Today we pay homage to one of the most influential artists to come out of Modernism, Isamu Noguchi.
A very well known and loved name, the Japanese-American artist’s career spanned 6 decades from 1920 onwards. His was a lifetime of artistic study and experimentation that spanned many disciplines, drawing influence from the multitude of countries that he visited as an internationalist. From Japan he studied earthy ceramics and serene gardens, in Mexico he learned the impact of large scale public works, he picked up ink-brush techniques from China, and discovered the purity of marble in Italy. However, most notably, it was in Paris that he apprenticed under Brancusi who was, at that time, an early influence for him in sculpture. Despite their language limitation, his apprenticeship lasted 7 months in 1927, teaching him many techniques but most importantly “the importance of the present moment”.
His background and history are fascinating should you be interested to give it some research. Every facet of the event of his life, every city he travelled, the company he kept (or sought) all contributed to his voracious life work as an artist. To begin with, he spent his childhood partly in the States (where he was born illegitimately to Yone Noguchi, an acclaimed poet), before roaming nomadically through Japan with his single mother, Leonie Gilmour (also a writer). When she had another child (to an unknown father), Noguchi’s half sister, she settled in Chigasaki to build a house for her family of three. At 8 years of age, Noguchi oversaw the design and build. Conscious to nurture the artistic sentiments that presented in her children, Leonie had Isamu care for their family garden and take an apprenticeship with a local gardener. She would remain an artistic influence for her son for the rest of her life. Isamu’s sister went on to pioneer the American Modern Dance movement.
When Isamu turned 16 he moved back to the U.S to finish high school. He took an apprenticeship upon completion of his schooling with Gutzon Borglum who famously worked on the Mount Rushmore National Memorium. Not long into this internship he was informed that he would never become a sculptor which prompted him to take his high school mentor’s initial advice and study pre-medicine at Columbia. There his mother encouraged him to take night classes in sculpture at the Leonardo Da Vinci art school. The school’s head immediately recognised his talent, within 3 months he was given his first exhibit and soon after dropped out of medicine altogether to pursue sculptor full time. This was followed by extensive periods of travelling from city to city, meeting with fellow artists who all contributed to his inquests around materials and the human form. His body of work explored and utilised a wide range of materials including stainless steel, marble, cast iron, wood, bronze, aluminium, basalt, granite and paper.
Eventually he formed a relationship with Herman Miller which saw him produce a number of furniture designs that would go on to be iconic symbols of the modernist movement. These included the famed Noguchi coffee table – all still in production. He also formed a relationship with Knoll for whom he continued to develop lamps and furniture including the Akari lamp series formed from Japanese paper. His first celebrated public work in the United States was a large scale sculpture that signified the freedom of the press for the associated press building in the Rockefeller centre, NYC. He pursued landscape architecture jobs, inspired by the zen gardens he’d observed in Japan, intending to incorporate them with sculpture. Between 1960-1966 he worked on a playground design with legendary architect Louis Kahn. In 1985 he opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York which remains today.
As a designer, Isamu Noguchi’s biggest influence for me is his ability captivate and arrest interest through such subtle brilliance – simple materials arranged beautifully. His work pulls from tradition to create modern shapes and interpretations of form. My favourite of his works by far are his lamps and light sculptures. I also love his mesmerising sculptures for all their quirky, playful and wide-ranging form. Would love to visit the sites that carry large bodies of his work across the States and Japan!