Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor
Celebrating the centennial of the artist’s birth, the retrospective Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor, a collaborative effort with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian Institution, and curated by Valerie J. Fletcher, is currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and will then travel to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. Fletcher is also the author of the catalog, in which she quotes Noguchi: “I get discontented with my situation and I want to break out. To break away is very important to me;I shift very rapidly because that is the only way I can get away from myself. You have to escape that trap which limits your life.” This quote encapsulates the spirit of the exhibit, displaying a multitude of styles but one singular “master’s voice.”
Fletcher emphasizes that the retrospective brought together pieces from private collections never seen before, including Rockefeller’s “Black Sun,” a round, well-polished piece of black granite, part planetary, part biomorphic. The main influences on Noguchi’s art cited by Fletcher are Arp, Giacometti, Brancusi, and Japanese Zen masters.
Noguchi embraced aspects of Asian, American, and European culture in his life and work, mixing them into a new blend. Featuring approximately 60 sculptures and 20 related drawings, the exhibit highlights a diversity of forms, ideas, styles, and materials manifested in Noguchi’s sculptures. Seeking spiritual expression along with material innovation, he experimented with unusual materials such as terra cotta, magnasite, electric lights, plaster, and chrome.
Carving and construction were the primary techniques used by Noguchi between 1944 and 1947. In that period, he created a series of sculptures with interlocking elements. Influenced by the biomorphic forms of his surrealist friends Arshile Gorky and Yves Tanguy, Noguchi created these sculptures in a step-by-step process from components. First he drew abstract shapes on black craft paper, and then he cut them out and assembled them into miniature freestanding models. He made further corrections with scissors before selecting a few magic shapes to trace onto slabs of wood, stone, slate, or marble, enlarging them into full-scale works. With a circular power saw in hand he cut the stone along the penciled contours with the dexterity of a seamstress cutting cloth from a paper pattern. These creatures can be explained as impermanent Dalí-esque memories of surreal “meltings” and “hangings,” symbolizing the devastation of an atomic bomb. Works of this type include “Remembrance” (1944) in mahogany and “Humpty Dumpty” (1946) in ribbon slate. The best of these pieces are totemic, interlocking sculptural assemblages and magical distillations of a psychedelic trance translated into metallic, vertical humanoids. “Strange Bird” (1945) in green slate and “The Gunas” (1946) in marble resemble David Smith’s aggressive upright forms of the early 1950s. These anthropomorphic aliens are human at the same time; they have distinctive characters and are overtly sexual. Noguchi composed the flat pieces into freestanding surreal archetypes. “Humpty Dumpty” (1946), with its interlocking, bone-like vertical articulations, is carved from dark gray ribbon slate. Several crescent moon pieces balance the tripodian hybrid reminiscent of a Calder elephant. The sculpture’s elements fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The modular elements expressing different body language attitudes are locked together in an architectonic construction. The sculptures are neither glued nor nailed but freestanding, perfectly balanced and anchored. On rare occasions they are fixed with an invisible, interior metal wire.
A new addition to the Whitney’s permanent collection is a white Carrara marble piece called “Integral” (1959), with a high polish that reminds us of Noguchi’s apprenticeship with Constantin Brancusi. It is placed in the last room of the exhibition with other signature works, including a perfectly round tube composed from modular alternating pieces of red coral stone, “Sun at Noon” (1969); an elegant, deco-looking bent tube of alternating black and yellow granite and marble, “Bow” (1970); and a broken granite square holding in its hollowed middle six ovoid forms carved meticulously by the artist to resemble “natural river-tumbled stones,” “Shodo Shima (Magic Island)” (1978). He liked to juxtapose opposites: yin and yang, rough and polished, empty and full, light and dark, horizontal and vertical, natural and industrially produced. By 1948, according to Fletcher, “Noguchi was actively pursuing a path of global aesthetic fusion.” After five years of hermit-like creativity exploring despair in the privacy of his studio, Noguchi said, “my depression was increased by the ever present menace of atomic annihilation.”
During the war, Noguchi created “Lunars.” Shown in a dark room with electric lights concealed in them, these hanging wall sculptures create mysterious miniature moonscapes. Composing them from magnesite cement, he proved once again his need for experimentation with new material. The colored lights illuminated hills and recesses in a sensuous “Lunar Landscape” or possibly a symbolic representation of a terrain ravaged by war.
When he was in his 70s Noguchi emphasized the thought of “emergence out of earth.” A sandstone sculpture called “Mu” is a work in plaster from the 1950s, which prompts us to see through its open form. “Mu” in Japanese is the Zen concept of “nothingness.” According to art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki, “Noguchi evidently liked to fool around with Eastern and Western sensibilities even as he disregarded convention from both.”