Isamu Noguchi 1904 - 1988 was a sculptor, architect, poet, furniture and landscape designer.
Born to Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi and Irish - American writer Leonie Gilmour, Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, America; but was raised in both Japan and the US.
In 1906, at the age of two he moved with his parents to Japan. His earliest memories were of a quiet, isolated and formal home. his father distant and traditional, his mother sad and lonely. He talks of being on the back of a servant, through the garden, adn watching with sadness as the beautiful cherry blossoms drifting to the earth.
At an experimental kindergarten he was introduced to clay. He remembers that experience, recalling that he made a (sea) wave with a blue glaze.
By four or five years of age his mother had moved with him to the countryside - near the sea.
In 1912 his mother was about to send him away to a French Jesuit school, but instead decided to keep him with her while she undertook to design and build a house for them. Isamu recalls paying very close attention to every detail of that process. At ten, to give him some instruction in Japanese arts he was apprenticed to a carpenter and learned to use traditional carving tools.
In 1917, at 13, his mother, concerned about the treatment of half Japanese children in Japan decided to send him to school in the US. Traveling alone across oceans and lands, he was sent to the Interlaken School in LaPorte Indiana, fouded by Dr Rumely - a progressive educator who's school put tremendous almost 'sacred' importance on the arts and crafts movement with particular emphasis on such figures as: Blake, Emerson, Poe, Baudelaire.
In the school prospectus they purported: "to train boys in worthy and self- reliant character; to make them Sound and vigorous of body and soul, practical and skilful in work, able to think clearly and express themselves cogently; to develop in them truth, helpfulness, courage of will--in short to train the sons of the directing classes of our civilization to become fit leaders of men in this industrial Republic."
During this time his peers took to calling him Sam (short for Isamu) Gilmour, (his mother's maiden name, and the name that she took back after separating from his father); he got a paper route and aspired to be a doctor, like his mentor and friend Dr Rumely.
The contrast between Japan and the MidWest, culturally and topographically had a tremendous effect on his young psyche. The "American appreciation of nature for its vastness, sweep, and panoramic openness, was overlaid upon his old Japanese style appreciation of nature, which in its detailed awareness of an insect, a leaf, a flower was something very close, a foot away" (Michiko Yusa - The Rabbit's Soliliquy 2003). He took a great interest in 'Native American Mound Builders' - generating an abiding interest in "earth sculpting", here in Indiana he was no doubt to a greater or lesser extent exposed to the indigenous Indiana stone industry, Ohio River Valley clay industries, geode deposits, abundance of local timber resources, and the occasionally lustrous terra cotta artistry of building facades of many Midwestern buildings of the 1910s and'20s..
After graduating high school in 1922 Dr Rumely, continuing to take a fatherly interest in the boy, first arranged for him to spend a summer in Connecticut tutoring the son of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, later to become renowned for the monumental heads of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt he carved into the rock face of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The artist had agreed to give Noguchi training in sculpture in exchange for tutoring his son. But before the summer was over, Borglum, in one of art history's more stunning assessments, told Noguchi he would never be a sculptor.
By the end of the summer Dr Rumely had raised funds to send Isamu to premedical school at Columbia University. Studying art at night at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School on Tompkins Square in NY, he had his first art show - in terra cotta - three months later.
In 1927, at the age of 23 he won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris. While at the Academie de La Grand Chaumière he met sculptors Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti, and here that he worked in the studio of the great modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Learning from and being influenced by them all. From Brancusi he evolved his sense of form as a function of the pre dispositions of the materials itself, from Calder's work he developed an interest in floating, apparently skyward reaching forms.
In the early 1930's he traveled to Asia, visiting China and Japan to study oriental arts and crafts. In 1935 he designed the first of several stage sets for Martha Graham - establishing a deep and abiding collaborative relationship between them.
In 1937 "Jean Michel Frank, the French furniture impresario suggested that (he) do furniture for him, as Giacometti was doing". Although Isamu did not do this in 1939 he was commissioned by A Conger Goodyear, the president of the Museum of Modern Art in NY to design some furniture in rosewood and glass, and having done so he later went on to design furniture for Herman Miller 1940 and lighting for Knoll in the mid 1940s.
In 1942 during the second world war, America was imprisoning its Japanese American population in interment camps - and Noguchi experienced the aweful American prejudice against the Japanese. In an effort to raise people's consciousness around this issue he sought to organize a group of Japanese American Artists, but to no avail. He was interned in a camp in Arizona for some time where he learned, perhaps for the first time to think of himself as Japanese, and to build community within this culture. He tells of how he and some of the other people from the camp would sometimes go out into the desert to look for Iron wood roots to sculpt, and so we learn that in spite of the hardships that he experienced his talent and passion prevailed.
His early experience of prejudice against Japanese Americans in Japan and his later experiences of prejudice against American Japanese in America - would stand in stark contrast to the freedom and intimacy of the artistic communities of NY and Paris. And all of these experiences were to inform his personal philosophy, his poetry and of course his art.
Balancing between two cultures personally and stylistically, Noguchi constantly sought to combine the influences of the Japanese and the American aesthetic in his work and in his life. Repeatedly moving between the two countries throughout his life, his work genuinely synthesizes elements of both cultures.
He never formally joined any particular movement or group of artists, but at various points in his career he worked with, and for, some truly great names. He worked for Diego Rivera in New Mexico, and received a commission from George Gershwin while living in New York. He developed close collaborative relationships with choreographers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and George Ballenchine, and an abiding friendship with Buckminster Fuller.
Today he is perhaps best known for his many gardens and fountains in Paris, Jerusalem, and New York, and outdoor sculptures and environments in seventeen American cities. His legacy is at once tangible and spiritual, accessible and inspiring.
Modern Furniture Designers