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Back to the Future


Isamu Noguchi was twenty-six in 1930 when he traveled to Japan, via China, in search of his father, but also more generally, in a word more commonly used then than now, of the Orient. He had just spent two years in Paris, as the assistant of Constantin Brancusi, and in New York, where he had held his first one-man show of abstract sculptures in stone and sheet metal. From the centers of modernism, then, to a troubled Asian nation about to expand its military power. It was not the best of times to go.

The mood in Tokyo was personified by Isamu’s father, Yone, whom he had not seen since he was a child. Noguchi Yonejiro (“Yone”) began his career as a modernist poet who knew Yeats and Pound, published in English, and had established a reputation in the United States as a Westernized exotic. He struck up a relationship in New York with Leonie Gilmour, his American assistant, but returned to Japan before the child they conceived was born. Like other Japanese modernists, who had turned to Western culture with the ferocity of converts, Yone turned back to his native land with the vengeance of a disillusioned student. His wartime poetry bore such titles as “Slaughter Them! The Americans and the English Are Our Enemies!”

So it was not surprising that Isamu’s announcement of a visit to Tokyo in 1930 was less than welcome. This strange half-American son who insisted on bearing the family name was an embarrassment to Yone. Isamu, however, was obsessed by the father who had abandoned his mother and himself twice, first in America and then in Japan. All his life he wished to reconnect with the land, not of his birth (which was in Los Angeles), but of his childhood, spent in Japan until 1918, after which he was banished to a high school in Indiana and renamed Sam Gilmour.

Still, Yone did the right thing, received his son, albeit without warmth, and introduced him to various artists in Tokyo, some of whom shared Yone’s nationalistic fervor. The most famous was Takamura Kotaro, a sculptor and poet who had lived in New York, London, and Paris in the first decade of this century. Takamura had not only been a devotee of European culture, intoxicated by Matisse and Rodin, but had written violent diatribes against his fellow Japanese: “Monkey-like, foxlike, squirrel-like, gudgeon-like, minnow-like, potsherd-like, gargoyle-faced Japanese!”1 But, like Yone, he changed his tune. When the war with America finally came in 1941, he wrote a poem (addressed to Chiang Kai-shek) which contained the lines: “My country, Japan, has now attacked America and England. America and England have been rejected by the Heaven and Earth of East Asia.”2

Confronted by the nationalist mood, Isamu did what he often did when faced with cultural conflicts: he turned to the ancient past, in this case, the temples and museums of Kyoto, where he found particular solace in Buddhist rock gardens and fifth-century Haniwa terra-cotta sculptures. The curiously modern simplicity of the gardens and the Haniwa terra cottas was to be an inspiration for the rest of his life.

Escaping to the past was a stratagem used by several Japanese artists, especially during the Pacific War, when everything to do with the contemporary world was subject to government propaganda. But something had gone badly wrong with many Japanese artists of Yone’s generation already before the war began. Their initial enthusiasm for European modernism, fueled by a furious rejection of the Japanese past, had led them into a cul-de-sac, from which only an equally violent rejection of the West seemed to offer a way out. In an essay entitled “Japan and America,” published in Tokyo in 1921, Yone put his finger on the problem: “The Western civilization, generally speaking, intoxicated our Japanese mind like strong drink; and as a matter of course we often found ourselves, when we awoke from that intoxication, sadder and inclined even to despise ourselves.”3 Yone and many of his contemporary writers and artists never found firm ground between an extreme, if often half-baked, version of Western modernism and aggressive nativism. This problem still exists in Asia, though perhaps more in China these days than in Japan.

Isamu Noguchi’s achievement, in a lifetime of wandering from West to East and back again, was to find that firm ground, which was fresh yet never cut off from the continuity of Japanese and Western traditions. This made him an inspiring figure to many young Japanese artists after the war. In the words of Teshigahara Hiroshi, the filmmaker: “It was bleak after the war. Then came Isamu, half-Japanese, half-foreign—everything changed.”4 How did he do it? Why did he succeed where his father’s generation had so often failed?

The easiest explanation is that Noguchi had the benefits of belonging to both East and West. A childhood in Japan, followed by an education in the US and Paris, had equipped him with the sensibilities of both worlds. He could be, in his art and life, American and Japanese, without feeling threatened or confused by a sense of conflict. But this explanation, although not necessarily wrong, is perhaps too easy. Different cultural identities do not always blend harmoniously. Noguchi often felt rejected both in Japan and in America. In a catalog essay for an American artist named Li-Lan, whose father was Chinese, he wrote that “Li-Lan belongs in the same way as I do to that increasing number of not exactly belonging people. I understand her sense of isolation.”5

Since he didn’t exactly belong anywhere, Noguchi was always searching for cultural inspiration everywhere: in memories of a Japanese childhood, in the New York avant-garde, in the cosmic theories of Buckminster Fuller, in Martha Graham’s dance presentations, for which he designed sets, in Parisian bohemia, in Italy, Israel, Mexico, Greece, Cambodia, China, and so on. This extreme eclecticism can easily lead to airy abstraction. There is one thing to be said, however, for a hybrid background: unlike the early Japanese modernists, Noguchi did not feel the need to choose between extremes. Not being Japanese, he was not paralyzed by the thought that Japan represented only the past, and that to be modern one had to mimic some idea of the West.

This is not to say that Noguchi didn’t create a peculiar kind of nativism himself. He would sometimes escape from the present by indulging in fantasies of Japanese tradition. After marrying, in 1950, the Japanese movie star Yamaguchi Yoshiko (herself a hybrid figure who was born in Manchuria and acted as a pseudo-Chinese star in Japanese wartime propaganda films), he lived for a time in an old farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies and temples. The wedding ceremony, shown on national television, was an exhibitionistic pastiche of Japanese tradition. And life at the farmhouse, where Noguchi and his wife, rather against her will, always dressed in kimono, bore little relation to contemporary Japan. He even insisted that Yoshiko wear straw peasant sandals, which caused her feet to bleed.

Some Japanese critics took a stern view of such antics and the art Noguchi produced: the famous paper lanterns, the stone gardens, the Haniwa-inspired sculptures. They called it “Japonaiserie made in America.” Perhaps they were right. But in the end Noguchi never deceived himself. He knew his “traditional” Japan was a fantasy, and that, as he once said, he could only live that fantasy life because he wasn’t Japanese. In any case, the sculptures and lanterns he produced in Japan were never mere imitations of past styles. They were modern reinventions of the past. The Japanese artisans who made his lanterns or constructed his gardens were often baffled by his innovations. Sano Touemon, the traditional Japanese gardener who came to Paris in 1957 to help build Noguchi’s stone garden at the UNESCO headquarters, had constant battles with the artist. Perhaps Sano never quite understood that the garden (in Noguchi’s words) “does not attempt to reproduce the old or the traditional, excepting in allusion and as a point of departure.”6 This, I think, is an accurate description of the influence of tradition on all Noguchi’s best work. The first point of departure, to which Noguchi kept returning, was his Japanese childhood.


Noguchi was two when he saw Japan for the first time. Yone had persuaded Leonie Gilmour to move to Japan with their son. Although Yone had already married a Japanese woman, he provided a place for his American “family” to live. He soon left them alone, however, and Leonie moved with Isamu to the pretty seaside town of Chigasaki, where she built a house. Isamu would remember the house as a half-Japanese, half-Western Arcadia, with a view of Mount Fuji. He helped to build the house, as an apprentice to the Japanese carpenter. There is a photograph of the house, with pine trees in front, and a happy-looking Isamu sitting on the veranda, dressed in shorts and a shirt, surrounded by older Japanese friends, all dressed in kimono. It is easy to understand why he felt cast out from the Garden of Eden ever since.

Noguchi once wrote a tribute to his early mentor, Brancusi, who had arrived in Paris from his native Romania

at that marvelous period of springtime discovery in the arts. He came to learn, a student of the academy, but he brought with him something more than learning: the memory of childhood, of things observed not taught, of closeness to the earth, of wet stones and grass, of stone buildings and wood churches, hand-hewn logs and tools, stone markers, walls, and gravestones. This is the inheritance he was able to call upon when the notion came to him that his art, sculpture, could not go forward to be born without first going back to beginnings.7

If one replaces the stone buildings and wood churches with stone gardens and wooden temples, this is a good description of Noguchi’s own inheritance. Noguchi loved turning history into myth. Memories of his childhood were no doubt arcadian. But Japan in the 1910s, especially in Chigasaki, was in fact a more traditional, hand-hewn, intact place than it would be after World War II. Noguchi said in an interview:

I was very fortunate to have spent my early childhood in Japan. I don’t mean to belittle other places, but one is much more aware of nature in Japan—not a vast panorama of nature but its details: an insect, a leaf, a flower. Nature is very close, a foot away. Then later I came to America at the age of thirteen, carrying a suitcase full of carpenter’s tools on my way to high school in Indiana—and so I got the feeling of America superimposed on the old Japanese. It was a view of nature which was quite different. Here nature is appreciated for its vastness, its sweep, the panorama of that open Indiana countryside….8

The idea of place, of different places in the world, was typically described in terms of nature. Noguchi’s search for origins was an attempt to understand the nature of places. For his work in sculpture, that meant understanding the material stuff of those places, that is, the nature of their earth, stones, and trees. Noguchi, the man who didn’t exactly belong anywhere, the cosmopolitan drifter who likened himself to a wandering Jew, the artist who worked on almost every continent, was obsessed with the essence of things, or what his biographer, Dore Ashton, called “the exquisite purity of origins.” This tells us more about the nature of his work than his rather theatrical attempts to live like a traditional Japanese by wearing kimono or designing paper lanterns. For the origins he sought were not “Japanese” or “American,” or anything that can be pinned down to a specific nationality; he was interested in something more primeval than that: the basic components of nature, or even, in his more high-flying moods, of the universe.

The paper lanterns were in any case as much part of his American as of his Japanese background. He had them made to his eccentric specifications by a manufacturer in Gifu. Isamu arrived there in 1951, installed himself in a tea-house with Yamaguchi Yoshiko, and immediately started designing modern versions of the traditional Gifu lanterns. On a recent visit to Gifu, I met a man named Hagino Yoshihiro who had helped Noguchi with various tasks at the time. He told me Noguchi had made an extraordinary impression. When I asked Mr. Hagino to elaborate, he said Noguchi had taught Japanese how to be “businesslike.” Noguchi, he said, wanted to get models made of his lantern designs as quickly as possible so he could patent them and sell them abroad. People in Gifu knew nothing about patents, and weren’t used to such haste. As a designer aware of his market, Mr. Hagino said, Noguchi was an American businessman, but as a sculptor, he had the sensibility of a Japanese.

What else had Noguchi taught the Japanese? His former assistant didn’t hesitate: “He taught us about love.” Apparently, Noguchi spent much of his free time making love to Yamaguchi Yoshiko in the teahouse. “He told me,” Mr. Hagino said, “that Yamaguchi was essential to him as an artist.” This romantic touch had struck the provincial artisans of Gifu as very foreign indeed.

But his love life aside, there is something quite Japanese about Noguchi’s desire to create functional, commercial “light sculptures” (his phrase). Noguchi was never content to be a pure artist, creating works for museum collections. His stone gardens were meant for walking in; his 1930s murals, in Mexico and New York, were supposed to foster a sense of political community; his stage sets for Martha Graham were exercises in drama; his bridge in Hiroshima was a memorial to history. Sculpture to him was more than the creation of objects; his interest was also in the space around those objects, and the uses to which objects could be put. He was an artisan, as well as an architectural sculptor. The lanterns and their commercial possibilities fit into a Japanese tradition, where the lines between artist and artisan are indistinct. Like the English potter Bernard Leach, Noguchi helped Japanese see the artistic value of their own artisanal tradition. At the same time, utility and craftsmanship (from William Morris to Bauhaus) were also vital aspects of European modernism. Noguchi had spotted the link.

This was not always appreciated in Japan, or in the United States. Japanese modernists found his Japonaiserie patronizing. They thought he was pandering to the “Fujiyama, cherry-blossom, geisha” image of Japan, which, for understandable reasons, they had come to resent. The idea of a modern artist designing paper lanterns was absurd to them. The modernists were not Noguchi’s only Japanese critics. In 1951 the architect Tange Kenzo asked him to build a memorial to the victims of Hiroshima. It was to be the centerpiece in Hiroshima Peace Park. Bruce Altshuler, an expert on Noguchi’s work, called it the “great opportunity of Noguchi’s career, and one of intense emotional resonance—as a returned Nisei seeking acceptance after abandonment by his Japanese father, as an American doing penance for his nation’s atomic attack, and as a utopian modernist aspiring to put art to work in society.”9

Noguchi designed a monument of great originality, combining, as in all his best work, the pared-down simplicity of modern art with that of archaic models, in this case Haniwa terra-cotta burial figures. A granite arch was rooted underground by two large pillars straddling a box containing names of the A-bomb victims. The design was turned down, ostensibly because, according to the committee in charge of the Peace Park, Japanese people could not pray to such an abstract monument, but in fact because Noguchi was an American. How could an American be allowed to build the sacred shrine of Hiroshima?

In America, Noguchi’s work sometimes ran into similarly misguided (and even vicious) resistance. In 1935, the art critic Henry McBride described Noguchi’s metal sculpture of a lynched black man as “just a little Japanese mistake.” And he criticized some of Noguchi’s public projects for American labor unions as “wily” attempts by a “semi-oriental” to exploit American sentiments. In 1959, Noguchi was commissioned to design a plaza for a bank in Texas. He decided he needed Japanese rocks and traveled to Mount Tsukuba to find the right granite boulders. Back in Texas local patriots launched an anti-Noguchi campaign in the press, calling for public institutions to “buy American.” The First National Bank in Fort Worth had to point out that Isamu Noguchi was in fact an American.

Despite these criticisms in Japan and the US, Noguchi had been well received by Japanese artists who sifted the ruins of postwar Japan for some fragment of the Japanese past that could still be of use. Many artists rejected anything to do with Japanese tradition and escaped, like many Germans, into a modernist world without history. Others, such as the architect Tange Kenzo, shared Noguchi’s interest in prehistoric artifacts, which had not been tainted by nationalist propaganda. But it was not until the 1960s that Noguchi established a deep rapport with a group of Japanese artists who understood precisely what he was getting at in his tireless effort to weld ancient origins to a modern sensibility. They had been children during the war, had gone through a militarist education, and were keen to be cosmopolitan without utterly rejecting their Japanese origins. They were receptive to Noguchi’s ideas, not because he liked to dress up in kimono, or revived Japanese crafts, but because he enabled them to see what was of universal value in Japanese aesthetics. This is the opposite of nativism.

Noguchi was part of a wider phenomenon: Japanese traditions were often imported back to Japan from the West, especially the United States. The composer Takemitsu Toru, born in 1930, the year Noguchi returned to Japan, rediscovered the value of Japanese music through the American composer John Cage: “I am very grateful to John Cage, because for me Japan was an order to be denied until John Cage opened my eyes to the beneficial heritage of Japan. He himself was influenced by Zen and Daisetsu Suzuki, and I had been influenced by, if anything, the West.” Noguchi had worked with Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham in the 1940s, and shared their enthusiasm for Zen, the role of accident in art, and minimalist drama.

Noguchi’s inspiring “Japaneseness” was not a matter of superficial resemblances to traditional styles; it was in the spirit of his work: artisanal, utilitarian, and always in search of simplicity, of the essential properties of his material. This spirit came from his attitude to nature. It is an attitude found in the work of many Japanese artists too. Takemitsu, a craftsmanlike composer who excelled at composing scores for Japanese movies, pointed out that Japanese music was based on texture and tone rather than melody. He said that Japanese music aims to capture “the resonance of all the world in the resonance of one note.” He also said: “Western music is plus space, ours minus.” This type of essentialism is not like the essentialism of cultural chauvinists, who seek to reduce everything to unique national (or racial) characteristics. On the contrary, it is a way of expressing the universal in the particular. That is precisely what attracted the young Noguchi to Buckminster Fuller’s cosmic theories too.

Noguchi liked to stress the element of accident in his work. This, too, is related to the spontaneity of Zen. He spent endless time looking for the right rock to work on, and once he began working it sometimes took him years to find the unique quality, or as he liked to put it, the “spirit” of that stone. This was not only a matter of hacking, sawing, or chiseling; he would meditate, waiting for what Henri Cartier-Bresson, another keen student of Zen, called “the decisive moment.” Noguchi once said that artists in periods of transition are especially attracted to the primitive and the search for basic principles. Picasso was an example. And so was the great sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who reinvented the art of the tea ceremony as a form of Zen-inspired minimalist theater. His artistic expression depended on the slenderest, most basic of means; it was a highly sophisticated way of being poor or pseudoprimitive. Noguchi, as Dore Ashton observed, was interested in Rikyu as a modern artist. Teshigahara Hiroshi, who is the head of a great flower-arranging school in Tokyo, as well as a movie director, called Noguchi the Rikyu of the twentieth century.

To see the links between Zen and modern art is now a commonplace. In fact, too much uninformed, half-baked Zen-babble has swept across the Western art world for us not to view it with a degree of suspicion. But Noguchi was far ahead of the pack. Not only was he quite well informed about Zen, but he came to it from a solid grounding in European modernism. The spontaneity and discipline of Zen fit his view of nature and the memories of his childhood, which, as he explained in 1953, came down to the same thing. Working in Japan was a rediscovery of the intimate nature of his childhood: “It is anybody’s childhood, I suppose, to know nature in this way. Yet to know nature again as an adult, to exhaust one’s hands in its earth…, one has to be a potter or a sculptor, and that also in Japan.”10

This rather odd statement (why only Japan?) certainly applied to himself. During the 1970s, while working on projects all over the world, Noguchi created one of his greatest masterpieces: his studio and garden in Mure, a village in Shikoku, the least developed island of Japan. He lived in a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse and worked in a huge old wooden godown. Sitting on the floor of his house, near the Inland Sea, he could see mountains, rocks, and bamboo forests. There he worked the stones and the earth of his remembered childhood. He had returned to the origins of his artistic creation. But not only his own origins. Origin is also the title of one of his most amazing pieces, displayed since his death in 1988 at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. It is a polished dome of black granite. The top is shiny like a dark mirror, the bottom has been eroded by thousands of chisel marks, creating the impression of churning sea water. It is a sculpture that conveys a landscape. But it is not a Japanese, or an American, or an Italian landscape. With a little imagination we can see in that exquisitely worked stone the landscape we all came from and will eventually return to.

  1. 1

    Translation by Donald Keene, in his Dawn to the West (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), p. 295.

  2. 2

    Keene, Dawn to the West, p. 306.

  3. 3

    Quoted in Dore Ashton, Noguchi: East and West (University of California Press, 1992), p. 97.

  4. 4

    Ashton, Noguchi, p. 237.

  5. 5

    Ashton, Noguchi, p. 252.

  6. 6

    Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler, editors, Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations (Abrams, 1994), p. 62.

  7. 7

    Apostolos-Cappadona and Altshuler, Isamu Noguchi, p. 114.

  8. 8

    Apostolos-Cappadona and Altshuler, Isamu Noguchi, p. 130.

  9. 9

    Bruce Altshuler, Noguchi (Abbeville Press, 1994), p. 47.

  10. 10

    Apostolos-Cappadona and Altshuler, Isamu Noguchi, p. 101.

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