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In Minds Of: Isamu Noguchi

Brett Littman explores Noguchi’s universal approach to sculpture


Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, c.1980. The Noguchi Museum Archives (04017). Photo by Michio Noguchi. ©INFGM / ARS

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.

Interior of Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Photo by Jae Kim for Plus Magazine.

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.


P: But he ended up moving back to America, right?

BL: Yes–when he was thirteen, his mother sent him back to the United States to go to a school called Interlocken in Indiana. And as you can imagine, already in 1916 with the outbreak of World War I, there was a rising anti-American sentiment in Japan. And I think she felt that he would be better off if he went back to the United States. She encouraged him to become an American. Noguchi wrote that before he got on the boat to go to the United States by himself, a place he’d never been before, he had to go through some kind of ceremony with an American counselor where he had to renounce his Japanese heritage. So, Noguchi surely was quite thrust into some pretty interesting situations as a young man. 


P: What were his early experiences studying art in America like? 

BL: Well, one of his first art apprenticeships in America was terrible. It was with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who did Mount Rushmore. He surely did not like Noguchi just because of his Asian heritage and told Noguchi that he would never be a sculptor.


P: Noguchi changed his last name from Gilmour (his mother’s surname) to Noguchi (his father’s surname) at around that time. Why do you think he did that?

BL: Well, when he was around 19, he was beginning to start his career as an artist and was conscious that he viewed himself as an American. In his writings, he mentions that by that point, he was fully American and had no trace of Japanese in his thinking and in the way that he approached the world. But I think that it was important for him to change his name because it grounded him. Obviously, his first name is Isamu, and that’s not a typical Western name. But I think Isamu Noguchi, in a way, brought his identity together in concrete form. It was a way of saying that if he was going to present himself as an artist, this maybe was the most truthful way for him to do it. 


Plus: Do you think he felt a sense of belonging in America?

BL: Noguchi surely was someone who absorbed a tremendous amount of cross-cultural information as a young child. He had that struggle between being a hybrid child of American and Japanese descent, maybe never quite understanding if he belonged anywhere. He is considered an American artist. Even though he is Japanese American, he was born in America, not in Japan. But he experienced racism and discrimination in his time in America. So, I think part of the fulcrum that Noguchi is on his whole life is the inability to find a home, which is why he became such a global traveler at such an early age. He left America already at the age of 22 when he got a Guggenheim Fellowship. At that point, he started circumnavigating the globe. He was quite nomadic. He became what I would call probably the first global artist, someone who really traveled a lot and absorbed a lot from many different cultures. He was very interested in the universality of what art could do.

Isamu Noguchi with model of Skyviewing Sculpture, 1969. The Noguchi Museum Archives (03993). Photo: Michio Noguchi. ©INFGM / ARS

P: As you’ve mentioned already, his mom played a pivotal role in him becoming an artist. Why do you think she wanted him to be an artist so badly? Where else might her influence be seen in his work?

BL: Well, she was constantly reading him books: Greek mythology, Roman mythology, everything under the sun. Mythology in particular was very important to Noguchi, and a lot of his sculptures are named after fairly esoteric literary references. 

 His mother lived in an artistic, bohemian world. As a kind of protofeminist, she wanted Noguchi to explore the arts because I think she viewed that as a fuller life. At least, that’s the life that she led. It was partly her dream, but it was something that Noguchi probably felt as well. He was always drawn to making things, so it was not a big leap for him.  


P: Another often noted influence is the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whom he studied under. How do you think Brancusi shaped Noguchi’s artistic vision and style?

BL: Well, Noguchi tries to become Brancusi’s student in Paris after he gets his Guggenheim grant in 1926. You do have to understand that Brancusi was a man of few words and didn’t like having other people around very much. In his writings, Noguchi describes the experience as very quiet. There was not a lot of discussion going on between the two. Noguchi did some work on some marble sculptures, and also planned stones but his major job was to move Brancusi out of his old studio that collapsed to the one on Impasse Ronsin.  

I think the lesson that Noguchi leaves with is the unity of making, thinking, and doing. In Brancusi’s methodology, you couldn’t make a sculpture if your mind was elsewhere. He wanted to bring the hand back into the process of making a sculpture. So, the idea of carving and chiseling, and polishing the material with his hands was incredibly important for Noguchi to learn. And I think it changed Noguchi’s thinking because, before that, he was mostly working figuratively, and this experience gave him possible alternatives to this way of thinking. 

Brancusi was definitely an important figure in Noguchi’s life. Noguchi does come back after the experience and make some sculptures like Pregnant Bird, which look very much like Brancusi’s work. But it was probably the architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller who had a more profound influence on Noguchi as a mentor and friend. They were friends for many, many years. And I would say that it’s probably Fuller’s influence that is more fully realized in Noguchi’s thinking than even Brancusi.


P: What do people who knew Noguchi personally say about his personality? 

BL: Well, of the people who knew Noguchi firsthand, I met Shoji Sadao (an architect who worked very closely with Noguchi), Masatoshi Izumi-san, who was his right-hand stone carver from about 1966 to the day that he died, and some board members at the museum who had personal connections to Noguchi. I think Noguchi was a complex man. On one side, he was: incredibly generous, erudite, friendly, and incredibly charming. On the other side, he was a stickler for excellence, perfection and didn’t suffer fools gladly. But in general, the through-line is that he was thoughtful and incredibly ambitious and had a good sense of self from a very early age. Those are things that people have mentioned to me a couple of times about his personality.

Interior of Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Photo by Jae Kim for Plus Magazine.

P: Noguchi is unique in that he operates at the inflection point of art and design, making both abstract sculptures and mass-produced goods. How do you think his work designing commercial products played into his broader artistic philosophy? 

BL: Well, the overarching theme for Noguchi is everything is sculpture, whether it was a table, lamp, a sculpture itself, or a garden. He viewed all space as something in which sculpture can exist. He didn’t care about the artificial divisions between what design was and what architecture was and what fine art was. He was happily and fearlessly able to cross boundaries on any level. Sometimes, though, this was to the detriment of his career, because many people only know Noguchi as an industrial designer, not as an artist, and others only know him for his public sculpture, not his design. So, he ended up kind of separating himself, even though it was all whole in his own mind. 

In terms of mass-produced objects, he was involved in a lot of different projects starting in the 1930s: he designed a little clock for boiling eggs in 1932 and the first-ever two-way baby radio in 1937. But I would say that Noguchi’s theory about mass production was twofold. One, he wanted to democratize sculpture. He wanted to make things that people could afford and put in their homes. Two, he embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of ‘I want to make money. I want to be able to have objects that can support the crazy far-out projects that I want to do without having to compromise.’ So, in this sense, Noguchi was incredibly entrepreneurial; one of the most entrepreneurial artists of the 20th century. 


P: One of his most popular mass-produced designs is the Akari light sculpture. How did this project fit into Noguchi’s theory about mass production?

BL: The history of Akari is very interesting because it’s closely tied to Japan’s socio-economic situation in the aftermath of World War II. At the time, many industries were destroyed. There was a great need to revitalize not only mass production but also handicraft. Gifu, which is a town that makes traditional lights, had really been decimated by the war and by a growing market for knockoffs in the West. They were famous for their paper lanterns and the Kormann fishermen who used the lanterns at the front of their boats to catch Aji fish.

The mayor of Gifu knew Noguchi and invited him to design a new, modernized lamp to help reinvigorate the industry. Up until that point, all the lamps had been candle-powered but Noguchi decided that he could electrify the lamps. With the Ozekis, the family that still makes the Akari lights today, he set out to design a series of paper lanterns using the traditional Japanese structure of bamboo and washi paper. That worked very well. He loved the project. Through it, he found an opportunity to reconnect to Japan by using a traditional Japanese concept and making it postmodern.

And every year that he went back to Japan from 1954 until his death in 1988, he continued to add new designs to the Akari series. Akari was sold through Noguchi’s studio, in department stores around the world, and in Japan. He hoped it would be a money generator for him but it was never quite as successful as I think he had hoped it would be. Akari’s did, however, become one of the classics of design quite quickly. 


P: Noguchi was also interested in designing playgrounds. Where do you think this interest stems from? 

BL: Noguchi was always interested in the idea of sculpture having public use and the freedom of playfulness and childhood thinking. His fascination with playgrounds was rooted in the idea that play freed up the mind and created good conditions for creative thinking. Noguchi was always looking at the idea of play as a kind of touchstone for his aesthetic philosophy. I think part of it was also that Noguchi liked the idea of being able to subvert expectations– there weren’t very many artists making playgrounds at the time.  So it’s also a physical manifestation of his whole approach to aesthetics and to the world, which is that we should make what we want, not what’s expected of us. 

He viewed all space as something in which sculpture can exist. He didn’t care about the artificial divisions between what design was and what architecture was and what fine art was. He was happily and fearlessly able to cross boundaries on any level.” – Brett Littman

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: What do you find is most often left out when people talk or write about Noguchi?

BL: The problem in many of the books written about him is that they project a lot of things onto Noguchi and pigeonhole him into a lot of different categories. 

Towards the end of his life, Noguchi embraced sensei culture and Zen culture a bit more. He began speaking very profoundly. He was a bit cryptic in his speech and a bit cosmic in the way he explained things. This profundity was surely the result of many years of thinking. But I think a problem with a lot of Noguchi scholars is that they prioritized that ‘Zen stone sculptor’ interpretation of his work, and lost track of the kaleidoscopic nature of his whole output, his tendency to move effortlessly between a lot of different disciplines, and the complicated nature of his hybrid identity.

A difficulty about Noguchi is that his work is pretty vast, so scholars who are unwilling or unable to pull those threads together present a heavily weighted, one-sided argument. Today at the museum, we want to highlight all of the various parts of his identity and oeuvre simultaneously. We would like to make an argument that it’s much more complex and bring in more diverse perspectives. I chatted recently with an artist interested in African-based architecture who is making playgrounds. She was inspired by Noguchi, but the ideas that she borrowed from Noguchi are quite fascinating and interesting within the context of her own cultural milieu. I am very appreciative of artists and people who are taking Noguchi’s ideas and placing them into new contexts, and testing them out to see how they operate.


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, and 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.

This story is from Issue Three.


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