Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth

Internationally known Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) discovered his passion for ceramics as a child when he created the "form of a sea wave, in clay with a blue glaze." He called this experience his "first recollection of joy."

During only three visits to Japan in 1931, 1950, and 1952, Noguchi mastered work in the medium of clay while interacting with both traditional and modernist Japanese ceramic artists. On his first visit, he described his pottery-making experience as "my close embrace of the earth, as a seeking after identity with some primal matter beyond personalities and possessions."

Although born in the United States, Noguchi was deeply connected to Japan, where his father Yone was a highly respected poet. Japan's influence could be seen in Noguchi's art throughout his career, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his ceramic work. "I have only made pottery in Japan, never elsewhere. I think the earth here and the sentiment here are suited to pottery," he wrote in 1952.

During a five-month stay in Kyoto in 1931, Noguchi used Kyoto potter Uno Ninmatsu's studio to form terra-cotta castings with earth from a nearby brook. The sculpted head of his father's brother Takagi, with its earthy chipped surface, began the innovative work of this period. He would also discover haniwa -- unglazed, prehistoric tomb figures -- whose forms can be seen in the mannequin-like figure entitled The Queen, one of his early important works from this period.

Noguchi came to postwar Japan in 1950, he was a well-known industrial designer and artist. During this time he visited the ancient pottery-producing town of Seto to prepare work for an exhibition in Tokyo. The approximately 20 ceramic works created during one week of intense work, including My Mu and The Policeman, reflect the modernist influences of his sculptural and furniture designs.

In 1952 the artist returned to Japan with his new wife Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi, a well-known Japanese movie star, and they took up residence near Kamakura in a cottage owned by traditionalist potter Kitaoji Rosanjin. This period in Noguchi's life as a ceramic artist was his most prolific, producing 119 ceramic works. During this year he would create works ranging in size from intimate clay sketches to large pieces often designed as containers used in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, including Lonely Tower and War. His work was also influenced by other aspects of Japanese culture, including Zen Buddhism, haiku, and the tea ceremony.

Transcending the use of clay for strictly utilitarian objects, Noguchi inspired a number of Japanese potters who formed the avant-garde group Sodeisha (Crawling Through Mud Society), which sought to stretch the boundaries of ceramics beyond functional forms and instead create abstract sculpture. Yagi Kazuo, Yamada Hikaru, and Suzuki Osamu are among the young artists who, encouraged by Noguchi's work, moved past the traditional wheel-thrown, glazed vessels to more abstract, hand-sculpted works in unglazed clay. Their work set a daring new direction for Japanese ceramics.

According to art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki, Noguchi's involvement with Japanese ceramic practices was a "romantic yearning for meaningful contact with the Japanese earth." This passion for Japan not only resulted in a body of ceramic work that reflected the influences of the best of Japan's potters and traditions, but it would also set the course for his most ambitious work, as well as that of a whole new generation of Japanese ceramic artists.

This article was compiled for the Winter 2003 issue of the Museum Magazine with information from an article by art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki entitled "The Ceramic Art of Isamu Noguchi: A Close Embrace of the Earth," found in the exhibition catalogue Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics, published by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in association with the University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, c. 2003.

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