“The whole world is made of stone. It is our fundament. When I tap it, I get an echo of that which we are.” Isamu Noguchi
The two granite stela—one standing tall, the other lying prone—that make up Isamu Noguchi’s Garden Elements encompass a number of themes that preoccupied the artist from the 1950s forward. The juxtaposition of the precisely carved shapes held within the triangular stone masses with its rough-hewn edges display a variety of textures that offset the subtle interplay of color within the granite itself. Understanding the inherent animism and aliveness of his chosen stone, the artist said that it was his purpose to define and make visible the intent of their being.
Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until he was thirteen and returned to the country often during his long life. Japan’s many gardens—whether contemplative and spiritual or abstract and idealized miniature worlds unto themselves—would inspire Noguchi throughout his career and drive many of his sculptures across the world. In fact, Noguchi’s work can be succinctly described as the synthesis of these two distinct aesthetic programs and the two identities, Noguchi integrated within himself: Eastern and Western. Noguchi stated his intention when building these spaces, complete with works like Garden Elements positioned throughout, when he said, “I quite clearly attempted to make a garden with no antecedents. That is to say the half having to do with the present—the other being rooted in rock and history. I wanted to make a sort of archeological record for the future of the discoveries of science through their symbols” (I. Noguchi, quoted in Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space, A. M. Torres, New York, 2000, p. 160).
Noguchi first approached stone as a medium at the age of 22, when he worked an assistant to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the artist’s Paris studio from 1927 to 1928. The Romanian modernist’s formal elegance would continue to be an influence throughout Noguchi’s career. In the early 1930s, Noguchi would travel to Beijing to study brush painting and to the Japanese cities Kyoto, Kobe, and Tokyo to study the country’s rock gardens. Ryoan-ji Te, one of most iconic and famous of all Japanese zen Buddhist gardens in Kyoto, features fifteen stones surrounded by smooth pebbles raked daily by the monks that tend this rock garden. Strategically placed inside an open air enclosure, only fourteen of the fifteen stones are viewable at once from any given vantage point, making the stone garden a visual paradox akin to a zen koan, or meditative riddle. It is believed that the person who can see all fifteen rocks within their field of vision at once has obtained enlightenment. The zen relationship between form and field would influence Noguchi’s philosophical approach to sculpture henceforth. In the artist’s own words, “The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence,” the artist once said. “All dimensions are but measures of it, as in relative perspective of our vision lay volume, line, point, giving shape, distance, proportion. Movement, light, and time itself are also qualities of space. Space is otherwise inconceivable. These are the essences of sculpture and as our concepts of them change, so must our sculpture change” (I. Noguchi, quoted in S. Hunter, Isamu Noguchi, New York, 1978, p. 85). Throughout the 1940s, Noguchi would continue to travel the world visiting contemplative public spaces such as churches and plazas, experiences that would be pivotal as the artists began transforming social spaces. His garden for the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, built in 1956 was based on his study of Japanese garden designs and he said of his garden for Chase Manhattan, with its stones set upon a granite surface, “It is my Ryoan-ji.” (Ibid., p. 155).
In 1958, the year Noguchi made Garden Elements, the artist returned to these early experience with the stone medium after the gallerist Eleanor Ward refused to show Noguchi’s aluminum sculptures in an exhibition at Stable Gallery. Noguchi, in the inspired spirit of genius, took the adversity as an opportunity to reengage with the materials of balsa-wood, marble and stone.
As the esteemed art historian Dore Ashton has written about Noguchi’s Garden Elements: “Man is at once the earth, Noguchi believed, and apart; at once like the accidental shapes, the rises and fallas in topography, and totally removed—a thinking animal endowing each phenomenal experience with a meaning beyond the senses. By playing the almost inert shapes on the floor, Noguchi forced his viewers to assume, as do the Japanese [aesthetic], that the floor is essential, the very ground of our living space and, therefore, of our being” (D. Asheton, Noguchi: East and West, New York, 1992, p. 162).