Collecting guide: Isamu Noguchi
An introduction to the multidisciplinary Japanese-American sculptor-designer, described by specialist Michael Jefferson as ‘an artist more for our times than he was his own’. Illustrated with some of the works coming to Christie’s in December
The sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was once chased from Frida Kahlo’s bed by her furious giant of a husband, Diego Rivera. He managed to scramble out of the window, up an orange tree, over the roof and onto the street — only for Rivera to pursue him with a gun.
Noguchi took plenty of risks as an artist, too. He integrated elements from Surrealism to Constructivism, and worked in materials from basalt to bronze. In fact, he had just as much success as a designer as he did as a sculptor, most famously with his Akari lanterns of the early 1950s — lamp shades made from bamboo ribbing and Japanese washi paper that have inspired countless imitations since.
Isamu Noguchi: landscape gardener, stage designer, sculptor and photographer
He was also a ceramicist, a photographer, a landscape gardener and a stage designer for the theatre, collaborating regularly with the Martha Graham Dance Company, as well as on an RSC production of King Lear in 1955, starring Sir John Gielgud.
‘He defies easy categorisation. He never differentiated between sculpture and design, seeing them as interconnected elements of his practice’ — specialist Michael Jefferson
On his death in 1988, Thomas Messer, the long-time director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, said: ‘Noguchi stood for perfection. His work… kept reiterating the underlying wisdom and the verities of life.’
Noguchi’s quest for perfection took visible form in public sculptures across the world, such as his gardens at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and his vast fountain for the Hart Plaza in Detroit.
Isamu Noguchi’s roots in Japan and America
Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi moved to Japan when he was two, returning to the US to finish his schooling 11 years later. He would spend most of his life shuttling back and forth between the two countries — albeit not when they were in conflict during the Second World War.
Though a US citizen by law, Noguchi voluntarily entered the Poston internment camp in Arizona in 1942 — in solidarity with fellow Japanese-Americans, who were imprisoned there as ‘enemy aliens’.
The question of his identity was one that nagged away at him constantly. In his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World, Noguchi asked: ‘With my double nationality and double upbringing, where was my home? Where were my affections? Where my identity? Japan or America, either, both — or the world?’
For many commentators, this sense of rootlessness explains his whole creative outlook. Noguchi’s lack of a place to call home was reflected in the way he never committed to a single style, material or medium — he was artistically homeless, too.
‘By and large, his work is scarce. Much of it went unsold at the time of its creation and is today owned by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum’ — Michael Jefferson
Noguchi’s travels: from China to Cambodia, Mexico to the Middle East
‘He defies easy categorisation,’ says Michael Jefferson, senior specialist in 20th-century Design at Christie’s. ‘He never differentiated between sculpture and design, for example — seeing them as thoroughly interconnected elements of his practice.
‘Noguchi was a multidisciplinary figure, connected to global ideas in a way we take for granted now but wasn’t common in the mid-20th century. You could say he’s an artist more for our times than he was his own.’
His travels took him beyond just Japan and the US — to Cambodia and Indonesia, the Middle East and Mexico (where he survived the wrath of Rivera); to Italy (where he acquainted himself with marble), Beijing (where he studied ink-wash painting under Qi Baishi) and Paris, where in 1927 he apprenticed for several months under the Modernist sculptor Brancusi.
Noguchi’s work spans figuration and abstraction
Broadly speaking, Noguchi’s career followed a path away from the figurative towards the abstract. He insisted, however, that ‘a purely cold abstraction doesn’t interest me… Art has to have some kind of humanly touching and memorable quality. It has to recall something that moves a person.’
There is plenty that’s memorable about the 11 Noguchi works coming to Christie’s this December: two in the 20th Century sale in New York on 2 December; one in the Design sale in Paris on 2 December; two in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale in New York on 3 December; and six in the Design sale in New York on 11 December.
From ‘Lunars’ to the ‘Rudder’ series
Standout works include 1945’s Man, above: a totemic, wooden sculpture made from smooth, interlocking slabs that ingeniously hold each other up without fasteners or glue. It belongs to a series of vertical articulations — in slate, granite, marble or wood — that also includes Noguchi’s Humpty Dumpty, now held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Offered, too, is Light Sculpture (Lunar) from circa 1943, one of Noguchi’s small but innovative set of internally lit works known as ‘Lunars’, which evoke the surface of the moon.
A coffee table, dining table and stool from his ‘Rudder’ series are also coming to auction. Each has a veneered wooden top resting on three legs: one leg is made of the same material and reminiscent of a ship’s rudder; the other two are made of chrome steel and reminiscent of hairpins. Light, airy and graceful, Rudder pieces were produced in limited numbers by the design firm Herman Miller in the late 1940s.
‘We’re particularly lucky to have so many Noguchis coming to auction at once,’ says Jefferson. ‘By and large, his work is scarce. Much of it went unsold at the time of its creation and is today owned by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, which was established by the artist shortly before his death.’
Noguchi and the Venice Biennale
There is a sense that, for most of his career, Noguchi never got the respect he deserved. He had to wait until his mid-sixties before his first retrospective, at the Whitney in 1968; and until his early-eighties before he was invited to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, in 1986. He almost turned that invitation down, so suspicious was he as to why it had come so suddenly, so late in his career.
The generally held view is that Noguchi’s heterogeneity, unpredictability and creative range meant he wasn’t easily appreciated. Certainly not when compared to peers with more consistently identifiable visual styles such as Henry Moore, Willem de Kooning and Alexander Calder.
In the years since his death, the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum has worked hard to make his output more accessible, staging exhibitions of his work alongside that of other artists — as well as taking on the task of publishing his catalogue raisonné online.
Noguchi’s market is gathering momentum
‘Noguchi’s market today reflects all that,’ says Jefferson. ‘By which I mean it’s definitely gaining steam but still underdeveloped. His most expensive work at auction, Olmec & Muse, fetched nearly $5 million at Christie’s in 2017. Given the calibre of the artist, this seems low. I’d say there’s plenty of room for growth.’
Perhaps Noguchi’s greatest achievement was finding a synthesis between apparent opposites: East and West; old and new; violence and peace; organic and geometric; figuration and abstraction. One might well add art and design to that list, too. It’s impossible to think of a single 20th-century figure who straddled the two worlds so completely.