Isamu Noguchi is an emblematic figure of the twentieth century: a man of unsettled background floating in the uncertain space between worlds. The illegitimate son of a Japanese man and an American woman, he was an American artist, but not only an American artist. A Japanese artist, but not only a Japanese artist. At times, a European artist. He could be a Cubist. He could be a Surrealist. He could be a Minimalist. He could take from Brancusi here, Giacometti there. He could tend Zen’s garden. Noguchi’s art is the mongrel creation of a mongrel century, yet it does not seem awkwardly pieced together. That’s partly why Noguchi (1904–1988) remains interesting. The culture of the 21st century will be, if anything, more jumbled up than its predecessor. How did Noguchi, while drawing upon many disparate traditions, avoid becoming a maker of pastiche? How did he develop an air of singular purity?
The retrospective “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor,” which opened last week at the Whitney Museum of American Art, provides an unusual opportunity to examine Noguchi’s art in some depth. The difficulty of transporting and protecting sculpture, especially pieces as heavy as certain Noguchis, ensures that such a show can occur only infrequently. Organized by Valerie Fletcher of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington—and overseen in New York by Dana Miller—the exhibit marks the centennial of the artist’s birth and includes about 60 sculptures and 20 related drawings. Viewers should make a point of also visiting the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, which is especially strong in the artist’s late work. At the Whitney, sculpture must inevitably be crowded— sometimes artfully, sometimes higgledy-piggledy—into a formal museum setting. At the Noguchi, an outgrowth of the artist’s personal studio, the pieces stand in a garden and loftlike spaces where they have more room to breathe.
Noguchi spent his childhood years with his mother in Japan, then was sent to a school in the American Midwest. He attended Columbia, planning to be a doctor, but became increasingly interested in sculpture. By the late twenties, he was a sculptor—and Brancusi’s studio assistant. During the Depression, Noguchi was very ambitious and unfailingly elegant, intently studying the isms of the day, probing the philosophies of Asia, and designing several large visionary sculptures. But he could never quite transcend his sources: He seemed a follower or “student of” greater artists.
Not surprisingly, World War II shocked the sensibility of this half-Japanese artist. Although he was not forced into a Japanese-American internment camp, Noguchi voluntarily spent six months at one in an effort to design better quarters for the internees. He was not successful, and returned to New York. During the war, Noguchi made some bleak work, but his first particularly original art, the “Lunars,” inextricably united light and dark, hope and despair. He was beginning to cultivate opposites, to accept that the one can be many. Inspired to some extent by Calder’s whimsical joy, Noguchi concealed electric lights in hanging and wall pieces, creating mysterious lunar dreamscapes.
The most striking room in the show is filled with Noguchi’s abstracted, totemic figures, which he made during and just after the war. Made of wood or various stones, these figures looked uncannily alive. Noguchi took enormous care with the materials he used, so that the marble or slate or wood begged to be touched and appeared as vital as the skin of a human being. Typically, the figures were made of several interlocking pieces that usually did not depend upon glue or bolts. The parts instead fit together subtly and naturally, creating a balance of different, sometimes opposing elements that could stand without artificial help, much as the parts of an individual’s character come together to create a temperament. The Surrealists, when they made similar works, emphasized the eruption of feeling that twists and distorts form. Noguchi’s figures, by contrast, often resemble quiet, complex people.
For the rest of his life, Noguchi awakened inanimate materials, especially stone. He liked to juxtapose rough and polished, in and out, empty and full, light and dark, horizontal and vertical, natural and worked. Although he was not a practicing Buddhist, he brought many Zen ideas into his work. For example, Zen emphasizes the physical importance of the thing itself—the vitality of a beautiful rock, say, that’s hardly been touched by the hand—and also the danger of falling in love with a deadly perfection or an idealizing symmetry. (A rough imperfection was often more vital.) Zen strengthened Noguchi’s instinctive acceptance of dualities. In his art, he didn’t try to reconcile, dilute, or exacerbate differences, which could have led to the attenuated effects of pastiche. Instead, he found ways to make contrary moods live together.
Toward the end of his life, Noguchi began working with richly colored boulders, animating them with a few cuts to accent a shape or reveal an interior space. He seemed to approach the boulders with great modesty, searching for something already there instead of imposing his will. Although these boulders owed much to ancient art, they also represented a vision of what mankind’s relationship to nature could, ideally, become. In his mature art, Noguchi united mankind with nature, East with West, becoming one of the few artists of the twentieth century able to make optimistic art that was not ostrich-headed. The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City has itself become a strange symbol of his outlook. It seems remote and hard to reach (although it really isn’t). And there’s no denying the ugliness of much of the surrounding neighborhood, with its filthy streets and corroding industrial buildings. The museum is made from a similar sort of structure, but one transformed into a kind of oasis.