A Synthesis of East and West: The Life and Work of Isamu Noguchi
When Isamu Noguchi died in 1988, he was among the most celebrated sculptors of the twentieth century. From his monumental stone sculpture, innovative collaborations with choreographer Martha Graham, and graceful Akari paper lamps to works in ceramic, furniture design, and landscapes, Noguchi's influence and achievements resonated worldwide, an impact that has not waned in the 15 years since his passing -- in fact, it seems to be growing more and more profound. His two studios -- in New York City and in the Japanese village of Mure on the island of Shikoku -- have been turned into museums dedicated to his art and life. His sculptures remain on view in the permanent collections of museums internationally and his furniture designs are coveted both as vintage collectables and as contemporary reissues.
Who was Isamu Noguchi and how did he come to play such a significant role in the worlds of art and design? The answer is not a simple one. Behind the recognition and success is a complex biography that links Noguchi to the history of Japanese Americans and the conflicts and contradictions of a life lived between two cultures. Some scholars go so far as to suggest that it was Noguchi's relationship with his estranged father that led him to search for his bicultural identity, thus spurring him and his art. In 1926 Noguchi wrote, "My father, Yone Noguchi, is Japanese and has long been known as an interpreter of the East to the West, though poetry. I wish to do the same through sculpture."
Noguchi was born in 1904 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles to Yonejiro Noguchi and Leonie Gilmour. Yone, like many other early Japanese sojourners, had arrived in San Francisco from Japan in 1893 and variously worked as a "schoolboy," a hotel dishwasher, and for a number of Japanese-language periodicals that sprouted to serve the growing population of Japanese in San Francisco. Soon, Yone was publishing his English-language poetry and narrative books to critical acclaim. Leonie was a Bryn Mawr-educated writer of partial Irish ancestry who initially served as an English-language editor/tutor to Yone in New York. At the time of Isamu's birth, his father had left the United States to return to Japan; Leonie and Isamu followed him a few years later. For the rest of his life, Noguchi would crisscross the Pacific countless times, beginning at age 14 when he returned to the United States as "Sam Gilmour," and continuing with visits to Japan beginning in the 1930s.
The decade of the 1940s highlights the contrasts in Noguchi's life. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor Noguchi noted, "With a flash I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone. I was not just American but Nisei." Because Noguchi lived outside of the Western Defense Command zone, he was not subject to the mass incarceration, but he voluntarily entered the War Relocation Authority camp in Poston out of a sense of service to and solidarity with his fellow Japanese Americans. Noguchi had hoped to help by organizing arts activities within the camp, but he quickly realized that Poston "must be one of the earth's cruelest spots" and petitioned for release. Within months of his return to New York Noguchi began one of his most fruitful periods of art-making, designing his first table, embarking on what would become a long-time collaboration with Martha Graham, and creating his groundbreaking mature work.
But it would be a mistake to link Noguchi solely to Japan, for Europe -- especially Paris -- and its traditions played a major role as well. From his interaction as a studio assistant to Constantin Brancusi during Noguchi's Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927 to his Jardin Japonais (1956-58) at the UNESCO Headquarters, Noguchi sought to synthesize multiple traditions. Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he wrote, "Our heritage is now the world."
This article was compiled for the Winter 2003 issue of the Museum Magazine. Two future Noguchi exhibitions are currently being planned by the Japanese American National Museum: Noguchi Structural Design from the Vitra Museum in Germany and an exhibition in development that examines Noguchi's Japanese American identity.