Brett Littman explores Noguchi’s universal approach to sculpture and his legacy within and beyond the walls of the museum today.
Photography by Jae Kim
Isamu Noguchi, the great trailblazing sculptor of the 20th century, is difficult to define. He spent his eclectic lifetime working in both the U.S. and Japan as an accomplished sculptor, prolific industrial designer, landscape architect, and set designer, transgressing traditional boundaries of fine art. Though his oeuvre has been studied and analyzed extensively over the past 50 years, there are still so many unexplored interpretations of his practice and much about him that remains unknown. He is an endlessly fascinating figure.
Even now, decades after his death, his art is beloved by many. The Noguchi Museum, which the artist himself constructed to house his own work in New York, has invited viewers to experience Noguchi’s holistic vision up close. We sat down with Brett Littman, the director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, who gave us a glimpse into the enigmatic mind of Isamu Noguchi.
Early life and background
PLUS: To start off, let’s discuss Noguchi’s early life. From what I understand, he had a very unusual upbringing.
BRETT LITTMAN: Noguchi was born the illegitimate son of Leonie Gilmour and Yone Noguchi in 1904, California. He grew up in a farm commune in Pasadena until he was three, and his mother was a critic, writer, and editor of poetry. She was someone who bucked tradition by not only being a single mother but also by deciding to bring her young son to Japan by herself. It was a pretty radical thing to do since she did not speak Japanese. She arrived in a country that was, to be frank, highly misogynistic and still tradition-bound, and she managed to carve out an existence there for about seventeen years.
From a young age, she pushed Noguchi to become an artist. That was her dream for him. She apprenticed him to a Japanese carpenter at the age of ten so he could help build their house. He spent a lot of time learning how to carve wood from that Japanese carpenter. When it came to things like that, he was a bit of a child prodigy.
P: Do you think he felt a sense of cultural belonging growing up in Japan?
BL: Noguchi had both a beautiful and fraught relationship with Japan. During that time, he was not really embraced by young Japanese kids because his features were not purely Japanese. He looked Eurasian. I don’t think he ever felt a sense of belonging. Growing up there did have an impact on him artistically and philosophically later on, but I think that influence was a push and pull for him for a long time.
Noguchi Museum- Then, Now, and the Future
P: Let’s talk about the Noguchi Museum. It’s been over thirty years since Noguchi created this space to showcase his work. How has the museum changed over the past few decades? What is the museum’s vision for the future?
BL: Noguchi moved to Long Island City in 1961 and his studio stood across the street from an old photographic retouching factory, which is currently our museum. In 1974, he bought it and did some basic renovation, and began using it both as a showroom and office. I would say that at that point, Noguchi was a pretty good self-archivist, and he had a good and healthy ego, a sense of his own importance in the 20th century. Noguchi was probably already thinking about making a museum, a space that he could control.
Through the 80s and 90s, as the museum was getting up and running, Noguchi became more established as an important figure. The space itself was always described as an oasis, but you did have to make an appointment to come back then. It was a little bit of a pilgrimage site. Even though it’s not that far away from New York, Astoria felt like it was another country for most New Yorkers.
Over time, the museum has opened up to its community in Queens and has begun to think more expansively about Noguchi’s legacy. We now view Noguchi as more deeply embedded in his own life and values, and we try to think about how these values can be relevant in today’s society beyond just the appreciation of his aesthetic achievements. Today, he’s a 20th-century master and there’s not much disputing it. But what is interesting is in my 25 years of working in the field, I have met many people that admire Noguchi and love the museum, but very few young artists have told me they were influenced by Noguchi.
Our goal at the museum is to bring Noguchi back into many different dialogs. Those dialogs could be in the context of fashion, design, urban planning, and architecture, or in the context of racial identity. Noguchi is someone who experienced anti-Asian racism in his life. He experienced discrimination and experienced confusion about his own identity.
So, I would say the shift in the museum now is that we want to follow Noguchi’s lead in his expansive thinking. We want to look outward, beyond the four walls of the museum, and attract the local community and commission artists, dancers, philosophers, urban planners, and gardeners to come and to think about Noguchi with us so that we can expand his legacy further.
P: As director of the museum, what do you think visitors should keep in mind when encountering Noguchi’s work in the museum for the first time?
BL: I would say that a visitor who really wants to experience the museum to the fullest should pay attention to all details. Noguchi was interested in a holistic approach to sculpture, which is beyond material and form. It’s, ‘If I put that sculpture in a room, how does it change the room? And if I walk around it, what do I see around that sculpture and how does that sculpture frame everything else?’ The museum in itself was a work of art for him, probably the most important work that he made.
When you walk into the lobby, you’ll notice that it’s a very small space with a low ceiling. You then go into outdoor gardens, with slits that have open-air views of the sky. There are trees that are planted in very specific places. My suggestion might be to walk through the garden itself, to sit, to breathe, to listen to the birds, to understand what time of year you’re in, how the trees are growing or not growing, and then to take in the sculptures from many different vantage points.
The whole experience is like walking through a Japanese garden. You should pay attention to everything: the different ways in which light affects the gallery spaces, how Noguchi left the walls raw or where things are built out further, the kinds of vistas from the window looking outward. Some windows are opaque, some you can see through.
In your first visit, try to be very open, almost meditative. Just try and take it all in. For Noguchi, it’s important to have the experience first and then learn later. That would be, I believe, the way that he would want people to see the museum.
Read the full interview in Issue 3.