi’s first (and only) assistant. After six months working with the master, Noguchi developed an innate feeling for the restless, irregular forms he had begun shaping around the void—abstract figurations that were highly expressive of an age of anxiety that characterized the period between the wars. He later wrote, “It became self-evident to me that in the so-called abstraction lay the expression of the age and that I was especially fitted to be one of its prophets.” 

After World War II, during which the Japanese-American Noguchi consigned himself to relocation camp in Arizona, he began the drawings and wooden studies that became the basis for these biomorphic pieces, which are currently on view at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City (below)—and that is where the book found me for the second time this year, in July. Noguchi continued to hone his stone carving techniques, which would dominate his work and process for more than fifty years. This dedication to traditional techniques and materials was in direct opposition to the more industrial welded-metal construction that was popularized at the time by such sculptors as David Smith—and more aligned with works by Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois, to name two that are included in “Epic Abstraction”. 

At the end of the decade Noguchi returned to Japan, where he began a life-long conversation with earth, stone, water that resulted in the many public gardens he created, and where he resided for part of each subsequent year. He wrote, ''Stone is the fundament of the earth, of the universe,'' he said. ''It is not old or new but a primordial element. Stone is the primary medium, and nature is where it is, and nature is where we have to go to experience life.'' Noguchi defined direct carving as ''a process of listening….’When I'm with the stone,'' he said, ''there is not one second when I'm not working. I'm so involved in doing the right thing.'' (photo above and left © Peggy Roalf)

The book—which found me a third time at Dobrinka Salzman Gallery in October,  devotes a number of pages to the drawings and models for the series that claims Kouros as a member. The black-and-white photos in this section are by the  artist as well as by Rudy Burckhardt, George Platt Lynes, and Andre Kertez.  And this is one of the reasons that the book is such a treasure. Among the pages are shots by some of the greatest of the great mid-century photographers who looked in on Noguchi's world, including Evelyn Hofer, Alexandre Georges, Philippe Halsman, Barbara Morgan, Arnold Newmann, Hans Naumuth, W. Eugene Smith, Ezra Stoller and Martha Swope.

In the Introduction, R. Buckminster Fuller states, “Isamu Noguchi and the airplane were both born in the United States of America in the first decade of the twentiety century….The airplane era laid a new cosmic egg in the nest of everyday reality, integrating all the previously separate civilizations’ experiences in one history and geography.” While the term “globalism” was still decades in the future, Fuller pinpoints the heart of the matter in a single line of brilliant thought that is fully carried out through Noguchi’s masterful organization of this exceptional volume.

Above, spread from book with photo by André Kertész

Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World was originally published in 1968 by Harper & Row, in conjunction with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s retrospective exhibition. Steidl’s first and second editions were 2004 and 2015, with a third edition in 2018 to commemorate the artist’s death. Find the book here and here.  More about Noguchi, and sculpture in general in DART.
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