ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)
ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)
ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)
2 More
ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)
5 More
ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)


ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988)
Rare Chess Table, Model No. IN-61, designed circa 1944
manufactured by Herman Miller Furniture Company, Zeeland, Michigan
ebonized plywood, cast aluminum, lucite
18 3/4 x 25 1/2 x 24 5/8 in. (47.7 x 63.5 x 62.6 cm)
Private Collection, Los Angeles
Los Angeles Modern Auction, 22 May 2016, lot 184
Private Collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner
N. Grove, D. Botnick, The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, 1924-1979, 1980, pl. 810
D. E. Ostergard, George Nakashima: Full Circle, exh. cat., American Craft Museum of the American Craft Council, New York, 1989, p. 134
B. Altshuler, Noguchi, New York, 1994, p. 52
P. Dunas et al., 100 Masterpieces from the Vitra Design Museum Collection, exh. cat., Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, 1996, pp. 148-149
T. Smith, Modern Design: The Fabulous 50s, Atglen, 2002, p. 83
A. Von Vegesack,et. al., Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design, Weil-am-Rhein, 2002, pp. 78-79, 126-127, 287
Sale room notice
Please note this Isamu Noguchi Chess Table was designed circa 1944.

Brought to you by

Michael Jefferson
Michael Jefferson International Senior Specialist, Senior Vice President

Lot Essay

Noguchi’s 'Great Game'

The Noguchi Museum Archives contains a gift acknowledgement from The American Chess Foundation to Isamu Noguchi for a donation in the amount of $4,000 (American Chess Foundation donation receipt, February 2 1966, The Noguchi Museum Archives, LBD_60S_102_00). Other documents reveal that the donation was made not in cash but in the form of a bronze copy of a cast iron sculpture for the Foundation to auction (Dame au long cou, 1955, aka Long Neck). There is no apparent explanation as to why Noguchi was asked or decided to contribute, and the gift would end up causing him a number of headaches, including a recalculation of the tax he owed that year (based on an IRS auditor’s determination that he had taken an excessive deduction).

In fact, the gift fits quite logically, if elliptically, into Noguchi's persistent, ever evolving determination to reestablish a civic mission for sculpture. It also provides an expanded context in which to consider his Chess Table for Herman Miller (1944/47), which was to gaming-enabled end tables what his earlier glass-topped coffee table was to the polite service of refreshments. Like most of the objects he conceived, both tables were, first and foremost, devices for shaping our awareness of the environment of our existence. “All my work, tables as well as sculptures, are conceived as fundamental problems of form that would best express human and aesthetic activity involved with these objects” (“From an Interview with Isamu Noguchi,” The League Quarterly Vol. XX #3 (Spring 1949): 8, fig 1). The sculpture he wanted, he said, “seeks to give an order and significance to living” (Isamu Noguchi, Untitled statement on working in Japan, 1952. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_011_001). Where the Coffee Table, glass-topped and bare-boned, is essentially post-modern: making visible the structural assumptions at the social pivot of the domestic environment, the Chess Table is expansively and poetically ontological, a piece of the galaxy for the living room: inserting a cosmic awareness of the scale of the ambiguity of our existence into daily life.

The reverse face of the postcard that Noguchi received in acknowledgement of the donation of the sculpture features a text headlined “Purposes of The American Chess Foundation”:

To encourage the playing of chess as a national sport and pastime for young and old; to develop the many possibilities of chess for the intellectual and scientific training on which American prosperity and security depend; and to cultivate a climate of public opinion and a widespread knowledge of the game, out of which there can emerge chess masters capable, as in the past, of providing U.S.A. leadership in the international chess field (American Chess Foundation donation receipt, February 2 1966, The Noguchi Museum Archives, LBD_60S_102_001).

The outsized hold that chess has long exerted over the world’s attention is a direct function of the belief that it can be seen as an index of strategic intelligence. The American Chess Foundation’s mission extends this premise to the equally common belief that the chess board is a microcosm of the world—making the game a presumed training ground for the development of the skills that separate national success from ruin in the management of international affairs.

Tables were not Noguchi’s only foray into microcosmic, or what he would—following John Cage—come to call “imaginary,” landscapes. Between 1944, when he designed the Chess Table, and 1947, when it went into production, he produced thirteen dance settings for Martha Graham and Graham dancers going on to careers as choreographers: Yuriko, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham, and was working on three others. The theater is another of those archetypal distillations of human affairs in metaphorical space, and it is easy to see how making props for dance came to discipline all of Noguchi's work as he figured out how to make sculpture for the theater of existence. Describing his work with Graham, Noguchi once explained that while he thought in terms of actual landscape, she worked with “a kind of mindscape” (Robert Tracy and Isamu Noguchi, ‘Noguchi: Collaborating with Graham’, Ballet Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (Winter 1986), p. 10), making the collaboration a long-term theoretical experiment in sculpting consciousness. That realization was an epiphany for him, the nature of which he later refined in a conversation about Graham's ballet Dark Meadow (1946), “a very important work about the external adven­tures of seeking,” which “has to do with primordial time of the mind” (Robert Tracy and Isamu Noguchi, ‘Noguchi: Collaborating with Graham’, Ballet Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (Winter 1986), p. 10). Generalizing his understanding of the worlds on which he and Graham collaborated he explained that they are “spaces of mind” (Robert Tracy and Isamu Noguchi, ‘Noguchi: Collaborating with Graham’, Ballet Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (Winter 1986), p. 10), a category into which the Chess Table slips seamlessly.

Noguchi’s version of world citizenship involved habitually working with disciplines and forms that have globally parallel cultural histories and universal resonances: from stone carving, ceramics, and lighting to dance and play. Chess is just such a raw material. Spread from its (likely) origins in South Asia—via trade across the silk road and its tributaries—into the far east, Europe, and beyond, it was among the first truly international games. It has long been understood as a means for people—representing different cultures, nations, and systems—to (peacefully) test their capabilities against each other. With the Chess Table Noguchi gave himself the opportunity (if it was successful) to shape civically charged environments, in which civilization itself might be at stake: the sitting rooms, for example, of decision makers in capitals from Moscow to New Delhi. That Noguchi's ambition for sculpture was that all-encompassing is still surprising, but it is indisputable. “It is my opinion,” he said in a 1949 interview, “that the rediscovery of the sculptor as a direct worker plus the common acceptance of the new reality of space, plus the imperative need of bringing order and meaning into a world menaced by chaos, plus the fact that this has always been sculpture’s role, indicates the promise of a growing reintegration of the art with society” (Noguchi, “From an Interview with Isamu Noguchi,” 9). The table was a strategy typical of this new determination to make sculpture as significant as it was when it dominated religious worship: in this case, by encouraging a broader perspective on the trade of strategic thinking. The culturally hybrid gardens he designed a decade later for the Paris headquarters of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) are another example of an attempt at shaping civic life through the humanizing force of a global awareness sculpture aimed at the international leadership class.

The distinction between chess and war (or a garden in Paris and the whole earth) was hardly academic in the period following the end of the Second World War, at the dawn of the atomic era, and in the early stages of the Cold War. For better and for worse, humanity was coalescing in a new global consciousness—rendering the American Chess Foundation's rhetoric less hyperbolic than it might seem. The so-called chess world championship “match of the century” between the American Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Boris Spassky in 1972, to cherrypick but one milestone in the postwar battle of civilizations, was not contested on one of Noguchi’s Chess Tables, but it was treated by everyone involved as a potentially decisive cold war proxy. During the match, the New York Times reported breathlessly that Henry Kissinger, America's Machiavelli in chief and “President Nixon's closest adviser on foreign policy,” had made a call to Fischer, about which no one involved would say anything (New York Times, “Kissinger Phone Call to Fischer Disclosed,” New York Times (July 18, 1972): 21), the implication and assumption being that it was a matter of national security. This was serious play.

The Chess Table, with its asymmetric, biomorphic surface, populated by an open star field—instead of the usual enclosed grid of boxes—is a dark meadow of Noguchi's own invention. Among its “subjects” is the seemingly infinite, perhaps unknowable, potential of the human mind, the only obvious analogy for which—the table itself suggests—is our expanding universe. Chess on this table was meant to expand the game beyond the border-delimited machinations of political maps into something more cerebrally galactic. That conception was strongly enhanced in the original presentation of the table at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1944 by the set of chess pieces that Noguchi produced to populate it. Biomorphic, but not strictly anthropomorphic, the transparent red and green plastic pieces formed two seemingly alien armies of interlocking sculptures facing off across a starry void. (In the photo of Noguchi in his studio, fig. 1, both Statue and The Queen, which has often been interpreted as a chess piece, might have stepped right off the Chess Table on which the artist leans.)

Sculpture to be Seen from Mars, Noguchi’s proposal for a gigantic piece of land art as a cenotaph for humanity—the only remains of our existence on Earth after our self-destruction—dates, not incidentally, to 1947, the same year that the Chess Table went into production. (Fig. 2) If chess is training for the clash of civilizations, interpreted in the surrealist milieu of the Levy Gallery exhibition, Noguchi's Chess Table implied that humanity might want to prepare itself to meet an even more existential, extraterrestrial challenge. With its proto-space age, rocket-fin-base stance and metaphysical, folded space-time top, the table was intentionally cosmic: recasting the intramural struggle for dominion over earthly borders as a universalizing, escape-velocity gesture towards “the external adven­tures of seeking” into the beyond. Which makes sense, because Noguchi’s version of “the great game” (This is the term for the 19th century contest between the Anglo and Russian empires for control of central Asia, which, in fact, continues to this day) was not the contest of terrestrial empires, but his one-person effort to generate “plastic and spatial relationships which define a moment of personal existence and illumine the environment of our aspirations” (Isamu Noguchi, “Towards a Reintegration of the Arts,” College Art Journal 9.1 (Autumn, 1949): 59-60).

Dakin Hart
Senior Curator, The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum

More from Design

View All
View All