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Isamu Noguchi, born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and American mother, created work that philosophically and materially bridged the Japanese and American cultures and also broadened the notion of American sculpture. With his large abstract pieces he combined mediums such as stone, wood, and marble, included the use of water and light, and had opposing textures of rough and smooth. He also introduced themes of tension and gravity and through this and positioning, explored relationships between objects. “Noguchi shows how well he has absorbed the Japanese manner of placing objects so that they seem to emerge inevitably from the ground rather than to be located arbitrarily in space.” (Baigell, 255)

He experimented widely with new materials, used aluminum extensively, and created the first illuminated sculptures, and in much of his work, the bases were an integral part of the sculpture. He did environmental art and earthworks such as Play Mountain, (1933) a sculpted-earth pyramid with pool. He also designed stage sets, furniture, and gardens and was a muralist.

Isamu Noguchi was the son of Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi and American writer Leonie Gilmour, and was born in Los Angeles but spent his childhood in Japan beginning 1906. After World War I, he returned to the United States and attended high school in Indiana, briefly apprenticed to Gutzom Borglum, and studied art at Columbia University and the Leonardo da Vinci School during the 1920s. At this beginning time in his career, his style was representational, earning him a membership in the National Sculpture Society. Into the 1930s, he sculpted numerous head portraits and portrait busts in bronze and terra cotta. Among his subjects were Martha Graham, Goerge Gershwin and Buckminster Fuller. It was this realistic work that supported him financially, while he moved into abstraction.

In 1926, a sculpture exhibition of Constantin Brancusi was a turning point in Noguchi’s work. Earning a Guggenheim fellowship, he became Brancusi’s studio assistant in Paris, and was much influenced by him in the treatment of surfaces and the reduction of form to only essentials. During this time, 1927 to 1928, he also studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Colarossi and became a friend of Alexander Calder, whose sculpture career was just beginning.

Shortly after this time in Paris, he spent two years in the Orient where he studied brush drawing and in Peking with Chi Phi Shi, and pottery in Japan. In 1935, he became a set designer for modern dancer, Martha Graham, and that same year, traveled to Mexico City where he worked on a relief mural made of polychromed cement with the history of Mexico as the subject.

He also worked in New York City designing the bas belief, News, for the entrance to Rockefeller Center’s Associated Press Building. Installed in 1940, the work is made of cast stainless steel and is symbolic of the occupants of the building at that time. “Although Associated Press relocated in 2004, Noguchi’s forceful sculpture remains the quintessential symbol of that business and is one of the major Art Deco works in the Center.” (Roussel, 141) Other public sites for sculptures by Noguchi are gardens for the UNESCO Building at the United Nations, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and bridges in Hiroshima, and gardens in Japan.

The last two decades of his life, Noguchi spent half of each year on Shikoku, the smallest of the Japanese islands, working exclusively in stone. He first came to Shikoku when he was looking for stone for the garden he created for the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

His close collaborator in Shikoku was Masatoshi Izumi, a local stone carver and sculptor whom he met in the late 1960s. Izumi first worked with him on Black Sun, a large sculpture commissioned by the city of Seattle. Noguchi’s studio in Shikoku became a museum in 1999 with many of the details overseen by Izumi.

In 1988 just before his death, he completed plans to convert a 450-acre dump site into a park, now named Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. (“Moere” means the “still surface of the water,” and “numa” means “marsh”). The park is intended for completion in 2004.

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Donald Martin Reynolds, Masters of American Sculpture
Art in America
Christine Roussel, The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Compiled and written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier.

Biography from the Archives of AskART.