ON BECOMING AN ARTIST: ISAMU NOGUCHI and His Contemporaries, 1922–1960


Beloved in New York and celebrated in America, Europe, and Asia, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) remains one of the few truly international artists.

Photograph: Berenice Abbott Isamu Noguchi with Glad Day, c. 1930 Gelatin silver print Photo: © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, NYC Collection The Noguchi Museum.

He was born in Los Angeles to the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and the American writer Léonie Gilmour. He spent his childhood in Japan, his youth in the U.S., and some formative time in Paris. Before the age of 30, he had visited Beijing (where he studied brush painting with Qi Baishi), Kobe, Tokyo, and Kyoto (where he studied pottery with Uno Jinmatsu). In search of his identity, which he felt was somewhat divided by two cultures, Noguchi traveled frequently and he later kept homes in both New York and Japan.

As much as he sought out new geographical experiences, many of which were sparked by his interest in various sculptural materials and techniques, he also became a collector of inspirational friendships. On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922 – 1960, assembled by independent curator Amy Wolf, devotes much of its attention to the artist’s affiliations with luminaries from the fields of art, dance, architecture, and design.

 While Noguchi’s fascination with theater and dance was reflected in collaborations with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and especially Martha Graham, his interest in design and architecture initiated a creative dialogue with Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn. His close friends included Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Berenice Abbott, and Frida Kahlo, and the exhibition succeeds in including fantastic works by all, such as Kahlo’s 1939 painting depicting Dorothy Hale’s suicide. An aspiring actress who was also friends with Noguchi, Hale met her tragic end in 1938 by jumping off a building in New York City.

Wolf’s curatorial investigation into Noguchi’s circle yields as much surprise as substance. Artworks, countless letters, and photographs clarify Noguchi’s dialogue with Man Ray, Diego Rivera, Alfred Stieglitz, Josef von Sternberg, George Balanchine, Marcel Breuer, Willem de Kooning, Ruth Page, and the dancer Yuriko, to name an illustrious few. No one, however, had a more significant impact on his oeuvre than Constantin Brancusi, for whom he worked as a studio assistant in Paris during the 1920s. Brancusi taught Noguchi how to use carving tools and honor his materials, but his influence was most profound in regard to Noguchi’s aestheticism. Inspired by Brancusi’s reductive forms, which exuded both a sense of classical purity and liberated sensuality, Noguchi began to embrace a form of abstract modernism that allowed for emotional expressiveness as well as mystery. As a special treat, Wolf secured three of Brancusi’s marbles for the show, “Prometheus” (1911), “Sculpture for the Blind (I)” (c. 1920), and “Newborn (I)” (1915), all from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By shedding light on the many famous and less remembered names attached to Noguchi’s life, this exhibition succeeds in filling in gaps in our knowledge, so that this unique but elusive artist begins to appear increasingly whole. On his 1927 application for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (exhibited here), Noguchi wrote: “It is my desire to view nature through nature’s eyes and to ignore man as an object for special veneration.”

Drawing: Isamu Noguchi, Arshile Gorky, De Hirsh Margulies Hitler Invades Poland, September 1, 1939 Crayon and sealing ink on paper, 17 1/2 × 22 7/8 in. © 2010 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York © 2010 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy Gallery Gertrude Stein, New York

This he surely achieved, as Wolf’s exhibition reveals. In conversation, Wolf has more to add:

Brooklyn Rail: When did you first start thinking about organizing an exhibition that would explore Noguchi’s oeuvre in context with his contemporaries?

Amy Wolf: About five years ago. I was working with the estates of the painters Calvert Coggeshall and Dorothy Norman, who—unbeknownst to me—had been friends with Noguchi. Bonnie Rychlak, curator at the Noguchi Museum, who is an old friend, learned of my work with these two estates and asked if I might be able to explore the idea of Noguchi’s relationships for an exhibition at the museum. I think the original idea was to pursue the idea of an “uptown” art scene from the later years of Noguchi’s life. Noguchi was always able to float from group to group.

Rail: What sparked your interest?

Wolf: As I mentioned previously, I was spurred by Coggeshall and Norman but soon I felt that the story I wanted to tell was from the earlier period of Noguchi’s life. I ultimately used the metaphor of a scrapbook of his life to include artwork, photographs, documents, letters, and catalogues to illustrate these relationships. I come from an academic training, which was heavily reliant on the use of “material culture” and I used that methodology of considering all of this material, including art, as primary documentation. The catalogue uses the same technique to combine various primary source documents, especially interviews, with just some explanatory and introductory text by me.

Rail: Did you begin your research independently or did you work closely with the Noguchi Museum from the start?

Wolf: My first stop in the research was the archives of the Noguchi Museum. I created a “Mark Lombardi” of Noguchi’s life. It was a deeply flawed graphic, which I am sure Lombardi would have found deeply lacking, but it served as the underlying structure for the show. I don’t remember if that came before the research or at the same time. I had to put together a proposal for the museum with a list of participants so the graph probably came before the research at the museum. I don’t think I had access to the archives until I had the real go-ahead from the museum. The museum was always very cooperative and helpful with their information, photographs, and materials.

Rail: Which were the most surprising relationships you discovered in regard to Noguchi’s oeuvre?

Wolf: I think that I was most surprised by the extent of his tentacles. One of his friends, Luchita Mullican (married to Lee Mullican and active in Mexico in the ’30s and ’40s and in the Surrealist scene) said that Noguchi knew everyone. I always say that he did not miss a trick: academic artists, French modernists, sculptors, politics, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionists, Japan, dance, women, music, Jung, writers, furniture, lighting, MoMA, architecture, India, and on and on and on.

Rail: While Brancusi’s impact on Noguchi’s work and concepts is known and documented, your exhibition succeeds in adding new depth to their rapport. What is the most interesting aspect of this particular relationship, in your opinion?

Wolf: First, I would wonder: how did Noguchi even get the position to work with Brancusi? The master was not known as someone who took in younger artists or even assistants. I don’t think Noguchi even spoke French at that time. He was barely 24 years old and had no money, but he could make the most of any opportunity. For me, the most interesting thing that Noguchi said about his reverence for Brancusi was that after working with academic artists in the U.S., whose work he felt employed “tricks,” Noguchi felt that Brancusi made sculpture like the Greeks. He appreciated Brancusi’s methods, reverence for materials and tools, and deep appreciation for stone and marble. He felt that Brancusi connected him back to the ancients. I love that idea.

Rail: Your exhibition reveals how vast Noguchi’s influences were and how extensive his travels were. What do you think shaped his language more, encounters with people or the experience of different places and cultures?

Wolf: I think that Noguchi, especially later in his life, cultivated a “Lone Ranger” persona, which was true to a point, but the exhibition definitely shows his ricocheting from person to person, influence to influence. However, I use the metaphor that art became “place” for him. As a person who came from two places and two cultures and two backgrounds, artistic practice united his persona into one being. People and places served to create this persona. I would say they both acted in a similar way, probably to the detriment of the emotional needs of some he was involved with.

Rail: Did you ever meet Noguchi?

Wolf: Sadly, I did not meet Noguchi. It was not until a couple of years of research that I even heard his voice. I listened to an interview Noguchi did with Arthur Drexler from MoMA during the late 1970s when Noguchi had a design show in the Architecture department.

Rail: Your exhibition examines Noguchi’s multifaceted interests by showcasing examples of his sculptures, drawings, explorations of dance, architecture, and design. Do you think that, so far, scholars have misrepresented Noguchi by underestimating his achievements in other fields?

Wolf: I think that Noguchi has been appreciated for his work in many fields. However, it is interesting to try to think of someone else like him. I was trying to think of another artist who was so open to other media and made important work in all these different fields. I would just suggest that he is unique; an incredible American success story; an inspiration for those trying to define what success could be for an artist. His relationship to success is fascinating to me. Many of his contemporaries imploded, especially his close friend Arshile Gorky. They provided a cautionary tale for those who might want to pursue success, as opposed to their artistic vision.