Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) appeared before the world as a two-form, shape-shifting paradox. One is hard put to say if he was an American sculptor of Japanese extraction, or a Japanese sculptor who happened to spend most of his life in the United States. The short answer, according to Hayden Herrera’s new biography, is that he was American—in fact, very American: Born Isamu Gilmour in Los Angeles, he had an American passport, spoke English as a first language, and often needed an interpreter in Japan.
But beyond that, there is a nebulous quality to the man and to his art. He was the son of a prominent Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi, and Leonie Gilmour, a bohemian writer from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Although he was named Isamu at birth and spent his earliest childhood in Japan, he used his mother’s maiden name well into his 20s. He was raised almost entirely by her, rather than by his generally absent and bigamous father, whom he treated more with patience than affection or respect.
But if Noguchi was inclined to feel mainly American, the racism he encountered early on challenged that impulse. Although he received favorable reviews from critics who were charmed by his exotic origins, other reviews, like those of Henry McBride, the prominent critic of the New York Sun, were gleeful and unapologetic acts of race-baiting: “Once an Oriental always an Oriental,” McBride said of an early exhibition. Regarding one of Noguchi’s most striking sculptures from a few years later, Death (1934), whose silvery form depicts a lynched black man, McBride wrote that it “may be like a photograph from which it was made, but as a work of art it is just a little Japanese mistake.”
The question of Noguchi’s cultural identity might seem irrelevant were it not for the fact that it was so integral to his art. Throughout his career, but especially in its latter half, Noguchi was deeply influenced by Japanese aesthetics and saw himself as a conduit through which those aesthetics entered the West. Modernism, of course, had been learning from Japan since the days of Manet, but those lessons were entirely graphic or decorative, rather than sculptural or architectural. It was Noguchi who almost single-handedly reintroduced Japanese visual aesthetics into the West in the postwar era, as much through his garden designs, stage sets for Martha Graham, and home furnishings like his Akari lamps as through his sculptures. Today, the ubiquity of Japanese aesthetics in American homes is such that we easily forget how radical and risky it all seemed when Noguchi pioneered it.
For much of his career, Noguchi’s art represented a fertile hybrid of Western and Japanese influences, sometimes appearing sequentially, sometimes coinciding in the same work. Few sculptors of his time, or of any other time, were quite as pluralistic in their approach to form, or in their rapturous receptivity to new ideas. It is nearly impossible to discern any clean and linear evolution in Noguchi’s career as we can in those of such important contemporaries as David Smith and Ibram Lassaw. But if there is one constant in his oeuvre, it is a general sense of perfect and total competence in completing any task to which he turned his hand.
For example, one of his most admirable successes is a plaster sculpture—later cast in bronze—that he made of the mermaid Undine when he was scarcely out of high school. This potently erotic work is kitsch, but what kitsch! It is masterful kitsch equal to anything from the École des Beaux-Arts in the Second Empire. The point is not that it is great sculpture, but that only an artist of exemplary technical and formal competence could have pulled it off. That one work is proof, if proof were needed, that Noguchi was a born sculptor.
And it is precisely this unerring visual tact and skill that appears at every period of his career—even if, in his latest works, it is so deeply buried that, to an uninitiated observer, the result may look like nothing more than a pile of rough-hewn stones. It appears in the early art-deco-inspired portrait busts he turned out simply to make a living, as well as in the striking News (1940), a clamorous evocation of the free press that still rises above the entrance of 50 Rockefeller Center, formerly the Associated Press Building. But this quality can also be seen in the Metropolitan Museum’s more orthodox-modernist Kouros (1944-45), a miracle of polished equilibrium that, together with a number of contemporary works in a related style, may well be Noguchi’s masterpiece.