Isamu Noguchi: defying stereotypes

A rare Rudder dining suite, 1949, in birch, zinc-plated steel, aluminum and rubber made $130,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – As a teenager, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was sent to Connecticut to apprentice with sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would later famously carve Mount Rushmore. It didn’t go well with Noguchi receiving little training and mostly serving as an assistant. By the end of the summer, Borglum claimed Noguchi possessed little talent and that the young man would never be a sculptor.

Noguchi then considered a medical career, but art classes on the side while a premed student at Columbia University. After two years of study, he dropped out of Columbia to pursue art full time and never looked back. Noguchi disproved his would-be mentor and became a talented sculptor and designer. He is well known for both his sculptures, public art installations, stage set collaborations with famed modern dance choreographer Martha Graham as well as his inventive furniture designs for the Herman Miller company.

This bronze sculpture, ‘Tetsubin,’ 1956, realized $51,659 + the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Hammer Auktionen AG. Photo courtesy of Hammer Auktionen AG and LiveAuctioneers

“Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, he created sculpture, furniture, and lighting designs, drawings, ceramics, architecture, landscape, and set designs,” according to Pace Gallery. Learning early on from Constantin Brancusi of the value of being present in the moment, Noguchi created pieces that demonstrated a connection between the sculptor and the material. His early sculptures evolved from portrait busts and straightforward geometric designs to elaborate biomorphic works that are in many public and private collections.

The artist’s ‘Composicion,’ 1947, wood dowels and wax, earned $36,000 + the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A beacon of the midcentury modern style and still in production today, Noguchi’s classic table for the Herman Miller company is made of two curved wooden pieces forming a tripod base under a glass top. Launched for production in 1944, the Noguchi table “conceals nothing, revealing everything about the nature of simplicity,” according to Design Within Reach, which has reissued the table in recent years based on the classic design. Noguchi’s collaboration with Herman Miller was a productive one, with several of Noguchi’s pieces emblematic of modern furniture.

The designer, born to a Japanese father and a Scottish-American mother, grew up in two worlds and this likely influenced his world view that a sculptor’s “task was to shape space, to give it order and meaning, and that art should ‘disappear,’ or be as one with its surroundings,” according to the Herman Miller website. Noguchi’s work was very far-ranging and he worked in a variety of materials, The artist eschewed working in just one style and once said, “To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school. I am always learning, always discovering.”

Noguchi designed the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, now known as the Noguchi Museum, in Long Island City, N.Y., which opened in 1985 to display examples of his life’s work and advance his legacy with art programs and exhibitions.

A rare and important Chess table, model IN-61, 1944, of ebonized ash plywood, painted cast aluminum, acrylic inlays, brass and steel, brought $190,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2016 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

In 2019, the museum announced the digital launch of the Isamu Noguchi Archive and an update of the artist’s digital catalogue raisonné, which now includes about 60,000 archival photographs, manuscripts and digitized drawings, along with a wealth of new material related to Noguchi’s life and work.

Dakin Hart, the museum’s senior curator noted that Noguchi’s main importance to the art world is not as a bridge between the so-called East and West but as an important figure in the obliteration of such irrelevant stereotyping. “As one of the first self-aware citizens of Spaceship Earth, he was among the first artists to focus his practice on the fact that East and West are meaningless concepts on a globe,” he said. “And he was not particularly interested in aesthetics. He spoke of looking beyond the false horizon of the museum pedestal. His most important artwork is probably Akari [a social sculpture initiated decades before Beuys], his electrified bamboo and paper lanterns, which he called the ‘true development of an old tradition,’ accomplished by ‘deflecting’ traditional technology.”

Outside of a handful of religious icons, Akari is probably the most ubiquitous sculpture on earth, Hart said. “That is his legacy: hugely expanding the envelope of sculpture to include all of the relationships between space, materials, and us that constitute civilization. In hopes of creating more connection: between cultures, between each of us and the earth, and in our consciousness of how we fit into a very large universe.”

A pair of Akari table lamps made in Japan by Ozeki & Co. Ltd., circa 1952, sold for $11,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2016 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Asked if Noguchi had a particular period that was the most notable, Hart noted that the artist worked nonstop for more than 60 years in eight decades and was contemporary in all of them. “He did not have a ‘most important period’ because he was always on the move. There are moments in which one aspect of his kaleidoscopic practice seemed to garner more attention, or when he was busier in one area than another, whether collaborating with Martha Graham, working on public projects, designing furniture, or making gallery sculpture,” he said. “But the truth is that he was always doing all of these things. What makes his efforts in these many fields so attractive is that he was implacably hostile to stereotyping and pigeonholing. He never acceded to accepted limits, and as a result, his work tends to feel expanding.”

An important and unique dining table, 1948-49, sold for $1.4 million + the buyer’s premium at Wright in June 2018. The table is composed of pink Georgia marble, carved oak and aluminum. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Everything Noguchi made was of the swing-for-the-fences nature, Hart explained. “He spent his life trying to express universal truths by hybridizing long-lasting, culturally specific tropes. The appeal of his work is that he so often succeeded. In stylistic terms, we call things that feel like they sit outside time and space and ‘work’ everywhere and anywhere, classic. It’s a terrible word, but the idea fits. Noguchi made things that would have, do, and will continue to ‘work’ on Earth throughout known and foreseeable human history.”

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