The Abstract Sculptor Who Melded East and West

Isamu Noguchi CC 1926 was “the preeminent American sculptor.”

Noguchi, circa 1970, fused Asian aesthetics with Western modernism in a career spanning six decades.


“I have looked upon every new job as another opportunity to break new ground,” said prolific sculptor Isamu Noguchi CC 1926. In his 84 years, Noguchi broke new ground aplenty. Fusing time-honored Asian aesthetics with Western modernism, he created a plethora of striking specimens — everything from mammoth monoliths to tabletop conversation starters. His public works, embracing standalone pieces and entire sculpture gardens alike, dot the globe. Noguchi fashioned memorials, minimalist stage sets and even smart postwar home decor. He was, said critic Robert Hughes in 1980, “the preeminent American sculptor.”

Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi apprenticed as a teenager with Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore. Borglum told him that he would never be an artist, but Noguchi’s mother disagreed, advising: “Be your own god and your own star.” At the College he enrolled as a premed but only lasted a year and a half. His mind was elsewhere; his chemistry and biology notebook, said his mother, was filled with “nothing but sketches of vagaries — fishes, rabbits, nude ladies, etc. Not one word of any science.” In spring 1924 a visit to Onorio Ruotolo, director of the Leonardo da Vinci Art School on East 10th Street, paid off ; Noguchi became his studio assistant, and his first exhibition, of 22 plasters and terra-cottas, came just three months after they met. Ruotolo proclaimed him a “new Michelangelo.”

Foot Tree (1928)


In 1927, Noguchi won a Guggenheim Fellowship. “It is my desire,” he told the administrators, “to view nature through nature’s eyes, and to ignore man as an object for special veneration.” This he did in Paris under the legendary Constantin Brancusi. “He showed me how to square a block out of limestone,” Noguchi recalled dryly. Soon, Noguchi was fashioning clay, brass, wood, plastic and especially stone of all sorts into puzzling, fiercely asymmetrical pieces, replete with unexpected twists, angles, cuts, holes and nodules. He branded the results with such names as Globular; Foot Tree; and Noodle.

Noguchi’s East-West duality informed his life and his work. Though American by birth, he spent a decade of his childhood in Japan, returning home in 1918; during WWII, he voluntarily spent several months in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arizona to better understand his own nature. “With my double nationality and double upbringing, where was my home?” he wondered. “Where my affections? Where my identity? Japan or America, both — or the world?” Noguchi ultimately determined that “For one with a background like myself the question of identity is very uncertain. It’s only in art that it was ever possible for me to find any identity at all.”

His output, he said, resulted from the “process of listening.” Always, his goal was to form and convey a relationship with his raw materials, tapping and releasing the natural forces that he felt within them. Indeed, Noguchi often thought of his creations as living things, asking to be fully awakened. “When I face natural stones, they start talking to me,” he said. “Once I hear their voices, I give them just a bit of a hand.”

Noguchi, wrote his biographer Hayden Herrera, preferred “certain shapes — columns, twisting pylons, pyramids and triangles, interlocking elements, cubes, circles, spheres, and emerging earth forms.” He expressed these forms with everything from soft marble to hard granite, from organic balsa to inorganic aluminum. In 1978, reviewing the traveling exhibition Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes, future Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Allan Temko ’47 wrote that Noguchi’s output sprang from his “several distinct selves, all exquisitely refined.”

Ballet set for Appalachian Spring (1944)


Like most great artists, Noguchi was determined and single-minded. “When I’m with the stone,” he said, “there is not one second when I’m not working.” But he readily collaborated with choreographers like George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. For Martha Graham he designed 20 ballet sets, including for Appalachian Spring (1944), with Pulitzer Prize-winning music supplied by Aaron Copland. “The works he created for my ballets brought to me a new vision, a new world of space,” said Graham. (Admittedly, the two strong wills sometimes clashed. “More than once,” Graham said, “I had to order him off the stage.”)

Red Cube (1968)

Noguchi easily catered both to formidable institutions and ordinary people. For the former, he realized the eclectic Billy Rose Art Garden for Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and nine exuberantly spouting stainless-steel fountains for Expo ’70 in Osaka. In New York City he fashioned the 24-ft.-tall Red Cube at the Marine Midland Bank and the urgently rendered nine-ton bas-relief plaque News, above the entrance to the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center. Literally close to home, Noguchi won widespread praise for his instantly recognizable three-cornered glass-topped coffee table and the living-room lamps known as akari, the Japanese word for “light.” Constructed of bamboo ribbing and washi, the handmade paper that comes from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, they emit a milky glow that, Noguchi suggested, offers “a magical unfolding away from the material world.”

Some time before he died on December 30, 1988, Noguchi had announced, “I have come to no conclusions, no beginnings, no endings.” Then again, such uncertainty defined his oeuvre. Sculpture, Noguchi said, “is the art which can only be appreciated in the raw, relative to man’s motion, to time’s passage, and to its constantly changing situation.”