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Isamu Noguchi in his Long Island City studio, 1960s.
Photo: Martha Swope. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY / Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Isamu Noguchi Becomes First Asian American Artist to Have Work in White House Collection

This past Friday, with the installation of his 1962 sculpture Floor Frame in the White House Rose Garden, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) became the first Asian American artist to have his work acquired for the White House collection. The two-part sculpture is typical of his minimalist, abstract, biomorphic oeuvre and was included in his 1968 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Made of black patina and bronze, the work constitutes a beam that appears to plunge into the ground, with a shorter section seeming to emerge some distance away.

The White House Historical Association acquired the work in March from Sotheby’s for $125,000 and then gifted it to the White House, where its position in the garden’s east terrace is intended to offset the authority symbolized by the Oval Office at the garden’s west end, according to a White House press release. First Lady Melania Trump, who selected the work and was present at its unveiling, said in a statement, “This sculpture not only showcases diversity within our nation’s finest art but it also highlights the beautiful contributions of Asian American artists to the landscape of our country.”

The Los Angeles–born Noguchi was heavily influenced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent American internment of Japanese Americans, events that would lead him to combat racism and elevate awareness of the contributions of Japanese Americans to the US. Though exempt from internment owing to his location (the artist lived in New York, whereas the military was authorized to round up Japanese Americans living in West Coast states), Noguchi voluntarily spent time in an Arizona internment center as an act of protest and with hopes of harnessing art and design to a provide a better life for the internees. Though he felt he failed in his efforts, the experience would color his subsequent output, which ranged from sculpture to furniture to gardens and bridges and eventually established him as one of America’s best-known artists.

Brett Littman, director of the Long Island City, NY–based Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, acknowledged the fraught political atmosphere surrounding the sculpture’s acquisition, but told the New York Times, “The key for us is that this will be on display in perpetuity at the White House. Administrations come and go, but artwork remains. We do feel proud, and we think Noguchi would feel proud as well.”