PRINT March 1979

The Visible and Invisible Noguchi

A SENSE OF THE “REAL” Noguchi is hard to come by. He works in an extraordinary range of media: clay, metals, wood, stone, earth, plastic, paper, string and bones, among others, plus electricity. He makes or designs gardens, playgrounds, plazas, sets, monuments, furniture, lamps, interiors, earthworks, monumental and “studio” sculpture. No single mode or “style,” particularly as represented by a lone piece in a museum, can stand for his work as a whole: indeed much of his work remains “invisible.” The public sites and sculptures are (mostly) unlabeled and scattered all over the world; the sets are seen only in performance; the furniture and lamps are so ubiquitous as to be anonymous; the unrealized projects are lost or hidden (along with recent works) in Noguchi’s Long Island City studio. The sculptor rarely exhibits in galleries, and statements by him, though always very articulate, are seldom forthcoming. Even the autobiographical A Sculptor’s World is reserved and epigrammatic, tending to reinforce an image of the artist as unclassifiable outsider. The elusiveness of both the man and his work have tended, not surprisingly, to discourage critical comment. There have been, until now, no monographs and only a handful of useful articles.1

Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that the 1960s view of Noguchi as “a kind of throwback,”2 an “establishment” hand-crafter of elegant objects, is inadequate. Noguchi has been involved with environments for almost 50 years; he made clay slab structures in the early 1950s, and his unrealized projects include a neon sculpture (1928), a giant kite as a monument to Ben Franklin (1933), and an earth sculpture to be seen from Mars (1947). At 74, he is, in fact, in the process of being “rediscovered.” The Museum of Modern Art exhibited his Akari lamps in 1977. Last year the Walker Art Center organized a traveling retrospective that emphasizes his theatrical and environmental projects.3 Laudatory articles have begun to appear, along with the first monograph, written by Sam Hunter. It is not a scholarly book but a large-format, coffee-table-type publication long on reproductions (322 in 334 pages; 110 in color) and short on text. Such books invite browsing rather than close attention, but, because it is the first, and because it appears at a time when we need to be shown and told about the “unknown” Noguchi, it must be looked at with some care.

The photographs are, in themselves, splendid. There are previously unpublished family snapshots of Noguchi’s parents, of his boyhood in Japan, and of his first sculptural efforts. A number of drawings are reproduced, including Purist studies from the ’20s, calligraphic brush drawings from the ’30s, and cutout worksheets from the ’40s. Eight of his 24 theater sets are reproduced, along with almost all his realized and unrealized environmental projects and a selection of lamps, furniture, and inventions. Wonderful color shots update images of old works—the UNESCO and IBM gardens, for example—or acquaint us with important new ones such as the Atlanta playground or the Detroit Civic Center Plaza. In the past ten years Noguchi has done major public pieces and projects in eight U.S. cities, most of them publicly funded. From Cleveland’s sinuous Portal to Palm Beach’s spacy Tetrahedonal Fountain and Seattle’s neolithic Landscape in Time, we see a series of unique responses to site and circumstance.

To those unacquainted with Noguchi’s work, the extent of his recent involvement with public sculpture may come as a shock, but the photographs of “studio” sculptures may surprise even those who feel they know his work. For the past few years Noguchi has spent part of each year carving stone on the isolated Japanese island of Skikoku, producing rough-worked granites and basalts that resemble geodes or primordial landscapes. They are among his strongest pieces, yet they remain virtually unexhibited. Like his work as a whole, they demonstrate ongoing concerns with issues of gravity and weightlessness, transformation and identity, expression and formal design—an insistence that “the perfect form expresses something beyond its esthetic perfection.”4 Such concerns are, however, harder to detect because the photographs are arranged chronologically in both the “Text” and “Plates” sections of the book. The eye goes from early shaped-metal abstractions through figurative reliefs, morphologic stone and clay constructions, hieratic iron and marble pieces, to recent metals and stones; the impression is of steady discontinuity. The Walker Art Center catalogue has a pull-out illustrating “Noguchi’s Formal Vocabulary” (“Voids,” “Pyramids,” etc.). While simplistic, some such device used here might have underlined, rather than undercut, the cumulative authority of Noguchi’s recurrent motifs. Despite this, and despite the minor irritations of inaccurate captions and an occasional reversed reproduction (including the cover), the photographs do serve to remind us of, and update us on, the breadth of Noguchi’s achievement.

From the text we need something else, perspective certainly, but also interpretation, an exploration of Noguchi’s relevance to current concerns, some at least preliminary sorting-out of key pieces and concepts. The text occupies the first third of the book, supplemented in back by a chronology, exhibitions list, and selected bibliography—each of which, while welcome, has errors which make it less than totally trustworthy. Within this limited space, Sam Hunter has combined chronological and thematic approaches. His text is divided into 12 sections, beginning with Noguchi’s Japanese childhood and ending with a consideration of his ambivalent position vis-à-vis modernist critics. Themes are indicated in section titles—“Theater as Environment,” “The Primal Stone”—and treated as digressions within the chronological flow. It might have worked better if the chronology had been fleshed out, and the thematic material allowed to predominate within the text itself. As it is, there is heavy reliance on quotations from the autobiographical A Sculptor’s World, and not enough information about, or discussion of, key works. Hunter does give a vivid sense of Noguchi’s early traumas: the estrangement of his Japanese father and American mother, his lonely Midwest adolescence far from his family, his unhappy apprenticeship to Gutson Borglum, the carver of Mt. Rushmore. Speculating sympathetically on the impact of these dislocations and rejections, Hunter rightly sees self-imposed exile and self-created regeneration as the result, but links these up only generally with the work itself, which he sees primarily in terms of a kind of oscillation between organic and geometric, studio and environment, East and West.

Hunter calls the text “an interim report” and declares that “as to the totality of his career . . . we must reserve judgment.”5 Certainly the final verdict is not yet in, but judgment is implicit in a text that discusses a 50-year career without offering substantial new information or insight. The book as a whole is beautiful to look through, but its focus is too broad, its sense too general. We need to zero in on specific works for what they can tell us about Noguchi’s relevance and importance.

One example of an important piece that has been overlooked in the literature is The Apartment, a 1952 clay slab construction. While visiting Japan in the early 1950s, Noguchi produced, in a rare spirit of spontaneity and openness, quantities of small terracotta and ceramic pieces. Although sanctioned, no doubt, by Picasso’s 1947–48 experiments at Vallauris, these works are unusually intimate and personal. On the back of a photograph of The Apartment Noguchi wrote: “Its secret and real name is The Life of the Artist.” Thirty inches high, it resembles an open-ended dollhouse occupied, like Giacometti’s more cagelike Palace at Four A.M., by oneiric objects and figures. The lowest level has a button/nipplelike growth mushrooming from the floor and a snaky form winding back and forth through the wall below crossbeams hung with sharp-edged “blades.” This Edenic, preconscious substratum is topped by a second level, housing a female form, a hatchet jammed through the wall, and a ladder poking through to the third floor. The hatchet integrates snake-activity and knife-shape in an intrusive, emphatic “male” object; the female is dominant, “headless,” rooted; the ladder offers escape from (or the possibility of transcending) both dream and duality. The single figure occupying the topmost floor has a large head upturned to a hole in the “roof ” and winglike outflung arms. This pose recurs in Noguchi’s work, most notably in images of powerful children, with whom he would seem, at least to some extent, to identify himself. The figure presides over and presents the piece—a kind of artist-priest imaging and reconciling myth and experience and aspiring beyond them both.

Curtain of Dream, another of the clay pieces, is a single undulating slab of clay tied with rope to twin wood posts anchored in a wood base. The glazed surface is scratched, slit and added onto, creating a sense of human presence. Breast- and penislike protrusions are mixed with eye- and mouthlike slits, producing a kind of composite face-body that is at once hidden and revealed—the primordial stuff of dreams. Similarly, Mrs. White is a wraithlike apparition, a loop of clay flowing around a void like the long hair or loose clothing of a ghost. A tiny blank “face” projects from the void like a substantiation of nothingness. Like Curtain of Dream, this piece does not support itself, but is propped on a wooden post, which reinforces its floating, bodiless quality.

Daruma, on the other hand, stands emphatically free, a bumptious, enigmatic presence balanced on three “legs.” Its impassive, potlike surface is scarred and slit but not modeled: in all these works Noguchi rolls, cuts, or scratches the clay but never records touch. Daruma’s hollowness, like the open-endedness of The Apartment and Mrs. White, and the flatness of Curtain of Dream, denies the “container-ness” of pots while containing humanness—a lumpy eye/tongue/penis protrudes from the piece. Noguchi has also produced vases, plates and bowls. All were shown in New York in 1954 and in Chicago in 1955, but they have not, essentially, been seen since (and most are still owned by the artist ). Although they were not mentioned in Hal Fischer’s recent article on Peter Voulkos (Artforum, November 1978), they were widely reproduced at the time of the exhibitions and might possibly have had some impact on Voulkos. In the atmosphere of high seriousness surrounding Abstract Expressionist sculpture, critics received them with skepticism. One complained that “the danger of cuteness has not been avoided”;6 another likened them to “the gingerbread cookies of a playful and somewhat inebriated baker.”7 They are interesting and perhaps influential works that have long remained unknown.

Perhaps the most important of the unknown works is Monument to the Plow, a 1933 idea for an earthwork which, together with a model for a shaped-concrete playground covering a city block, Play Mountain, represents Noguchi’s first ideas about environment-shaping. He proposed to the P.W.A.P.,8 for which he was working in 1934, that the government raise a monument to the plow in the geographical center of the U.S. It was to be: “A triangular pyramid—12,000' sides at base—slopes 12° to 14° to horizontal—made of earth—one side tilled soil in great furrows radiating from the base corner—one side planted to wheat and 3rd side half tilled soil with furrows radiating from the apex and half barren, uncultivated soil—large apex block of concrete and a huge model of plow in stainless steel at peak.”9 He submitted a model and drawings, only to be thrown off the government payroll for refusing to do work of a “purely sculptural character.”10 The original designs were confiscated as government property (and apparently lost). Noguchi was left with photostats as documentation which he exhibited (along with Play Mountain, which the city Parks Commission of New York had rejected out of hand, in 1935) and published in his 1968 autobiography, but they remained oddly invisible. In form, intent and detail, however, Monument to the Plow is the forerunner of, though not prototype for, late ’60s and early ’70s works by such artists as Heizer, Oppenheim and Smithson.

Like them, Noguchi was aware of the mound as an indigenous art form. He is part American Indian, and made a special trip to Ohio in the early 1940s to visit the Great Serpent Mound. Added to that were his apprenticeship with Brancusi, who dreamt and talked of environmental sculpture long before the realization at Tirgu Jiu in 1937, and his admiration for Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Peking in 1931, he hopped off the train at Moscow and searched in vain for the Monument, not realizing it had never been built). Another source was certainly the gardens of Kyoto, which Noguchi had seen in 1931; they taught him that a universe of “changeless change” could be evoked with simple, natural elements. Change—the wheat ripening and going to seed, the furrows eroding and eventually destroying the pyramid—links Monument to the Plow most strongly to recent sculpture. No other American or European sculptor was doing anything comparable at the time.

In 1941 Noguchi combined the shaped earth of Monument to the Plow with the objectless playscape of Play Mountain to create Contoured Playground, the plaster model for which was once again rejected by the City of New York. Less “hard-edged” than the designs from the ’30s, it was composed entirely of mounded, terraced, undulant earth. There were areas “for hiding, for sliding, for games; water would flow in summer.”11 Noguchi would not realize his ambition to create an environment for children until 1976, after two more frustrations in the form of rejected playgrounds for the United Nations and for Riverside Park. Meanwhile, he had designed, in a 1945 collaboration with the architect Edward D. Stone, a park for St. Louis in which all architecture was to be buried, with only mound shapes articulated on the surface. It, too, was turned down. Only in 1960 was Noguchi able to realize a domesticated but magnificent earthwork. He was asked then to create a sculpture garden for Jerusalem’s National Museum from five acres of scarred, rubble-strewn hillside. In five years he raised five Cyclopean retaining walls built from the rubble and rising 30 feet high and 100 feet long. Unlike the fortifications at Tiryns or Mycenae, however, Noguchi’s walls offer release rather than confinement. Filled in with sloping earth, they arc upward toward the sky like the prows of ships, creating a great sense of height and openness. This garden-as-sculpture weighs a million tons, but most people fail to recognize it as anything but natural terrain. It is deliberately unobtrusive, a setting rather than a statement; not a monument to the artist’s ego but to his desire to shape earth and, through it, the quality of human experience. Offsetting the undulant shapes of the garden are subdivisions: anonymous geometric walls and enclosures that serve as backdrops for pieces of sculpture that might otherwise be lost against the vastness of the sky. Akin to the gigantic astronomical instruments built by the 18th-century Indian ruler Jai Singh—huge wedges and circular structures unprotected by roof or wall12—they are used by Noguchi to create the complete harmony of site, sculpture and architecture that characterizes 5th-century Greek temples. Noguchi has hoped that the garden might become “an acropolis for our times,” a place where art and environment work together to extend human awareness. If Monument to the Plow seems very relevant today, the garden in Jerusalem seems like a hope for tomorrow.

Both reflect Noguchi’s long-standing passion for shaping earth—respecting its integrity while exploiting its humanistic potential. The same philosophy is evident in his handling of clay slabs for the construction of the early ’50s pieces discussed above. Ceramics and earthworks are only two of the “hidden” aspects of Noguchi’s work, and only a few of the sources and situations associated with them have been mentioned. They deserve, as does all Noguchi’s work, a close, fresh, revisionist look.



1. They are: Julien Levy, “Isamu Noguchi,” Creative Art, January 1933; Thomas Hess, “Isamu Noguchi ’46,” Art News September 1946; Addison Page, “Isamu Noguchi . . . The Evolution of a Style,” Art in America Winter 1956–57; Annette Michelson, “Noguchi: Notes on a Theater of the Real,” Art International, December 1964, and Dore Ashton, “Noguchi’s Recent Marbles,” Art International, October 1972.

2. Harold Schonberg, “Noguchi, A Kind of Throwback,” New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1968. He was reviewing the Noguchi retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

3. The show has also been or will be seen in Denver, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. It is accompanied by a lively and informative catalogue and consists of an interesting, if somewhat too diffuse, mix of objects, photographs, models and drawings.

4. Dore Ashton, Modern American Sculpture, New York, 1968, p.26. This is the best summary of Noguchi’s work to date.

5. Sam Hunter, Isamu Noguchi, New York, 1978, p. 192.

6. Hilton Kramer, “Noguchi,” Arts, December 1, 1954. Kramer’s criticism has, until recently, followed the guidelines laid down in Clement Greenberg’s 1949 Nation article (March 19th), which complained of his “polish” and “finish” and “excessive taste.”

7. Time, January 10. 1955.

8. Public Works of Art Project. The pilot project for the W.P.A.’s Federal Art Project, it lasted from late 1933 until mid-1934. The head of the New York project was Mrs. Juliana Force.

9. Quoted verbatim from the catalogue of his 1935 exhibition at the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York.

10. Letter from Juliana Force to Isamu Noguchi, March 2, 1934 (Achives of American Art).

11. Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, New York, 1968, p.176.

12. Noguchi had visited and photographed the sites on a trip around the world financed by the Bollingen Foundation in 1949. Noguchi’s photographs were used by Bernard Rudofsky in The Prodigious Builders, New York, 1977. He says of the structures: “they are in an architectural category all of their own . . . their concept and execution are uncompromisingly abstract” (p.98).