New York

Isamu Noguchi

PaceWildenstein 22

The brilliance of Isamu Noguchi’s stone sculptures stems from his empathy with the material. As in the story of the Zen butcher, Noguchi splits his stones along their natural fractures. Beginnings, 1985, is a random placement of five stones that reflects the Japanese concept of a stone garden: the paradoxical transformation of stone into a growing, living thing—the ultimate reparative illusion and miracle. The boundary between the inorganic and the organic blurs, suggesting that no such division exists in nature, only in our minds—that in fact there is only a continuum of matter. One might say that Noguchi is, in essence, a master Zen artist who shows us how natural it is to be mystical.

Noguchi has said that he splits stone to get to its inside—to get at its “jugular.” What results, however, is an outside as well as an inside: each piece seems like a whole, living body, however much it is actually eccentric, inert, and fragmentary. The five stones are grouped with great sensitivity to their colors: brown and gray, like the outside and inside of the earth on which they should ideally rest. The result, to Western eyes, is at once abstract and concretely real; but Noguchi “ heals” the split he himself made by putting the stones back together in a naturally mystical way to reveal the continuity within their apparent discontinuity.

Each of Noguchi’s sculptures is a three-dimensional koan or riddle meant to “illuminate” not only the complexity of nature but our own inner relationship to, and place in, the natural, no matter how separate from it we think we are. Ends, 1985, makes this point explicitly. Eleven pieces of black Swedish granite fit together into an approximately six-foot cube, which, as Noguchi says, is “actually man,” indeed “Leonardo’s man.” Noguchi connects this piece with death (viewed through a crack in the stone, the cube looks like an empty tomb), but a death that “returns” man to nature at its most elemental. Ends implies that man, even though he has not yet appeared, is already immanent in geological time, represented by the stone. Noguchi’s allusive and elusive Ends—a spiritual masterpiece—stands to Tony Smith’s Minimalist Die the way Joseph Beuys thought Ingmar Bergman’s film Silence stood to Marcel Duchamp’s notion of silence.

In Silence Walking, 1989, the final piece in the show—the natural end established by the path of the installation (an eloquent one in itself)—is also emblematic of man. A curvilinear vertical column and an angular one seamlessly fuse in a majestic rectangle, void in the center. The stone here is carefully finished and polished, but still as subtly sensation-filled as the rawer, more agitated stone pieces. As self-contained as the cube, In Silence Walking commemorates human presence in nature in a somewhat different way: here man walks in silent communion with his surroundings, fully aware of this relationship.

All the works here are major, in part because they all make a profound human point through an esthetic that blurs the boundaries between the expressive and the conceptual, the natural and the artistic, the primordial and the cultural. Noguchi wants to show us that all these differences are the product of a misreading that can be corrected by the kind of experience a Zen garden affords.

Donald Kuspit