Isamu Noguchi: The Sculptural Aesthete

The Sculptural Aesthete

Text by Natalie Rinn
February 13, 2017

Isamu Noguchi is a perfect example of an artist whose legacy should not be pigeonholed, yet usually is. To most, he is the creator of the iconic Noguchi Table. Its seamless design is still churned out today by furniture maker Herman Miller, and embodies Noguchi’s ideal of how art and the everyday should co-exist in the same things.

If it is not his table that first shouts Noguchi, it is likely his sculpture. In Paris, in his early 20s, Noguchi met the father of minimalist sculpture, Constantin Brancusi, and became his assistant for several months. From the Romanian artist, Noguchi learned stone working from a master; his own recognizably curved and minimal sculpture (which also made use of wood and sheet metal) soon emerged.

But much unlike the art he became known for, Noguchi’s life and artistic practice were anything but straightforward. He was born the illegitimate son of a Japanese poet father and an American mother, and struggled with questions of cultural identity throughout his life (his father would not allow him to use his family name in Japan). In America, an early mentor told Noguchi he would never be an artist; but when he tried his hand at medicine, he was told to reconsider art. Despite apprenticing under Brancusi, and studying with the Chinese brush paint master Qi Bashi, more hardships were in store—some standard, others worse. Several of Noguchi’s public artwork proposals were rejected; voluntarily (and then less so), he was interred in a Japanese work camp in Arizona; the FBI investigated him for espionage; he had romantic affairs with the likes of Frida Kahlo; and on and off, Noguchi turned to bust portraits of high society New Yorkers and Hollywood celebrities to make ends meet.

It was a long and winding road to acclaim (which eventually included public art commissions and fruitful collaborations in set design with choreographer Martha Graham), won through determination and ambition, rather than birthright--or even, initially, recognized talent. In 1985, Noguchi established the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City; there and around the world his elegant designs are a reminder that, in a messy world, that which is most simple is often the most beautiful—and those with the messiest lives, are often the ones to recognize and create it.