The Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi left an incredibly broad legacy after six decades of work. Emerging as an artist in the 1920s, Noguchi was still working at the time of his death in 1988. During his long career, he had become a truly international artist. His friendships and collaborations form a roll call of the cultural figures of the era—from fellow artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning to architects such as Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando, from Frida Kahlo (his lover) and film-star Shirley Yamaguchi (his wife), to the actor Sir John Gielgud and the inventor Buckminster Fuller, one of his oldest friends. This reflects the breadth of Noguchi’s interests, life and works. His legacy stretches from sculptures in museums throughout the world, including two in New York and Shikoku dedicated to his work, to playgrounds and gardens, to the tables and lamps that he designed, ever hoping to improve our environment through aesthetics, adding function to his lyrical forms.
Noguchi was the son of Yonejiro Noguchi, a Japanese poet living in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century, and Leonie Gilmour, his assistant. Noguchi’s parents briefly lived together in Japan, then separated; aged nine, Noguchi helped build his and Leonie’s new home, giving him an early experience of craft, of hands-on experience, and of shaping his own environment. Soon, Leonie sent her son back to the United States to be educated there. Encouraged by his teachers, he enrolled to study medicine at the University of Columbia. His conspicuous interest in art being already apparent, a temporary position was also found for him teaching the son of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.
Leonie returned to the States in 1924 and immediately noted Noguchi’s passion for art. She encouraged him to enrol in a school where he soon excelled, becoming a noted academic sculptor. However, he also began to frequent avant garde galleries in New York, and there became acquainted with the work of Brancusi. In 1927, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Scholarship for travel to Paris, China and Japan—but never made it beyond Paris, where he found work in Brancusi’s studio, heightening his appreciation of direct carving.
In 1929, Noguchi returned to New York, exhibiting abstract works from his Paris years. He returned to figuration in a string of stylised portrait heads which helped finance other projects. These included travel—finally—to China and Japan, re-establishing his links with the Orient in which he had partly been raised. Noguchi was fascinated by the way that craft and environment were linked in China and Japan, where art played a different role. On his return to the States, this was explored in Play Mountain, his 1933 design for a sculptural playground for children. Play would remain vital for Noguchi—even in the final decade of his life, exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 1986, he presented a vast marble slide as a monumental sculpture, Slide Mantra, now part of the Miami Dade County art collection.
During the 1930s, Noguchi’s commissions allowed him the freedom to explore other projects, such as his History Mexico mural in Mexico City. The political dimension of his work was often evident in its locations—for instance in a market in Mexico—as well as its subject matter, for example Death (Lynched Figure), the 1934 work he showed in an exhibition condemning the all-too-frequent practice. Noguchi’s political activism was revived by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Noguchi tried to help the lot of his fellow ‘Nisei’, finally volunteering to be interned in his own right as part of a programme to improve conditions in the camps. However, his funding evaporated and his paperwork disappeared, meaning he was not released for many months.
This ordeal, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the Second World War and the Cold War’s nuclear race all contributed to an increasing pessimism, which helped inspire his projected monumental Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars, originally entitled Memorial to Man, a simplified face made of vast groundworks that would stretch kilometres. His gloom was exacerbated by the suicide of his friend, Gorky, and spurred him into wide-ranging travels to Europe, India and the Orient.
Noguchi’s travels brought him into contact with people and, crucially, materials that would influence his work. The marble in Italy and Greece, the paper in Gifu and the basalt in Shikoku each introduced new practices, resulting in works as diverse as his monumental slides, his sculptures of the sun, the paper lamps—the Akari—still created to this day and the solid ornaments of his gardens. Prominent examples of these were made for the UN complex in Paris and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Yale. Noguchi was a pioneer—he used chrome to create reflective surfaces in his metal sculptures, and even featured electric light in his Lunar series of sculptures, demonstrating his acceptance of new technology and techniques. His use of machine tools allowed him to work in stone on scales that had previously been difficult. Throughout this time, his biomorphic sculptures gained increasing critical attention.
Noguchi sought to belong, torn by his ambiguous status as a Japanese American. He travelled a great deal, spending months at a time either in Italy, working with marble, or in Japan, where he had homes first in Kita Kamakura and then on Shikoku, the latter now a museum. This quest to belong fuelled much of his work, adding a poignancy and power to the environments that he created, as well as the works he made on a more domestic scale, which allowed him to help mould and improve the surroundings of the world’s inhabitants.