Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
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Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Old Erosion

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
Old Erosion
incised with the artist's initials 'i.n.' (left edge)
basalt with wooden base
basalt: 15 1/2 x 29 1/8 x 13 3/4 in. (38.7 x 74 x 34.9 cm.)
base: 34 x 16 x 16 in. (86.3 x 40.6 x 40.6 cm.)
Executed in 1971-1982.
Isamu Noguchi Foundation, New York
Pace Gallery, New York, 1983
Private collection, Illinois, 1983
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, 1987
Arnold Herstand & Company, New York, 1988
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988
Noguchi: New Sculptures, exh. cat., New York, Pace Gallery, 1983, p. 18 (illustrated).
Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, digital, ongoing, no. 714.01 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Created in the latter part of the artist’s career, Old Erosion is exemplary of Isamu Noguchi’s fascination with natural processes. Bringing sublime forces onto a more personal level, he successfully juxtaposes raw material with adept workmanship. Carved from a singular stone, the sculpture neatly pairs the volcanic grain of the rock with Noguchi’s organic forms. By melding traditional Japanese aesthetic with a Modernist attention to materiality, works like Old Erosion encapsulate the artist’s keen eye for structure and compositional harmony.

The saddle-shaped basalt is a striking juxtaposition of natural texture and precise polish. Its dark surface is speckled here and there with bits of red, which serve as a reminder of its earthly origins. Incised into the central portion, a sweeping line delineates the artist’s mark from that of nature. Burnished to the point of mirrorlike refinement, the worked section contrasts sharply to the dappled gray of the textured exterior. An intentional misnomer, the title Old Erosion refers not to the work itself, but a grander scale of environmental effects that Noguchi hoped to elicit. By capturing both the raw break of the natural stone and the end result of continuous friction in one contiguous object, the artist brings together the two extremes of a stony spectrum.

With more than a passing resemblance to the dark surfaces of Ancient Egyptian statuary, their worked visages to pursue nonobjective compositions. worn smooth with time, Noguchi’s sculpture elicits a feeling of passing millennia full of countless caresses of the cold stone. Unmistakably human in the dark sheen of its polished surface, Old Erosion seems to be from some bygone era, perhaps a fragment of something larger, or a ritual object that has been used by generations. In reality, this illusion of distant time has been fabricated by the artist himself in order to create an aura of things past. Noguchi commented on this connection to time within his materials when he said, “I love the use of stone, because it is the most...meaning-impregnated material. The whole world is made of stone... Stone is the direct link to the heart of matter—a molecular link. When I tap it, I get an echo of that which we are. Then, the whole universe has resonance” (I. Noguchi quoted in V. Fletcher, Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004, p. 141). By working in a material that has such a temporal quality, the artist was able to facilitate a larger conversation about how we perceive the world around us and the ways in which it constantly changes or stays the same.

One would, however, be remiss to look at Noguchi’s works as mere objects. Instead, they are a treatise on how matter exists in space. By bringing attention to certain aspects of our very physical existence, Noguchi hoped to hit upon a larger idea, saying: “The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence. All dimensions are but measures of it, as in relative perspective of our vision lie volume, line, point, giving shape, distance, proportion. Movement, light, and time itself are also qualities of space. Space is otherwise inconceivable. These are the essence of sculpture and as our concepts of them change, so must our sculpture change” (I. Noguchi, quoted in S. Hunter, Isamu Noguchi, London, 1979, p. 85). Without sculpture, he suggests, we could not fully understand the interplay of empty space with our material realm. By creating works that both accentuate and are made whole by their surroundings, the artist sets up a conversation about presence and physicality.

Noguchi turned to abstraction in the 1920s while studying under Constantin Brâncu?i in Paris. One of the founders of Modernist sculpture, the Romanian artist encouraged Noguchi to explore more simple forms and to pursue nonobjective compositions. Combined with his affinity for material experimentation, Noguchi was able to translate these teachings into a vast body of work that pushed the bounds of both art and design. Known popularly for his groundbreaking furniture design for Herman Miller, Noguchi’s sculptural works nevertheless share some of the same principles as his mid-century constructions. All exist under the presiding notion that each object should resound with a sense of place. Not simply something to be arranged, used, or observed carelessly, Noguchi’s works exhibit a compositional harmony that invites their surroundings to follow suit.

Old Erosion is a case study in Noguchi’s thoughts on sculpture. He relished seemingly simple objects that could be discussed on a deeper level. By working with stone and bringing attention to its innate qualities, the artist created a space for reflection and inquiry. On the subject, Dore Ashton remarked: “Thinking in terms of stones altered Noguchi’s vision and his approach to sculpture. He was obliged to take into account their history as products of great spans of time and infinite number of hidden forces” (D. Ashton, Noguchi: East and West, New York, 1992, p. 163). By approaching stone not merely as a material to be cut, shaped, and fitted into a semblance of something else, Noguchi was able to more fully understand the material and its innate qualities. By showcasing the intricate grain of a dark chunk of basalt through carving and burnishing, the artist brings light to the churning mantle of the Earth and to the very foundations upon which our world is built.

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