Isamu Noguchi’s The Sky (1964) consists of a smooth disc of white marble poised atop a slender wooden plinth. Its finely worked form proposes a conceptual dialogue between sculpture and nature. The disc’s faces are asymmetrical, and dynamic with subtle curves and convexities; the oculus at its centre is wider on one face than the other. This aperture acts as a lens onto the work’s environment—even, potentially, onto the sky of the title—and thus introduces the changing negative space itself as a sculptural element. The sculpture’s shape echoes the ensō circle of Zen philosophy that variously symbolises enlightenment, the moon, the cycle of life, and the endless connectedness of existence. At the same time, its sleek, refined surface reflects the Modernist legacy of Constantin Brâncuși, in whose studio Noguchi had apprenticed as a young man. The Sky condenses these influences into a serene, resonant object. As is typical of Noguchi’s work, it evokes ceremony, ritual and the human body in space, with a fundamental openness to the wider world. It was previously owned by the pioneering American television and radio executive Robert Sarnoff, and later by his widow, the celebrated opera singer Anna Moffo Sarnoff.
If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between”
Noguchi, born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American mother and a Japanese father, was something of a nomad. He spent much of his childhood in Japan before moving back to the United States by himself at the age of thirteen. After high school he briefly worked for the sculptor Gutzon Borglum—famed for later creating the Mount Rushmore National Memorial—who told him he would never succeed as an artist. Noguchi took evening sculpture classes while enrolled at Columbia University, and soon dropped his medical degree to make a living as a sculptor of portrait busts. He was profoundly impressed by a New York show of Brâncuși’s work in 1926, and went to Paris the next year on a Guggenheim Fellowship. There he assisted Brâncuși in his studio, and also befriended Alexander Calder. He continued to travel extensively over the following years, meeting the architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller in New York in 1929, and studying calligraphy, ceramics and Zen rock gardens in China and Japan in 1930. This international plurality of ideas informed Noguchi’s sculpture, which began to take highly finished, enigmatic and often biomorphic abstract form.
Noguchi went on to achieve success in a wide array of disciplines, working on stage sets, portrait commissions, monumental public sculpture, playground projects and furniture alike. His glass-topped ‘Noguchi table’ and ‘Akari’ light sculptures, conceived in the 1940s and early 1950s and still in production today, are icons of modern design. Noguchi took a holistic view of his practice, believing that sculpture could be socially engaged and relevant to daily life. ‘As an artist,’ noted the critic Hilton Kramer on reviewing his first American retrospective in 1968, ‘he has not confined himself to enterprises that lend themselves to a gallery or museum presentation … Indeed, a case could be made for regarding all that is not included at the Whitney as Mr. Noguchi’s major work’ (H. Kramer, ‘Isamu Noguchi: A Selective Anthology’, New York Times, 21 April 1968, section 2, p. 29).
The whole world is made of stone. It is our fundament”
Amid this diverse output, sculpture in stone retained a central importance for Noguchi, who valued the material’s timeless, elemental power. He worked in granite, basalt, onyx, travertine and a variety of different marbles; by the mid-1960s—thanks to an introduction by Henry Moore—he had started using white marble from the fabled Henraux stoneworks in Carrara, Italy, thought to be the source used by Michelangelo himself. The Sky exemplifies Noguchi’s mastery of the medium. Reduced to an essential, focal stillness, its centring circle offers an organic expression of being in the world: it has no end and no beginning, but speaks of infinity. For the itinerant, boundary-crossing artist, sculpture was a space of both rootedness and transcendence. ‘To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time,’ Noguchi wrote, ‘I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).