PRINT April 1980

Perfecting the Imperfect: Noguchi’s Personal Style

NOGUCHI’S VISION OF STONE as symbolic and ceremonial is a consistent theme throughout his work. Noguchi’s capacity to imbue material itself with the drama of the act of creation, combined with his subtle articulation of edge, surface, and curved planar movements, makes his bold images of emerging form carry a sense of primal energy. Qualities of irreducible form and structural coherence place Noguchi’s work in a modern and Western esthetic, but even his most “modern” works contain echoes of past cultures. While he has worked in metal, steel—modern industrial materials—he has come back to stone as his preferred medium. Noguchi recently described the breaking and working of stone in terms of a “cosmic fracture”:

I see the act of breaking stone as leading to an act of reconciliation. When you break a stone you introduce an element of accident, like the first bang of creation. Something has to go wrong, like the break, in order to start the creative process going. The work I do after is a readjustment of that which is wrong. Eventually eternal balance resumes. The work and nature eventually settle down again in harmony.1

Noguchi’s freestanding sculptures of the last 20 years divide themselves into four interrelated groups, all of which link aspects of ancient art to a modern, Western context. The first group of sculptures—The Roar, Myo, Binary Morphology, and The Balance Stone—are formed of roughly shaped blocks of stone which the artist alters, but leaves dominant a feeling of natural forces. In another group are the black neo-Symbolist, landscape table sculptures, dating from 1966 to the present, such as Knife In The Rock, Landscape Sculpture, and Vertical View. These are carved and scored with pitted marks that resemble geological or marine eruptions and concavities. A third group are the horizontal earth-related sculptures such as Garden Elements, Triple Nest, and Dependent Pieces. A fourth group—from the 1960s on—form an ongoing continuity of work in which the artist takes an apparently geometrical form and then distorts it to be subtly asymmetrical—The Black Sun, Magic Ring, Energy Void. In the majority of these works the artist exploits dramatic contrasts between raw nature—what he calls the unperfected—and the intercession of art. This contrast, combined with Noguchi’s emotive, tactile power and an innate elegance, have come to constitute the artist’s mature personal style.

To examine Noguchi’s work over the past 20 years is to see him engage and explore the following: (1) contrasting and comparing Western and Eastern ideas about geometry, horizontal and vertical space, (2) the emphasis that has been placed, since the early 1960s, on Eastern values of asymmetry and imperfection, (3) a respect, originally derived from Shintoism, for nature and specifically for stone as being inhabited by living spirits, and (4) a sense of kinesis that arises from images of external movement and his own belief in a tactile life within inorganic matter.

Noguchi places his ideas in a large frame of reference that is both pragmatic and timeless. The formal and iconographical aspects of his sculpture from the 1960s to the present express philosophical, social and esthetic ideas. In his environmental works, from the 1933 Monument To A Plow up until the present, Noguchi takes aspects of traditional Japanese gardens, and aspects of Surrealist space, and makes them into something neither European nor Japanese. They fulfill his wish to create sculpture “at once abstract and socially relevant.”2

Noguchi sees and treats landscape and its molecular essence, stone, as metaphoric of man’s being, his link with earth. His approach to landscape is not only manifest in actual environments, but in the abstract, in his landscape table sculptures. Although the formal aspects of his recent landscape tables were prefigured in Night Land, 1947, the more recent works are richer in symbolic references to natural phenomena. They are Noguchi’s most elegant studies in emerging form and show a heightened intensity deriving from the symbolism of the stone itself and from what the artist sees as energies within matter. Noguchi:

I try to create forms which have a relevance to outer truth and space and to inner truth. We see the exterior of the tree and inwardly we see the sap rising. The forms I try to create are not merely the appearance but the resonating energy inside.3

While finished in the Western sense, the complexity in Noguchi’s work of the last 20 years expresses an Eastern sensibility in its seeming roughness and irregularity, and in the spiritual meaning he gives to the working of stone. The esthetic of these later works has subtly changed, becoming more closely tied to Eastern ideas of imperfection and asymmetry—nature’s own powers, emblematic of continuity and growth.4 Emerging upwards from horizontal surfaces that symbolize sea or land, or pushing down into the earth, these works show Noguchi at an extreme in both emotional content and style. They are his most explicitly elegant works, and also express most deeply his vision of nature’s dialectic with art. While the edges are jagged, chucks cut out of raw matter, the planar forms are created with great technical refinement. The esthetic of these works is a sharp departure from Noguchi’s smooth-surfaced marble pieces of the ’30s and ’40s which recalled Arp and Brancusi. In the newer works there is an affinity to the Eastern esthetic, in which the intention is to create an empty space, a “void” in which the object is allowed to reveal itself. It is an affinity which is reflected in Noguchi’s early statements about art and begins to figure in his style around 1958 in the UNESCO gardens in Paris. Following this, it is incorporated as a stylistic principle in individual works, such as The Black Sun, The Roar, and Myo.5

An enigmatic group of sculptures such as The Black Sun, Energy Void, and The Bow show Noguchi’s complex and contradictory treatment of geometry. In these he takes a form—triangle, circle, rectangle, or cube—and distorts it for expressive and esthetic purposes into a more organic form. Even at the time of his most geometrical work, the sunken marble garden at Yale University, the artist felt ambivalent about his use of regular forms but felt it most harmonious in relation to the existing rectilinear classical architecture. After this work—consisting of a circle, cube and pyramid—Noguchi did no more strictly geometric works. Recently he said, “The geometricized things remove themselves from chaos too obviously. I prefer my forms which are closer to the unknown and the unperfected.”6

Noguchi made many models for the white marble disk at Yale, one of which was later to become the magnificent black granite work, the eight foot Black Sun, commissioned for Seattle, Washington. Black Sun appears to be a perfect circle but is subtly unsymmetrical. Like The Ring of 1947, the form’s central aperture is placed to the left of center, and the inner circle is further distorted by the powerful plastic modeling of the work’s circumference. In Zen, irregularity and the imperfect are conceived of as going beyond perfection to reveal greater mystery.7

The Black Sun is a restless and dynamic work. Its circularity expresses nature in a robust and almost savage mood, as opposed to the serenely rational white marble disk at Yale. Noguchi has said on numerous occasions that he sees art as part of the environment, “an element of asymmetrical flux”8 and The Black Sun is a powerful statement of that flux. Within the apparently “fixed” and familiar circular form, there is irregular movement. The modeled forms seem to push from left to right creating an illusion that the huge disk is rotating. Also—as do The Void, The Bow, Energy VoidThe Black Sun combines spatial notions of Eastern and Western cultures—the horizontal, earth-related Eastern with the vertical Western. Placed in a vertical position, it is conceived of plastically with a sensuously abstracted, horizontal topography. Noguchi contrasts undulating, sinuous volumes with hard-edged shapes that have flattened surfaces. In its changing rhythms of concavities and convexities, Black Sun’s topography relates to Noguchi’s recent landscape table sculptures of black granite.

The circle is a recurrent form in Noguchi’s work, an example of an image which grows out of Western and Eastern cultures. His many circle sculptures, The Ring, The Black Sun, The Sun At Noon, Magic Ring, refer to different cultural meanings of the form. In ancient Chinese sculpture, the form symbolized the cosmos. The Black Sun, in its mood and blackness, also shows an affinity to the bold black circle in Zen calligraphy. In Zen painting the enso or circle is a symbol indicating an encompassing of the universe with one eternal and endless line, the Absolute Void, the continuous journey of the soul.9 Noguchi was also conscious of other meanings of the circle, which he discussed in regard to the white circle at Yale, for example, “a coiled magnet, the circle of ever-accelerating force.”10 Irregular and imperfect in topological volumes, yet roughly circular in its linear boundaries, The Black Sun expresses a dense and contained energy, and, simultaneously, a form of infinite extension, without beginning or end.

Noguchi’s triangular and rectangular sculptures such as Energy Void, 1971, or In Stillness Moving, 1970, also distort geometrical forms to express organic energy and the indeterminate. Energy Void, a vast seven-part work of Swedish granite, does not resolve into a perfect geometrical triangle. Rather than complete a triangle, the base horizontal form operates as a curved volume, an armlike extension, moving off in an indeterminate direction. The Bow is an equally mysterious form. It starts off as a half triangle, but with a sense of sprung energy twists suddenly at the bottom and moves out into another spatial direction. All the aforementioned works exemplify Noguchi’s affinity with the Zen belief in bringing asymmetry into art.

In 1966, the same year that Black Sun was completed, Noguchi finished Myo, a work begun in 1957. This was the first work where Noguchi subtly altered a massive block of granite, leaving a quality of the rough and unfinished. One of the artist’s most personal works, Myo is pivotal in terms of his stylistic development; it prefigures the found object stones of the late 1970s, where the artist utilized distinctive basalt or granite stones, worked and reassembled them, expressing the unformed forces of the stone itself. In 1957, Noguchi found a large block of Kurama granite, a type of stone considered sacred in Kyoto because it is used for the symbolic stepping stones leading from the house to the garden. When he broke the stone, he said it seemed “an act of blasphemy. I then waited five years before I could decide what to do with it.”11 He continued: “Breaking the stone gives you possibilities to exploit you wouldn’t get from carving alone. You get the natural gift of the stone itself.”12

When Noguchi did begin work on Myo, he left one entire side of the block untouched, opened up the top and worked the left side; this side evokes a primitive arm or embrace. The result is animistic. Although Western in its scale and as a freestanding work of art, in its attitude towards unformed nature Myo is Eastern, expressing a view of nature that finds its fullest expression in Noguchi’s garden. Myo anticipates the style of works such as The Roar, 1966, and the landscape sculptures of the late ’60s and ’70s.

Like The Black Sun and the landscape table sculptures, The Roar shows a juncture of vertical and horizontal. Noguchi did this massive abstraction in Italy and it is a good example of his selection of a specific block of marble for its odd shape and emotional presence. This piece is carved and shaped to conjure a number of images, from a classical torso fragment to an oncoming wave. To sustain the dialectic between art and nature, Noguchi cut out the lower part of the block, creating the illusion that the form is moving left, while the right part rises upwards. The chisel marks around the top and deep diagonal striations coming down from right to left give this work a strong sense of movement. It is one of many works concerned with the theme of emergence.

The landscape table sculptures, mainly of black granite, concentrate on emerging form, and convey a sense of movement in transformation. This body of work is the most radically elegant in the artist’s career; there is the most intense contrast between esthetic refinement and the visible, palpable process of its creation, realized between the highly worked surface and the broken jagged edges of the granite slabs. They resemble pieces of the earth broken off and read like parts of a greater whole, implying their completion in a space beyond the actual boundaries of the work. The technique—scoring, carving and pointing the granite with myriad white granular markings of different sizes and depths—creates the illusion of dramatic lighting. This consideration of the surface combined with the artist’s capacity to create a sense of a form’s gradual and potent growth through subtle edge and plane was noted early on by Dore Ashton: “Any edge of Noguchi’s forms is always incredibly vibrant—it is never a cut and dried right angle and never a sharp intrusion of the continuity-in-the-round of his form.”13

One of the most bold and dramatic of these works, Knife in the Rock, is a low-placed slab of black granite broken by a curved diagonal volume. In this work’s gleaming elegance, the angle of its curve and its sense of suddenly arrested motion, it suggests the rapid stroke of a Samurai sword. Others, such as Wet Stone, have a more gradual pace and upward movement; Noguchi subtly alters the angle of the curve as it forms a volume. Others refer to mountains, conceived of in a nocturnal lunar light. One of the most beautiful, Landscape Sculpture, late 1960s, contains the striking image of the flat-topped cone shape derived from the sand cone in the Zen garden of the Silver Pavilion, Kyoto. Like The Black Sun, the landscape tables are a curious blend of Eastern and Western ideas about time and space, complex unities of horizontal and vertical. They are placed in relation to the ground plane, but present conceptions of symbolic landscapes with emerging vertical forms. The landscape tables resemble the bridges and flat slabs used for stepping stones in Japanese gardens. Noguchi lived by the sea in Japan until the age of 13, and these works evoke the movement of nighttime tides and waves, the drama of moonlight on water. Noguchi sees the movement in these works as something not only visible but as a motion within the material:

It’s not movement going anywhere, but motion of a different sort. Inside matter there are atoms constantly in motion: if we could hear this action, we could probably hear a continuous sound. There is a roar created by mutual communication inside matter. What I wanted was that resonating energy inside.14

It has become increasingly apparent that while he has exasperated critics who want to place him in the Cubist or Surrealist tradition, he is indifferent to the Western notion of the isolated self-referential art object and the notion of tightly defined “styles.” Noguchi has a personal concept of art as part of the environment, and of its relatedness to life, that operates throughout his career.

The relationship of art to life is vital to Noguchi’s distinctive style—its palpable sense of unconscious nature residing in the material—both in his freestanding sculptures, and, in a more tangible form, in his playgrounds, plazas and gardens. While for the most part these have been created in conjunction with Western architecture, his concept of a garden is more Eastern, involved with what Noguchi has described as “going beyond geometry into the metaphysics of nature.”15 They fulfill the artist’s notion of a place to “meditate on the meaning of form in relation to man and space.”16

It is important to recognize Noguchi’s vast number of environmental works as a crucial part of his sensibility and his notion of art’s intention. They also show his particular genius for placing separate forms in a finite space, and, more than any single works, exemplify his wish, “to find a way to link that ritual of rocks which comes down to us through the Japanese from the dawn of history to our modern times and needs.”17

In the sculpture gardens, beginning with the UNESCO gardens in Paris, 1958, and Manhattan’s Chase Manhattan Plaza in 1964, Noguchi isolates symbols of nature that express philosophical ideas. Important sources for the gardens were configurations of stones from traditional Zen gardens, specifically Ruoyan-ji in Kyoto, 1499, and Daisenin at the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, 1509–13. Noguchi’s grouping of a tall, erect stone with a smaller, flatter one refers to the image, originally Chinese, of Mt. Horai, the Island of the Immortals. This Mt. Horai symbolism figures not only in the UNESCO gardens but in the two-part work Euripides, 1966, and again, in the 1978 Landscape of Time in Seattle. In the UNESCO gardens Noguchi also used the arrangement of three stones, alluding to Mt. Sumuru, or the “three exalted ones.”18 As Noguchi himself has written, he never wanted to make a “Japanese garden per se,” and reminds us that no Japanese garden follows rules in a fixed way.19 However, in the UNESCO gardens he does adapt a traditional motif to modern use in a highly inventive way: he uses bridges as they were used symbolically in Japan, to signify the transition from one dimension of experience to another. Noguchi introduced cement bridgelike benches to express the move from a meditative and psychological space into a utilitarian and social space.

In the Chase Manhattan Plaza, the seven rocks, which the artist “dragged out of the bottom of the Uji River,” are placed to activate the circular space; there is no dead or empty space between them. This rhythm of spatial movement is Noguchi’s own, but it recalls the celebrated rhythm between space-attracting entities in the Ruoyan-ji garden.

Noguchi’s interest in the theme of weight and weightlessness, Eastern and Western notions of gravity, finds an early expression in the UNESCO and Chase gardens. While the West, as the artist has written, is concerned with the conquest of gravity, it is more typically Eastern to conceive of forms whose roots are joined below the ground, into the earth. The placement of the rocks in the UNESCO gardens expresses this notion of gravity while, in his treatment of the rocks for the Chase Plaza, Noguchi expressed a feeling of vertical levitation.20

A group of expressive granite and basalt works recently exhibited show him taking up the theme of cosmic fracture first explored in Myo, and finds him, as the artist has described elsewhere, “unlocking the stone.” His careful selection and breaking of stones relates to the Japanese tradition, from ancient times to present, of assigning a particular meaning to “found” stones of distinctive qualities.21 Other recent granite works show Noguchi’s renewed interest in gravity and weight, and in grouping two or three stones together in a way to suggest other spatial relationships as well. In 1962 Noguchi exhibited Mortality and Garden Elements, which showed him using “gravity as a metaphor to define our precarious and pendulous existence.”22 Increasingly, in the 1960s and 1970s Noguchi combined horizontal and spatial direction within one work. In some of the new granite works, such as Triple Nest, one of the stones is vertically directed, the other two, like Cézanne’s apples, seem to nestle and pull downward. As in Garden Elements, where three rocklike forms seemed to hug the earth, Triple Nest conveys a similar feeling of a downward pull. In Mantra, also, there is a feeling of what the artist calls his intention to have the work: “settle on the ground, make the earth a part of us, borrow its strength.”23

Humorous, menacing or erotic, Noguchi handles the stones like an alchemist. The small objects emanate a dense power. Both in the stones and landscape table sculptures, there is a strong feeling for the artist’s expression of exterior and interior truth, matter’s “resonating energy.”

Noguchi’s work in all categories is culturally widely allusive, ranging from a notion of settling the plains of the American West to Taoist symbols of water and mountains. The cliché that his work fused Eastern and Western sources—fostered by his apprenticeship to Brancusi, a Surrealist period, and his Japanese-American heritage—has tended to camouflage the actual themes in his work as well as his complex style. There is in Noguchi a preoccupation to distill nature into art, then to imply the movement of art, redistilled out of culture, back into nature. Throughout his career, one sees this nature-art-nature tension as an important aspect of his style. His early works show aspects of Surrealism but the motive behind them is different, less involved with the unconscious and more with locating the emotion in life itself. Because of his facility of style and superb craftsmanship, precise ideas in his work have been overlooked, as has the fact that his themes are inherent in his handling of materials. He has shown a consistency over the years in creating visual metaphors for philosophical and social ideas, from studies in gravity and weight as metaphors for man’s destiny on earth to monumental meditations on geometry and its opposites.

Noguchi has often said, “I’m suspicious of the whole idea of styles.” However, there is more than a bit of irony in this statement. His distinctive style, through many periods, lies, more than anything, in a power to imbue stone with a sense of imminent form. Through his complex career, his style and sensibility are also revealed in the difference between the actual forms Noguchi uses and the effect to which these forms are put. For example, even in his most geometrical and Western work, the Beinecke sunken marble garden, while the forms are pure Euclidian shapes, the intense mood they create is that of meditative objects in a strange, almost Symbolist tableau. In his environments, Noguchi takes facets of traditional rock gardens, a feeling of Surrealist space, and makes them converge into poetic unities that are neither simply Western nor Eastern. Noguchi’s heroic scope, emotional authority, and manner of using and transcending materials evoke aspects of Abstract Expressionism. Daring to take his technique and ideas to an extreme of power and elegance, Noguchi embodies his abstract forms with an emotional vision that carries them into the dynamic of life.

His art’s vitality, not only in its exterior forms but the resonating forces within, marks even his most elegant works with a feeling of primordial energy. This quality of inner force, of incipient creation, demonstrates that, to an astonishing degree, Noguchi achieved the goal he gave himself at the age of 21, “to view nature through nature’s eyes.”24

Margaret Sheffield is a New York art critic.



I am grateful to Judy Silver for her intelligent and perceptive reading of the article.

1. Conversation, February 1980.

2. Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, Harper & Row, New York, 1968, p. 22.

3. Conversation, February 1980.

4. Shinichi Hisamatsu, Zen and the Fine Arts, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1971, p. 29, p 83 and following, for a discussion of asymmetry and irregularity, as principles in all the Zen arts.

5. Even so apparently a Western work as the 2-part marble Euripides, was influenced, Noguchi said, by a Japanese respect for the unperfected as emblematic of continuity and the infinite.

6. Conversation, February 1980

7. Hisamatsu, Zen and the Fine Arts, p 30. “Neither imperfect nor worldly in the ordinary sense, these paintings are imperfect and worldly in the sense of going beyond perfection and holiness.”

8. Sam Hunter, Isamu Noguchi, Abbeyville Press, New York, 1979, p. 154.

9. Yasuichi Awakawa, Zen Painting, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1970, p. 154. “The circle (enso) is a symbolic representation of the Zen truth that the mind and the Void are one.” The circle in Zen thought also means the moment of clarity when man is without illusions. Noguchi returns to the idea of the mind and the Void being one in his various Void sculptures.

10. Noguchi, Sculptor’s World, p. 170

11. Conversation, February 1980.

12. This attitude relates to traditional and present day Japanese reverence not only for stones but for accidents in nature. For example, a 16th-century water pitcher of Iga Ware in the Goto Museum, Kyoto, is valued more because of the huge cracks which occurred in the kiln. See Seiroku Noma, Japanese Sense of Beauty, Tokyo, Asahi Shimbun Co., 1963, p. 78.

13. Dore Ashton, “Isamu Noguchi,” Arts and Architecture 80, June 1963, p. 6.

14. Conversation, February 1980

15. Hunter, Noguchi, p. 154. “I admire the Japanese garden because it goes beyond geometry into the metaphysics of nature.”

16. Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, p. 30.

17. Ibid., p. 167.

18. Loraine Kuck, The World of the Japanese Garden, Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1968, pp 44–45. Osamu Mori and Irmtraud Schaarschmidt-Richter, Japanese Gardens, William Morrow, New York. 1979, p. 31–33. Osamu Mori, Typical Japanese Gardens, Tokyo, Japan Publications Co., 1962. The configuration of a larger, upright stone and a smaller stone symbolizing Mt. Horai or the Islands of the Immortals is one of the most important symbolic features of the Japanese garden, based on a legend originally derived from Chinese Taoism. The Buddhist iconographical theme of Mount Sumuru became a landscape form in the Japanese garden, with the configuration of a group of three stones. placed in a central position in the garden. This corresponded to the centrality of Mount Sumuru in Buddhist cosmology. The common configuration of three stones, the sanzon ishigumi, developed out of the earlier sanzon butsu no ishi, or triad of Buddhas Mori, p. 38, writes that while this group of three stones began as a purely religious symbol, it became an esthetic and formal means of organization, like the triangle in Italian Renaissance painting.

19. Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, p. 171.

20. Ibid., p. 40.

21. Japanese Interiors, Ed. Gakuyo-Shobo, Tokyo, 1962, p. 66.

22. Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, p 38.

23. Conversation, February, 1980.

24. 2. Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, p. 16.