Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
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Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Dr. Marvin and Mrs. Natalie Gliedman
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)


Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
52 1/8 x 20 ¼ x 13 in. (132.4 x 51.4 x 33 cm.)
Executed in 1945.
View Magazine Benefit Auction, circa 1946, courtesy of the artist
John Bernard Myers, New York, circa 1946
Victor Wolfson, by 1970
William Zierler, Inc., New York, 1972
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1972
N. Grove and D. Botnick, The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi 1924-1979: A Catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 40, no. 27 (illustrated).
A. Ross, ed., The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, digital, ongoing, New York, no. 227 (illustrated in color).
H. Herrera, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, New York, 2015, pp. 223-224 and 226 (illustrated).
Madison, Elvehjem Art Center, 19th & 20th Century Art from Collections of Alumni & Friends: Inaugural Exhibition, September-November 1970, no. 126, p. 105 (illustrated).
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art; Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, Isamu Noguchi Retrospective, March-June 1992, no. 26.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor, October 2004-May 2005, pp. 95, 98-99, 109 and 230 (illustrated in color).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Executed in 1945, Isamu Noguchi’s Man is an important early example of the anthropoid sculptures that helped solidify the artist’s reputation as one of the most innovative sculptors of the postwar period. The present example is made out of wood, and as such is a rare example of the material that Noguchi celebrated for its warmth and expressive nature. Of the few wooden sculptures that Noguchi made during this period, another example—Untitled, 1945—is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Here, in the present work, the artist assembles a series of beautifully carved and smooth elements to form the nascent human form; embryonic limbs, a head, and other appendages are assembled into a multivalent totem that speaks to the artist’s interest in the seamless marriage of material and form. As a mark of its singular place within the artist’s oeuvre, Man has been exhibited internationally, including in a retrospective of the artist’s work at the National Museums of Modern Art in Tokyo, and Kyoto in 1992, and more recently in the exhibition Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculpture, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2004, and which later travelled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

Standing over four feet tall, Noguchi’s Man is made up from a series of six interlocking wooden elements, each carefully fashioned and luxuriously finished to a smooth surface. They retain the warm and beauty of its natural grain in addition to evidence of the artist’s hand. This marriage of nature and artist, both working in tandem in the creation of these poetic forms lies at the heart of Noguchi’s work. The individual elements are then assembled to form the upright figure of a man: a circular head, a thin vertical torso, a pair of arms (one hanging down, and one reaching round, almost in an embrace), two stout legs, along with a prominent phallus. While these elements give the sculpture its overall form, the voids between these elements give Man its light and delicate poise. For Noguchi, it was these spaces that would become one of the central aspects of his work. "The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space,” the artist said, “[it is] the continuum of our existence. 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 essence 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).

Man is a rare and distinguished example of a sculpture from the period that Noguchi executed in wood. Throughout his career he produced works in a wide range of materials including stone, marble, and bronze, but wood had a particular resonance for the artist. For him, the materials he used held as much interest as form, noting, “Pure abstractions, or at least those geometrically derived, left me cold, and I was always being torn between Brancusi’s admonition and my desire to make something more meaningful to myself. This is not to say that I thought of deriving anything from the figure. But I craved a certain morphologic quality. I developed a deep interest at the time in cellular structure and collected books on paleontology, botany, and zoology” (I. Noguchi, quoted in S. Hunter, Isamu Noguchi, London 1979, p. 38). While his time working in Brancusi’s Parisian studio instilled in Noguchi a great interest in the natural properties of materials, his natural inclination was to approach his sculpture in a more organic fashion rather than as a pure formalist. Prior to his time in France, the young artist had apprenticed with a cabinet maker in the Japanese city of Chigasaki. There Noguchi learned traditional woodworking techniques like antiquing through a mixture of burning and rubbing with straw and sand that would carry on into works such as the present example. This combination of traditionally influenced processes and contemporary thinking are a mark of the artist’s innovation and genius.

Realized in 1945, Man dates from a pivotal period of the artist’s career. He had received little public attention since late 1938, when he was commissioned to produce a sculpture for the entrance to the Associated Press Building in New York’s Rockefeller Center. By the mid-1940s his interlocking sculptures such as the present work, brought him further public prominence; in 1946, Kouros (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)—a magnificent work similar in form to Man—was exhibited at the influential Fourteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a year later Figure, his earliest slab piece, was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At the time, the critic Thomas Hess enthused, “First of all, and almost dominating the entire museum, is Noguchi’s FIGURE. This monumental work is made of pink-blue Tennessee marble, and has a splendid powdery-smooth finish. The grooved forms slide into each other like finely machined parts” (T. Hess, quoted in H. Herrera, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, New York, 2015, p. 226).

The juxtaposed forms and irregular configuration of figures such as Man evoke the free-thinking spirit of the Surrealist movement that had spread from Europe. Indeed, the year after Noguchi finished the present work, he donated the sculpture to an auction to benefit View, a literary and art magazine that had introduced the work of the Surrealists to the American public. Noguchi had a long standing relationship with the magazine, even designing a sculpture which appeared on the cover of the October 1946 edition. While Noguchi never became a fully signed-up member of the movement, he was influenced by their work, including that of Yves Tanguy, and his friend, the painter Arshile Gorky, who—along with Noguchi—represented his figures in a distinct multifaceted manner.

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