“On Becoming An Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922-1960” at the Noguchi Museum

Isamu Noguchi

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On Becoming An Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922–1960 is a remarkable exhibition, not least because it has been mounted in a manner thoroughly in keeping with the aesthetic of its primary focus: the American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–88). Noguchi’s vision—taciturn and considered, poised, hushed, and given to sharply stated poetics—has been put into play with uncanny precision by the independent curator Amy Wolf working in cooperation with the Noguchi Museum curator Bonnie Rychlak.

The show is a hodgepodge of sorts, comprised, as it is, of art, artifacts, maquettes, documents, letters, clippings, invitations, blueprints, photographs, curiosities, and other ephemera. True: Noguchi is a unifying factor—or, rather, it’s the artistic, personal, and professional touchstones of his formative years—but that didn’t guarantee an exhibition marked by discreet juxtapositions, meditative rhythms, and softly stated revelations. Then again, what else would you expect of an institution that is, in so many ways, an oasis, particularly given its location in one of New York City’s grittier precincts?

Noguchi remains a monumental, if congenitally aloof, fixture of twentieth century American art; it can be easy to take for granted his myriad accomplishments as sculptor, draftsman, furniture, lighting and set designer, theatrical collaborator, and, though many projects went unrealized, architect for playgrounds, swimming pools, and monuments. Artists, Noguchi felt, “should inject their knowledge of form and matter into the everyday, usable designs of industry and commerce.” An unshakeable belief in art’s utility—in its ability to encompass and transcend different cultures, social strata, environments, and media—fueled his ambition.

That Noguchi was able to traverse artistic barriers—between, say, the static nature of sculpture and the here-and-now cadences of a Martha Graham dance—without seeming to break a sweat speaks to the adaptability of his gifts. Surrealism was a decisive influence during Noguchi’s formative years, and the sculptures he contrived for specific Graham performances—the pseudo-pictographic Tent of Holofernes for Judith (1950), say, or the distilled contrapuntal rhythms of Rocking Chair for Appalachian Spring (1944–89)—expand upon biomorphic abstraction by instilling it with sinew and bone. But Noguchi had little truck with Surrealism’s woolier tendencies—outreach, not self-indulgence, was his thing. Even the unnerving bodily allusions of My Arizona (1943) are mitigated, if not altogether tamped down, by the classicism that forever powered Noguchi’s aesthetic.

A multi-racial background (Noguchi’s father was Japanese, his mother American) contributed to a certain flexibility of purview; a certain irony, too: “That’s why I felt at home being an artist,” he explained, “we were all pariahs to start with. And I, being a pariah, was among pariahs and was no longer a pariah.” But Noguchi also possessed an eye and an agenda (not too strong a word, I think, given his abiding populism) for the possibilities of art. This, after all, was a man who was an assistant to both Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore, and Constantin Brancusi, the modernist master of sleek, essentialized forms. What he took from Borglum was the notion of monumental purpose delivered through monumental means; from Brancusi, that distillation of form could reveal complexities, not excise them.

Noguchi had definite ideas about each mentor. Borglum, Noguchi noted in a 1973 interview, “didn’t . . . teach me anything at all.” From Brancusi, Noguchi gleaned “a method [of working] so entirely reasonable and free of tricks that I feel convinced that it must be much the same as practiced by the ancient Greeks.” The lesser known Onorio Ruotolo, dubbed the “Rodin of Little Italy” and the founder of the Leonardo DaVinci Art School located in Manhattan’s East Village, was more inclined to trickery, but Noguchi did learn from him “how to make things quickly.” Ruotolo’s involvement with progressive politics also made an impression on the socially minded young artist.

Such was the case as well with Stuart Davis (whom Noguchi met in Paris), Diego Rivera (who hired Noguchi to create a relief mural for a civic center in Mexico City), Buckminster Fuller (a fast, lifelong friend) and, er, Ginger Rogers (for whom Noguchi carved a marble portrait while volunteering as an art teacher in a Japanese internment camp). Included in On Becoming An Artist is Death (Lynched Figure) (1934), among Noguchi’s rare, overtly political pieces. (It was criticized at the time as “merely sensational and of extremely dubious value,” an opinion that still holds true.) Noguchi increasingly embraced an art that favored stoic universality over polemical specifics. This was a man whose vision and ego wouldn’t and, in the end, couldn’t allow ideology to constrain the imperatives of art.

Those imperatives led Noguchi to meet, befriend, and do business with an astonishing array of benefactors, dealers, artists, celebrities, and sundry movers-and-shakers. Not a few of the items on display testify to the eternal search for patronage—Noguchi’s application for a Guggenheim Fellowship is there to see, for instance—but most point to the way like-minds congregate, collaborate and, at times, bring focus to each other’s efforts. Noguchi’s contacts comprise a veritable who’s-who of twentieth-century culture. Start with the luminaries already mentioned, and then add Alexander Calder, Alfred Stieglitz, Merce Cunningham, Richard Neutra, Frida Kahlo, Julien Levy, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Louis Kahn, Marcel Breuer, Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine—well, you get the point.

Then there are the artworks, including a trio of sublime Brancusi marble pieces, Davis’s jaunty-bordering-on-frivolous Place Pasdeloup (1928), Noguchi’s heart-stopping terracotta portrait of Uncle Takagi (1931), and an invigorating, if decidedly clunky, tag-team drawing by Noguchi, Gorky, and De Hirsch Margulies done in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. If you can fault On Becoming An Artist for any one thing it’s that it could have been more fully elaborated upon—this is a show that calls out for additional explanatory wall-texts as a means of supplying context and continuity. But you can’t fault the organizers for the careful—indeed, tender—diligence with which they’ve organized this singular and most welcome exhibition.

Originally published in the March 2011 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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