Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Japanese American artist and landscape architect with an artistic career spanning six decades, from the 1920s onward. Known for his sculpture and public works, Noguchi also designed stage sets for various Martha Graham productions, not to mention several mass-produced lamps and furniture pieces, some of which are still manufactured and sold.

Isamu Noguchi, Japanese-American artist

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Isamu Noguchi, born in 1904 in Los Angeles to the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and the American writer Leonie Gilmour, studied at Columbia University and the Leonardo da Vinci Art School.

He subsequently established his first independent studio, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927. Noguchi became an assistant to Constantin Brancusi in Paris, before presenting his first solo exhibition in New York. After studying brush drawing in China, he travelled to Japan to work with clay under the master potter Jinmatsu Uno.

Isamu Noguchi during his life was a sculptor, furniture designer and a landscape designer.

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His experiences living and working in different cultural circles are reflected in Isamu Noguchi’s work as an artist. He is considered a universal talent with a creative oeuvre that went beyond sculpture to encompass stage sets, furniture, lighting, interiors as well as outdoor plazas and gardens. His sculpting style is indebted to a vocabulary of organic forms and exerted a sustained influence on the design of the 1950s.

My Father, Yone Noguchi is Japanese and has long been known as an interpreter of the East and West, through poetry. I wish to do the same thing through sculpture

– Written in Noguchi’s proposal for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Isamu Noguchi died in New York in 1988.

Zeeland Sofà by Isamu Noguchi for Herman Miller Furniture CO.
Zeeland Sofà by Isamu Noguchi for Herman Miller Furniture CO.

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In 1947, Noguchi began a collaboration with the Herman Miller company, when he joined with George Nelson, Paul László and Charles Eames to produce a catalog containing what is often considered to be the most influential body of modern furniture ever produced, including the iconic Noguchi table which remains in production today. His work lives on around the world and at the Noguchi Museum in New York City.

Everything is sculpture

Noguchi made his beliefs on his profession very clear:

Everything is sculpture, any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.

Noguchi believed the sculptor’s task was to shape space, to give it order and meaning, and that art should “disappear,” or be as one with its surroundings. Perhaps it was his dual heritage, his father was a Japanese poet, his mother a Scottish-American writer, that resulted in his way of looking at the world with an eye for “oneness.”

Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi: Cave of the Heart Dance Performance

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Noguchi created sculptures that could be as abstract as Henri Moore‘s or as realistic as Leonardo‘s. He used any medium he could get his hands on: stone, metal, wood, clay, bone, paper, or a mixture of any or all—carving, casting, cutting, pounding, chiseling, or dynamiting away as each form took shape.

“To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school […]I am always learning, always discovering.

Isamu Noguchi in art gallery dedicate to him

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Key ideas

The overarching concept informing Noguchi’s work was his passionate, career-long desire to create art the public could use in a social space. He realized this goal in myriad ways: mass produced furniture and lamps; theatrical set designs; public projects such as gardens, playgrounds and fountains; and sculptural manipulations of the natural landscape.

Isamu Noguchi is also a fabulous landscape designer. Sunken garden at Chase Manhattan Plaza in NYC.

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Noguchi wanted to call attention to the dichotomies inherent in much of his work: he merged geometric and organic forms, found value in both positive and negative space, and created works that challenged the boundaries of design and art. He also integrated the materials and art forms of both his Japanese and American heritages into his innovative creations.

Isamu Noguchi, ‘Coffee Table’, 1944

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Noguchi was socially and artistically connected to Abstract Expressionism, as evident not only in his large-scale works evoking abstracted forms but also in his friendships with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Yet, his sculpture retained a distinct sensibility in its use of natural materials and its distinct blend of Surrealist and Japanese influence.

Isamu Noguchi: Functional Ceramics

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Most important works

Noguchi first encountered Japanese gardens during his visits to his father’s birth land in the 1930s. By the 1950s he began to design his own unique gardens. The designed garden became a crucial concept for his sculptural landscapes, which he saw as a means to integrate art into social environments. He viewed his work as a “sculpture of spaces,” rather than a collection of discrete pieces. Jardin Japonais, for UNESCO headquarters in Paris, was his first major landscape commission. Noguchi felt that gardens should be experienced as nature untouched, so he included elements such as overall organic shapes and lanterns made of natural stone. He arranged the carefully selected Japanese stones by drawing on both Japanese tradition and his own unique design, fusing his skill as a designer with his high regard for the natural world. The fact that Noguchi’s patron was the United Nations for a French location speaks to the international reputation, and high regard for the artist and his ability to represent the highest ideals of this international entity. The final result would come to be known as the Jardin Japonais.

Unesco Paris Jardin japonais

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In the 1940s, Noguchi produced his first illuminated sculptures, Lunars, having previously explored the idea of sculpting with light. His Lunars demonstrate how the artist continued to draw upon Surrealist-inspired biomorphic shapes, and were comprised of magnesite and light bulbs. In 1951 Noguchi expanded his basic formula to create his Akari Lamp, working at the request of the mayor of Gifu, Japan, to modernize the local lantern designs; again, Noguchi united the traditional and the modern. The results have been both exhibited and mass produced since 1955. Noguchi envisioned his Akari (which means “light as illumination”) as two sculptures – both the outward form of the sculpture itself and the resulting shapes created by the emitted light. For Noguchi, light was another type of medium with which to work, one that challenged the idea of materiality through its fundamental ethereality, and which radiated both the natural and industrial worlds.

“Akari E”, Isamu Noguchi (American, Los Angeles, California 1904–

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Located within the garden at the Noguchi Museum in New York, The Well demonstrates Noguchi’s mastery of natural elements, and the strong presence of a Japanese aesthetic. Noguchi worked with stone his entire life, first learning how to carve while an assistant to Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi produced his final stone sculptures at his studio on Shikoku Island, Japan, where he worked with the local basalt stone. The Well perfectly balances modernism with traditional Japanese stonework, the man made with the natural. The piece unites natural contrasts: the fluidity and transparency of water against the still, solid black stone. Filtered up from below, the water gently skims the surface of The Well; there is a slight indentation on top that pools with water before cascading downwards. Noguchi sensually combines natural elements, creating a work that is both contemplative, but joyous.

The Well (Variation on a Tsukubai)

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He was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding lifelong contribution to the arts (1982), the Kyoto Prize in Arts (1986), and the National Medal of Arts (1987). The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, which opened in Long Island City, New York, in 1985, includes an outdoor sculpture garden and a collection of some 500 sculptures, models, and photographs.

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