Isamu Noguchi (b. 1904, Los
Angeles, d. 1988, New York City) American artist and designer.
The one American mid-century figure
who had no difficulty in establishing his identity as an artist in any medium
he touched, from architecture and landscape to theater, product, and furniture
design, was Isamu Noguchi. Primarily active as a sculptor, Noguchi refused
to assign hierarchical importance to any one of his activities over the others
. . . . (Filler 144)
Noguchi was born (with the name Sam
Gilmour) to a Japanese poet
father and Irish-American writer mother in Los Angeles in 1904. His first 13
years were spent in Japan, but he returned to the United States for the major
part of his education. A brief stint as an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum
(author of the Mt. Rushmore carvings) led nowhere, with Borglum
failing to see Noguchi's talent. After dallying for a few years with the idea of going into medicine,
he finally decided on sculpture and won a Guggenheim Fellowship
in 1927 (one of the first). With this, he was able to travel to and study in Paris
in the atelier of Constantin Brancusi.
Upon his return, he lived in New York, showing himself a master of every side of design. Interned for seven months in Arizona during World War II, he left
the camp rededicated to his pursuit of art, especially with antiwar messages. The period after the war was an
extraordinarily fruitful one for architecture and design, the great golden age
of modernist abstractions and worship of geometrical simplicity.
Noguchi began a long relationship with modern furniture maker par excellence
Herman Miller in the late 40s, designing his most famous icon, the Noguchi
Coffee table, in the mid-1940s.
Noguchi maintained strong ties to
Japan all his life. His antiwar stance is reflected in the ambitious projects
(only partly realized) of 1950-52 to create a monument to the dead of Hiroshima,
while his monumental entrance to the New Museum of Modern Art
in Tokyo was built in 1969. Toward the end of his life, he instituted the
Isamu Noguchi Foundation (URL below) which now watches over his legacy, especially
the many pieces still assembled in the Garden Museum at his former estate in
Long Island City, New York. The United States Post Office issued a sheet
of stamps dedicated to Noguchi in 2004.
He won an impressive list of awards:
First Prize (Logan Medal), 63rd Exhibition
of Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 1959
New York Architectural League Gold Medal, 1965
Brandeis Creative Arts Award, 1966
Gold Medal, American Institute of Arts
and Letters, 1977
Noguchi design. Some characteristic works.
A man as prolific as Noguchi can't
be dispatched in a few words. The strongest thread that runs through his work
is his love of gentle organic blobby curves. That doesn't sound like much of
a commendation, but it describes his tools. What he accomplished with these
tools could be joyous and free, tortured and emotionally affecting, or occasionally
simply similar to the boomerangs, amoebas, kidney-shapes, and atom symbols which
were everywhere in 1940s and 50s design.
1941. Playground design,
Central Park, New York City. Noguchi's feel for contouring the earth
is highly sculptural, as you would expect; though this design was never executed,
the model shows a gentle terrain dimpled with small hillocks offering endless
opportunities for hide-and-seek, rolling, and other childplay. While some of
the forms are crisp, overall the site has a gentle, organic flow to it. (Vital
1943. This Tortured Earth,
bronze model for a war memorial. Horrified like everyone else at the
scale and violence of World War II, Noguchi envisioned a large landscape fashioned
into scarred, twisted forms to symbolically recall the violence of war which
brings such forms into existence. The bronze model, which is all that was
ever built, shows what began as a soft, undulating surface but is now puckered,
slashed, stabbed, deformed and gouged. It is hard to look at it without wincing,
the more so when you realize that at the scale of the bronze model the ravaged
softness of the surface works just as well as a representation of war-damaged
flesh (with negative sexual overtones, as well). Noguchi played with
the idea of sculpting the earth (had the project materialized) with real ordinance.
(Vital Forms fig. 58; Rapaport 82)
1943-1947. Lounge Table.
Designed for Herman Miller, produced 1945-1948 and again continuously since
1984. If you know one piece of Noguchi's work, this will likely be it. The table
consists of a thick sheet of glass cut to a roughly triangular pattern (the
vertices are gently curved) which sits freely atop a tripod composed of two
interlocking pieces of oiled walnut. The tripod is formed from two blobby, distended
U forms, one upside-down and placed upon the other. They join where the rising
arm of one U meets the falling arm of the upside-down U and pivot. When pivoted,
they ape the triangular form of the glass top. (Vital Forms fig. 216)
1947-1948. Ceiling for the
lobby of the American Stove Company Building, St. Louis,
Mo. A ceiling perforated by blobby holes; the material is drawn down
to form a column. It is highly reminiscent of Morris Lapidus' interior designs
for his great Florida Hotels, though carried through
with a greater respect for sculptural integrity and consistency (I do not argue
that Lapidus' work is not wonderful in its own way, of course). Noguchi's sculpted ceiling
had to perform the necessary function of guiding people to the elevators,
which were not visible from the entrance. (Vital Forms
fig. 118; Filler 144; Bittermann 134-135)
1950-1952. Concrete memorial
bridges, Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. The bridges are but a small
portion of Noguchi's ambitious designs, which included a park with a memorial
to the dead. See the URLs below for more.
1950-. Akari lights.
Fantastically distorted versions of traditional Japanese paper lanterns, these
lights have been in production since Noguchi first began working on the concept
in Japan while working on the Hiroshima memorials. As popular and famous as
the lounge table, Noguchi rather resented the popularity of his little Akari
lights at the expense, in the public's imagination, of his more serious work.
URLs and Bibliography.
Rapaport, Brooke Kamin, and Stayton, Kevin L. 2001. Vital Forms.
American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960 (Brooklyn Museum of
Filler, Martin. "Building Organic Form. Architecture, Ceramics, Glass,
and Metal in the 1940s and 1950s." 122-163 in Vital Forms.
Rapaport, Brooke Kamin. "The Greater Mystery of Things. Aspects of Vital
Forms in American Art." 78-121 in Vital Forms.
http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-07/atomicage.html (review of the Vital
http://www.noguchi.org/index.html (a fantastically detailed site with lots of
http://www.noguchi.org/foundation.html (The Isamu Noguchi Foundation)
http://www.designmuseum.org/designerex/isamu-noguchi.htm (Informative article
with several illustrations including the playground model, coffee table, Akari
lights, and stage sets)
This Tortured Earth.
As landscape architect.
McCarthy, Jane, and Epstein, Laurily K. 1996. A Guide to the Sculpture Parks and Gardens of America.
(pp. 60-62 cover Noguchi's Garden Park in Long Island City with much worthwhile biography)
Noguchi and Hiroshima.
(rejected garden memorial)
http://www.noguchi.org/memdead2.htm (model of rejected Hiroshima memorial)
(picture of Noguchi in Hiroshima, 1951)
American Stove Company ceiling (and others).
Bittermann, Eleanor. 1952. Art in Modern Architecture, pp. 134-135.
Herman Miller/Lounge Table.
(Noguchi biography-source of biographical material above)
and order a table here)