The heart of an 'irregular verb'

The Life of Isamu Noguchi - Isamu Noguchi

February 25, 2005

A major retrospective of the work of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) has just closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (where it runs until May 8). At the same time, the Japanese postal authorities have issued a stamp to commemorate Noguchi. These events would, I think, have given Noguchi deep satisfaction. They imply that the US has accepted the sculptor as an American and that Japan has accepted him as Japanese.

This is something that never occurred in his lifetime. The illegitimate son of a Japanese father and an American mother, he always felt he was an outsider. "With my double nationality and double upbringing," he wrote in his memoir, A Sculptor's World (1968), "where was my home, where was my identity? Japan or America - both?" Or neither.

This double heritage posed a dilemma for Noguchi and he did not find himself at home in either country. "The problem is that I don't think I fit in. I'm not understood either way." He was, he said, seen as Japanese in America and as American in Japan.

In 1973, Noguchi told an interviewer that Japan was a very traditional country and that within it he was like an "'irregular verb'. To be irregular threatened those who lived in a society that demanded that everyone observe the rules." At the same time, this oscillation between the two sides of himself contributed a dynamic to his life as an artist.

Noguchi may have written that his birth was "unfortunate", but its circumstances were certainly in part responsible for the energy of the man and the enormous integrity of his art. In the same interview he said that "in a sense, you're driven to art out of desperation". Part of this conviction was his belief that "to be completely Japanese you cannot have a world viewpoint", but that as an artist he "had to be universal or nothing at all". His "greatest strength" was, the art critic Calvin Tompkins concluded, "that he does not belong".

Artists who work in such desperation seek to forge a style. Noguchi, however, thought otherwise. "I don't think I have any style." Style, he said, was a form of inhibition and "that is why I applaud change".

Nonetheless, even for creators as protean as Picasso (or Noguchi), style is achieved willy-nilly, and the critic may break it down to reveal its component parts. For Noguchi, the defining moment was when he first saw a work by Brancusi, the sculptor who most influenced him. "Constantin Brancusi, like the Japanese, would take the quintessence of nature and distil it." He taught Noguchi never to decorate his work, "to keep it undecorated, like the Japanese house".

Equally fruitful was the encounter with another sculptor, Jean Arp; with an architect, Buckminster Fuller; with a potter, Rosanjin Kitaoji; and with the first glimpse of a haniwa , those Japanese funerary objects that so informed the styles of not only his pottery but his sculpture. There were other stylistic influences, too. As with Picasso, a new female friend often ushered in a new facet. Noguchi's muses were as varied as the dancer Ruth Page, the painter Frida Kahlo, the writer Anais Nin and the actress Shirley Yamaguchi.

Throughout, Noguchi believed that "my longing for affiliation has been the source of my creativity". This is something that his biographer, Masayo Duus, also knows, and she has here most persuasively presented the interpretation (hence her subtitle, "Journey without Borders") that Noguchi would most have endorsed. The amount of material in her book is prodigious.

Nonetheless, some interesting information is missing. There is no mention of the relationship between Noguchi and Masayuki Nagare. The two sculptors had adjacent plots on the island of Shikoku and yet never spoke because they felt the greatest rivalry. Also touched on but left largely unexplored is the equally great rivalry (thanks to the nature of Noguchi's will) between the two collections of the sculptor's work - on Long Island and on Shikoku. But that would make a book in itself. Furthermore, there is no substantial pictorial record of Noguchi's work, though there are many pictures of Noguchi at various periods of his life.

This omission is remedied in Valerie Fletcher's highly illustrated Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor , which also has an interesting text about the works. The book stresses some aspects of the Noguchi style not underlined in the Duus volume. For example, the strong influence of the manner known as biomorphism. Largely an invention of Arp, biomorphism found inspiration in natural forms such as clouds, water and rocks. However, Arp used these natural forms to lead to associative ideas - rock morphs into man - while Noguchi insisted that the natural form itself is enough, and indeed once told Arp just that. This integrity of the subject was something observed by other biomorphs such as Yves Tanguy, Joan Mir" and Noguchi's friend, Arshile Gorky. Their influence on the younger Noguchi is apparent from the book, which places their works side by side with his.

In his later years, Noguchi saw landscape itself to be a kind of sculpture.

Among various such environmental projects was his grand and unconceived sculpture built to be seen from Mars, a human face in which the nose alone was one mile long.

Such interest is balanced against the minimalist Zen aesthetic that is also to be found in his work, and is illustrated by an anecdote that is, so far as I know, recorded nowhere else. After fire had destroyed the Golden Hall of the Horyuji monastery in Nara, Noguchi, along with his friend the painter Saburo Hasegawa, went to view the results. Recoiling at the sight, Hasegawa later wrote that he "could hardly bear to look at it". Noguchi, however, remarked: "But isn't it more beautiful now?"

Work and life are brought together in the book in a final "contextual chronology" that mixes biography and technical information along with photos and chronologies. Altogether, Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor is a beautifully produced publication with photographs so fine that even the artist might be pleased; it also serves as catalogue for the current Noguchi retrospective in the US.

Donald Richie is arts critic, The Japan Times.

The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders

Author - Masayo Duus
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 439
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 12096 X

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