Let’s talk about Noguchi — a conversation between Christie’s Michael Jefferson and Dakin Hart of The Noguchi Foundation
With the offer of 11 works by Noguchi at Christie’s in December 2020, our senior specialist in 20th-century design talks to the senior curator of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum about light, physics, Futurism… and flat-packability
Michael Jefferson: Light Sculpture (Lunar) is an abstraction, but one can interpret it as having anthropomorphic or zoomorphic attributes. Is it misguided to view parts of it as lobes, claws, forked appendages or even a red eye?
Dakin Hart: When it comes to swimming around in the vast tidal zone where figuration and abstraction intersect, nothing is misguided. Noguchi is good at providing enough specificity for ideas to attach to, but not so much that you can make one-to-one associations — solve the puzzle, as it were — and get bored.
Not only does a good Noguchi never resolve, it usually continues to expand its associations. His sculptures love to get out and meet new ideas.
MJ: The name ‘Lunar’ refers directly to the Moon. What is the significance of the Moon in Noguchi’s work in the 1940s?
DH: The term ‘Lunar’ is an inflection as much as a direct reference to the Moon. He’s talking about distance; indirect illumination provided by something beyond and outside us, but almost knowable and within reach.
In a similar way, the addition of moonlight to paintings of shipwrecks, ruins, lovers and scenes from history helped to create what became known as Romanticism.
MJ: Is there any relation between the contoured, Möbius-like surfaces of Light Sculpture (Lunar) and Noguchi’s thinking about folded space-time?
‘In the first half of the 20th century, modern physics performed much the same role for artists as art does for many of us now’ — Dakin Hart, senior curator, Noguchi Foundation
DH: Absolutely. In the first half of the 20th century, modern physics performed much the same role for artists as art does for many of us now. It was a densely textured source of wonderment.
With Noguchi, it’s worth remembering that this was the birth of the golden age of science fiction. The term he took from John Cage — ‘imaginary landscape’ — is well applied to the Lunars. This one is an especially explicit cosmic microcosm.
MJ: Noguchi’s light sculptures oscillate between reflected light (Lunars) and radiant light (Akari). The use of internal light was influenced by the lack of direct sunlight in urban areas to illuminate sculpture. Light is a significant aspect to his work at this time. Can you elaborate on that?
DH: The interest in light was not at all new for him. A schematic cross-sectional drawing of his Musical Weathervane, a kind of Apple-like moon-shot of a product for the American Midwest from the late 1920s/early 1930s, shows how the Edison bulb would have fitted into the main body of this crazy thing, which also featured gills intended to produce music when the wind blew through them.
At the same time, Noguchi was working on various schemes for his Monument to Ben Franklin. In one sketch, the monument is linked to massive searchlights.
A couple of years later, in the 1935 prospectus for a design business, Noguchi listed ‘lighting fixtures of metal and glass for direct and indirect lighting’ among the items the business was equipped to design, or to design and manufacture. ‘We also make illuminated weathervanes, emblems and sculptural displays,’ he wrote.
One of Noguchi’s defining characteristics as an artist — perhaps the most important — was understanding the entirety of American industry as an artistic/sculptural tool, industrial design as a way of approaching art, and technique as something to be found everywhere and used in any way, before pretty much anyone else.
MJ: The Lunars have a compositional relationship to Surrealism and Biomorphism, but it seems these works are completely novel and independent in the history of art. Would you agree?
DH: I don’t know about that. It isn’t that relevant for Noguchi. He’s always at best a sidebar, working the margins. That’s why he seems so central now, when the centre is finally getting what it has long had coming to it.
Noguchi’s focus was always on continuity. Being well worn hasn’t made the sun stodgy. It seems as startlingly necessary today as I imagine it did more than 100,000 years ago, when our species emerged. Control of fire was the first epochal technology, in the way that it fundamentally changed our relationship with nature, starting the march that has led us to where we are now, glued to our cell phones.
In 1949 an art historian pointed out: ‘The idea of using light as an integral part of sculptured work is an old one — as old as the carved amethysts and carnelians of the classical era’
The same thing goes for the lamp and candlelight, the first truly domesticated light sources. Despite the advent of electricity, they retain their power. In 1949 an art historian writing about the use of light in art pointed out that it wasn’t exactly new: ‘The idea of using light as an integral part of sculptured work is an old one — as old as the carved amethysts and carnelians of the classical era, the faces in semi-precious stone of Romanesque and Gothic reliquaries, or smaller sculptures of the High Renaissance which were hewn out of rock crystal.’
MJ: The shape of the coloured fins in Light Sculpture (Lunar) have a direct relationship to the ‘Rudder’ tables and stools that Noguchi developed at the same time. Is there any significance to this form for Noguchi in the mid-1940s?
DH: Mostly it’s about the dynamism of the shape. It’s the sculptural equivalent of all those swoops and parabolas in Futurist-inspired Italian posters from the 1930s and early aerospace logos. It’s the shape of progress, a vector meant to propel us into the future. For your breakfast nook. Or to hang on either side of the plastic credenza in your atomic-era aspirational dining room.
It’s also worth noting that he used it everywhere, without regard to function or discipline. His interlocking sculptures, furniture and sets are also full of swooping half-crescents and proto-Nike swooshes.
MJ: Can you elaborate on the significance of Noguchi’s time in the Poston relocation camp in Arizona as regards the spiritually charged work that emerges soon after, including the Lunars?
DH: Wandering around the desert — cold, hungry and disillusioned — is a pretty classic spirit-quest trope. Just think about how dark the nights were there, literally and figuratively. How bright the moon. It definitely led him to do a lot of astral projecting.
This is the period in which his spaces of the mind really took shape. A lot, if not most, of his post-Poston works are spacey-cosmic: the Earth is seen from above, or is explicitly set in the heavens.
MJ: Can you speak about the relationship between the origami-inspired works in cut and folded sheet metal, which date from the late 1950s, and Noguchi’s travels to Japan in that same decade?
DH: That’s a great question. The essence of Noguchi is trans-categorical, meta-material conceptualism. Noguchi called his sculptures ‘visible ideas’. He was almost always working the same idea simultaneously through multiple means. The Herman Miller coffee table, his interlocking sculptures, the folded metal sculptures, his Akari lanterns — and even, nominally, the slab-formed ceramics — are all ‘knock-down’, collapsible.
Flat-packability is part of Noguchi’s paradigm shift for sculpture, part of its movement into the modern age.
MJ: Can you elaborate on Noguchi’s ideas regarding editions, and his view that they are each unique, like any other sculpture, as they occupy a specific space?
DH: Noguchi used the term ‘multiple production’. He was never hung up on the specialness of his own touch. He was concerned with transmitting his ideas.
One of those was generating the kinds of objects and experiences that maintain their impact when widely shared. There are plenty of examples of this in most cultures. The oceans aren’t any less sublime because there are seven of them, and they touch all of the continents. The crucifix hasn't lost its punch because anyone can own one.
Part of the method of Noguchi’s madness was to break down the traditional sculptural categories, each with its own standards governing how many copies of any given thing, made under prescribed circumstances, might be considered authentic. All of these norms are market-driven. Translated into categories of production, they are in fact the antithesis of art.
MJ: Is it true that Noguchi conceived of his design works with the same rigour of form and material as he brought to his sculpture?
DH: That’s a really tough question to answer. Like anyone who lived a long time, Noguchi changed his mind, shifted focus and emphasis, and at times contradicted himself.
When asked to address this subject directly, he said just what you’re saying, that he approached everything he did with the same process. Which is fundamentally true. Because he loathed the prejudice that irrationally demeans table-making and equally irrationally sacralises art-making.
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He does make a bit of a distinction, saying, with his usual flair, that when it comes to designing, the act of creating a form may be disciplined by the fundamental nature of the object desired. That would seem to differentiate industrial design from sculpture. On the other hand, he repeatedly described his ideal version of sculpture as an everyday tool.
What I would say is that his concepts of art and design, usefulness and uselessness (both of which are valuable), like his notions of East and West, are continuous, intertwined, mutually encompassing and overlapping.
Maybe the simplest way to put it is that, details aside, the Venn diagram of Noguchi’s view of his own work had only one circle.