Isamu Noguchi: A Union of East & West

Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was an accomplished and innovative artist who is recognized internationally for his sculptures, landscapes, furniture designs, and stage sets. In working with these very diverse design mediums, he combined fine art with practical everyday objects in useful, yet beautiful ways.

He was born Sam Gilmour in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, California on November 17, 1904. His mother, Leonie Gilmour, was an Irish American teacher and editor, and his father was the famous Japanese poet, Yonejiro Noguchi.

In 1907, his mother took him to Japan, where he spent most of his childhood. He was sent back on his own to the United States in 1918 to attend school in Indiana. After graduation from high school, he attended Columbia University in New York, but left to pursue sculpture full-time and set up his first studio. It was at this time that he began using the name Isamu Noguchi.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927 and traveled to Paris. While in France, he worked as an assistant to sculptor Constantin Brancusi. He then traveled throughout Europe and Asia, a practice he continued for the rest of his career. His exposure to both Eastern and Western artistic philosophies and practices are evident in his artwork.

During World War II, Isamu Noguchi voluntarily entered the Japanese American concentration camp in Poston, Arizona, where he attempted to set up an art school. He left after six months and returned to New York where he created My Arizona, an abstracted multi-dimensional landscape in fiberglass and plastic, to commemorate his experience.

Beginning in the mid-1940s, Noguchi extended his foray into designs for mass production. He had previously designed an award-winning nursery intercom for Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937. Over the next few decades, he would produce many unique, sculpturally-shaped creations for furniture manufacturers Herman Miller, Knoll, and Alcoa. Many of these designs are still in production today, including his famous glass Coffee Table and lime green Sofa. In addition to furniture, Noguchi also designed a line of limited edition paper lamps, which he named “Akari,” meaning “to illuminate” in Japanese. He had been inspired during a trip to Japan in 1951 by the nighttime fishing lanterns used on the Nagara River for cormorant fishing.

Noguchi collaborated with many significant artists during his career. Beginning in 1935, he collaborated with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham for over 30 years, creating 21 set designs for her theatrical productions. When he was commissioned to create several major public works in the 1960s, he met architect Shoji Sadao through his good friend R. Buckminster Fuller. Sadao soon became his principle collaborator, and their projects included the Dodge Foundation and Philip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit (completed in 1979), California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California (completed in 1982), and To the Issei at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo (completed in 1983). Using water, flora, carved and natural stones, Noguchi created gardens and fountains that appeal to the senses and respect both nature and culture.

Isamu Noguchi died on December 30, 1988 in New York. However, his influence on art and design continues to be felt through his public sculptures and new exhibitions of his work. Recently, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany organized Isamu Noguchi – Sculptural Design in collaboration with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation in New York. This exhibition will on view at the Japanese American National Museum from February 5 through May 14, 2006. Previously, it was shown in London, Weil am Rhein, Madrid, Paris, Cologne, Rotterdam, Berlin, New York, and Seattle.

Isamu Noguchi – Sculptural Design celebrates the legacy of Isamu Noguchi by integrating over 75 works into a series of dramatic installations conceptualized by renowned theater designer and artist Robert Wilson. The exhibition includes Noguchi’s portrait busts, unique stone sculptures, and set designs for the Martha Graham Dance Company, as well as his iconic furniture designs and Akari lamps, all arranged in thematic settings with bold lighting, visually striking tableaux, and evocative sounds.

This exhibition’s visual concept reflects the affinity that Isamu Noguchi and Robert Wilson shared for spatial design, theater, and the creative use of light. Wilson presents Noguchi’s designs in four discrete rooms, which allows the exhibition to unfold through four theatrical “acts.” Each act is unique in both the types of works presented and in the installation of the pieces. Visitors to the exhibition will find the pieces arranged among settings as striking and disparate as an elegant bed of raked gravel, aluminum sheet flooring, a wall of hay, and a display case partially filled with broken glass. In this theatrical way, Wilson is able to present Isamu Noguchi’s artistic essence in both applied and visual ways.

(Image: Isamu Noguchi with Tsuneko San (Head of Japanese Girl), 1931. Plaster, mid-1960s. 2005 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Now that you’ve learned about the artist, try our Isamu Noguchi Trivia Quiz.

There are many books and DVDs about Isamu Noguchi that are available for sale. For additional information about the artist, visit the Isamu Noguchi Foundation website.

January 2006

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