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Friday, March 20, 2015

Isamu Noguchi

Red Cube, 1968, Isamu Noguchi, for Marine Midland, now HSBC, New York, New York.                  
One of the factors that always plays into my selecting an artist to highlight here is the biographical details of that individual's life. Let's face it, a destitute childhood or a war-torn upbringing, either literally or figuratively, has a profound influence on an artist's work. That's no doubt true of everyone's formative years, whether positive or negative, whether a painter, writer, poet, filmmaker, composer, sculptor, architect, or store clerk. It's hard to escape one's past, even (or perhaps especially) if there's a strong incentive to do so. The Japanese-American sculptor, and landscape architect, Isamu Noguchi, was an interesting example. You could conceivably say his "rough" life began even before he was born.
Isamu Noguchi, ca. 1929, Winold Reiss.
Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904, the son of a Japanese poet named Yone Noguchi. His mother was an American writer, Léonie Gilmour, living in Los Angeles at the time. They were not married, though they came close a couple of times. (Leonie was the subject of a 2010 movie titled Leonie starring Emily Mortimer and Shido Nakamura.)Isamu's parents ended their relationship the year he was born. His father planned to marry a Washington Post reporter, Ethel Armes. Yone Noguchi proposed to her then left for Japan where he settled in Tokyo, awaiting her arrival. However, being a good reporter, Ethel Armes found out about the baby (Isamu) and broke their engagement, whereupon Yone Noguchi invited Leonie to bring their son and join him in Japan. At first she resisted the idea, but eventually they left for Yokohama, only to discover when they arrived that Yone had decided she wasn't coming and so married a Japanese girl instead.
Carl Mackley Memorial, 1933, Isamu Noguchi
I'm leaving out a lot of interesting trivia here, but suffice to say young Isamu barely knew his father. He was sent back to the United States in 1918 to begin high school in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, where he boarded with a Swedish minister and his wife. Upon graduating from high school, Isamu Noguchi (who then went by the name, Sam Gilmour), decided he wanted to be a sculptor. Despite misgivings, his American guardian arranged for him to travel to Connecticut to apprentice with the monumental sculptor, Gutzon Borglum (later of Mt. Rushmore fame). After only one summer, and very little training from Borglum himself in carving stone, Isamu was told he'd never be a sculptor and should consider a different trade. With the backing of his wealthy guardian, Noguchi entered Pre-med school at Columbia University in New York. In 1924, Noguchi's mother rejoined her son in New York. Though still training to be a doctor, she encouraged Isamu to take night classes at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art.
Expo 1970, Osaka, Japan, Isamu Noguchi.
After only three months taking art classes, the budding young sculptor had his first show, several plaster and terracotta works at a New York gallery. With this early success, Sam Gilmour dropped out of Columbia, changed his name back to Isamu Noguchi, and opened his own studio. Despite being three years too young, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study sculpture in Paris for two years and later in Asia. While in Paris, Noguchi met Constantin Brancusi and became his assistant, despite the fact Brancusi did not speak English...or Japanese, for that matter. In any case, from Brancusi, Noguchi learned to carve marble.
California Scenario Sculpture Garden, Costa Mesa, California, 1980-82, Isamu Noguchi
Undine, 1925, Isamu Noguchi
When Noguchi returned to New York, he joined the art crowd at Romany Marie's café in Greenwich Village where he met Buckminster Fuller and later collaborated with him on Fuller's famous Dymaxion Car. Later, Noguchi exhibited his Paris abstract sculptures in a show at a New York gallery. None sold. Noguchi gave up abstraction for a flowing sort of Art Deco realism. His Undine (left) from 1926 is an example of this style. During the latter part of the 1920s, as he saved up money for a trip to Asia to continue his studies, Noguchi began to receive commissions for marble busts from various wealthy celebrities including Martha Graham, Buckminster Fuller, and later, Ginger Rogers (below, right). Finally, in 1930, after nearly ten years absence, Noguchi sailed to Europe where he traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, later India, and finally a tense reunion with his father in Japan.

California Scenario Sculpture Garden, Costa Mesa, California, 1980-82, Isamu Noguchi
Bust of Ginger Rogers,
1942, Isamu Noguchi.
Upon his return to New York in 1932, during the midst of the Great Depression, Noguchi found few commissions for portrait busts (even the rich were busted...or perhaps bustless). In any case, Noguchi turned his skill back to creating abstract works, which he reasoned would not sell anyway, mounting a traveling show across the U.S. which brought him widespread name recognition but little income. Although he found work with two world's fairs during the 1930s (Chicago and New York), Noguchi suffered rejection after rejection involving proposals for large, public sculpture and spaces. He even tried integrating sculptural shapes into children's playgrounds which were found to be unacceptable (bottom). Eventually he ended up in Hollywood once more sculpting portrait busts such as that of Ginger Rogers (right, commissioned earlier but not completed until 1942). About the same time, he had a brief, but torrid love affair with the Mexican artist, Frieda Kahlo. After Pearl Harbor, being half-Japanese, Noguchi suffered through seven months in an internment camp. After his release, the FBI tried to have him deported as a Japanese spy. He was saved at the last minute only through the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Divano Freeform Divan, Isamu Noguchi.
(I love this, wish I could afford a Noguchi.)

The Noguchi Table.
After the war, Noguchi had a surprising degree of success with his large scale sculptures such as The Red Cube (top) and a nine-ton sculpture called News, over the entrance to the Associated Press Building in New York. In 1947, in a much more profitable partnership with a Michigan furniture company, his design for the glass-topped, Noguchi Table (left) went into production. It's still being made today. This was followed several years later by the Noguchi Divan (above). In more recent years, leading up to his death in 1988 (age, 84), Noguchi's architectural plazas featuring abstract sculpture, children's playgrounds flowing streams and fountains, which had so readily been rejected during the lean years of the 1930s, began popping up in major cities around the world such as Miami, Yokohama, Hiroshima, Costa Mesa, California, Atlanta, Jerusalem, Honolulu, Cleveland, Detroit (below), and wherever enlightened art lovers enjoyed relaxing in the warmth of the sun.

Hart Plaza, Detroit, Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi's sculptural redesign of the old children's favorite,
the sliding board. (Steps come up through the center.)

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