An Important and Unique Table for Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Dretzin, 1948-49
Everything is Sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.
- Isamu Noguchi
Commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Dretzin in 1948, and remaining within the family ever since, this sublime table is one of Isamu Noguchi's rare private design commissions. It is unquestionably the most important piece of Noguchi furniture ever to come to public sale. Defying the pragmatic constraints of mere furniture, the softly carved and polished structure offers a composition of poetic subtlety, prescient with evocation and delivered with sculptural mastery.
In the late 1940's The Dretzins called upon the architect Sydney Katz to design their summerhouse on a stunning five-acre woodland plot in Chappaqua, NY. While Mr. and Mrs. Dretzin maintained an active interest in the fine arts, accumulating works by among others Georgia O'Keefe and Henry Moore, it was almost certainly Mrs. Dretzin's daughter, Ginny Geiger, a furniture designer mingling with New York City's young designers, who led her parents to the modernist architect Sydney Katz. And Katz, in turn, must have brought them to Noguchi. For their sleek new home, which was featured in House & Garden in February 1950, the Dretzins commissioned the here offered exquisite marble low table from Noguchi.
At the time of the table's commission, Noguchi had firmly established himself as an artist of exceptional talent. The 1940's were for him an extraordinary and prolific time. Having reached his artistic maturity, Noguchi was known for his mass-produced furnishings as well as his stage sets and costume designs for Martha Graham, John Cage and others. But by 1946 Noguchi had also established himself in the forefront of contemporary sculpture and was selected for inclusion in the important Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Fourteen Americans."
For Noguchi everything was sculpture and the Dretzin table is no exception. It must be seen within the context of his sculptural work as a whole but also as related directly to the totem slab sculptures that he worked on from 1945 to 1948 and which established him as a major figure in American Art. The haunting imagery of these works, evinced for example in "Kouros" from 1944-45 (now included in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art), reflects the impact of wartime horror and the experience of being viewed as an enemy by his fellow citizens because of his mixed parentage, a Japanese father and an American mother. Infused with this anguish and formally encompassing the vanguard biomorphic and surrealist imagery taking hold at the time, each sculpture in this series was, like the Dretzin table, constructed from interlocking stone parts. Made from thick luxurious slabs of fossil marble, the Dretzin table is born from this same artistic exploration and uses the same system of inter playing parts. This latter feature with its provocative stele and rudder like ligature securing base and top, recalls traditional techniques of notching and sliding, and draws on Noguchi's fascination with the art of joinery used in traditional Japanese architecture. The table's various elements engage and interlink to secure the components through organic and universal methods. "Everything I do has an element of engineering in it," Noguchi said, "-- particularly since I dislike gluing parts together or taking advantage of something that is not inherent in the material there is no adhesive of any kind -- only the stones holding themselves together."
Prior to the Dretzin commission Noguchi created a brace of furnishings for other select private clients. Among them A. Conger Goodyear, the Museum of Modern Art's president, for whom Noguchi designed a rosewood table with a glass top in 1939 (which subsequently evolved into the signature design later produced by Herman Miller). Consistently refusing to distinguish between fine and applied art, Noguchi said, "Even the first table I made for Conger Goodyear was not exactly utilitarian. I thought of it as sculpture that was a table. After all, you can say that the earth is a table. We feast upon it. You can also say that it is utilitarian, this earth."
The Dretzin table's origins may, however, be traced back even further: In the spring of 1927, funded by a grant from the Guggenheim foundation, Noguchi went to Paris and worked as a studio assistant for Constantine Brancusi. Deeply influenced by the Romanian sculptor's work -- his reduction and strict economy of means -- it was here, in the heart of the Paris avant guard, that Noguchi first carved from stone and there his lifelong infatuation with the material began. This favored material was rarely used for his furnishings but the Dretzin table is a notable exception. Noguchi explains, "I love to use stone because it is the most flexible and meaning-impregnated material. The whole world is made of stone, it is our fundament. When I tap into it, I get an echo of that which we are. Then the whole universe has resonance."
Primal in feel and with lucent fossilized evidence of time's perpetual passage, there are further elements at play. The Dretzin table is emblematic of Noguchi's identification with ancient art: "The more archaic and primitive, the better I like it." And the table's simplicity, abstraction and timelessness also speak to his dual East-West heritage.
Isamu Noguchi continually sought "to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living." The Dretzin table is the embodiment of this ideal. An extraordinarily beautiful and deeply sensuous object, at once table and sculpture, it defies categorization. It is that most articulate of objects, offering to the spectator an ethereal landscape of the imagination -- a stylized, metaphorical narrative of poetic ambiguity.