Isamu Noguchi

“I begin to see the peculiar tragedy of the Nisei as that of a generation of transition accepted neither by the Japanese nor by America. A middle people with no middle ground. His future looms uncertain. Where can he go? How will he live? Where will he be accepted?” – “I Become a Nisei,” 1942

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Sculptor Isamu Noguchi was as fluid a creator as he was in his racial identity. Born to Leonie Gilmour, a white American mother and Yonejiro Noguchi, a Japanese poet, he was by all accounts, an artist’s artist. Mentored by great European sculptors, commissioned by cities and governments, dancers and actresses, he seemed to channel his eclectic background to manifest his own world: Progressive, avant-garde, interpretive.

Known for his delicate Akari lamp designs, glass tables and sculptures in New York and Japan that are as much a part of the landscape as the buildings themselves, it took some time for Noguchi to be recognized as the fine artist he sought to be. Noguchi Museum Associate Curator Matthew Kirsch describes Noguchi’s predicament and lack of notoriety until he was well into his 60s. “He doesn’t have a serious gallery relationship until the 1970s. He’s well-regarded among his peers and yet it doesn’t really add up to much for him. He’s always just poor, he’s always getting by.”

But for as long as Noguchi struggled, he is now unequivocally regarded as one of the most influential avant-garde sculptors of his generation. His intuition for creating beautiful things transcended beyond stone, marble and wood. He was cerebral; an intelligent and philosophical thinker who saw the world from a bird’s eye-view. “He is prolific in every way, not just sculpture. Prolific in meeting people as well. And he is as talented a writer as he is a sculptor,” says Mr. Kirsch.

Currently on display at the Noguchi museum in Queens is a curation of his work during and after WWII entitled Self-Interned, 1942. As a New Yorker far removed from the West Coast upheaval of Japanese Americans, Noguchi was exempt from incarceration. But he was compelled to do something, to help in some way and contribute to the plight facing the community. And so he asked to be imprisoned in Poston. In an unpublished Reader’s Digest essay Noguchi writes, “When people ask me why I, a Eurasian sculptor form New York, have come so far into the Arizona desert to be locked up with the evacuated Japanese from the West Coast, I sometimes wonder myself. I reply that because of my peculiar background I felt this war very keenly and wished to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me.” Noguchi sought to beautify the camp, lead art classes, and get to know a community he was only minimally connected to. But what he was left with was disappointment. And what we are left with are beautiful renderings of the work that Noguchi created in the wake of his experience.

Noguchi designed and built this building in Astoria, NY in 1965.

I walked through Self-Interned, 1942 with Mr. Kirsch, who shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Noguchi’s background, his artistic struggles and the pivotal moments that made him an activist for a Japanese American community he barely knew.


He was born in Los Angeles in 1904. His father was a Japanese poet, probably the most well-known poet of his generation in the Western world. He got to travel around the United States, spent some time in San Francisco, but also spent some time in Europe. I believe that’s where his poems were published first. In the United States he had met a woman who worked as an editor for him. Her name was Leonie Gilmour, she was very well-educated and an aspiring writer herself. She worked on editing and translating his work a little bit; she could work with the language a little bit but I don’t think she was super great at it.

And they had a relationship. Unfortunately, he went back to Japan while she was pregnant, they maintained regular correspondence. And this is up for debate with biographers when in fact he started his family. For a long time it was said they were married but in fact they were never married. So Isamu was born in Los Angeles and lived with a relative for the first two years of his life and then she decided because of their correspondence that she would bring Isamu to Japan to be a little closer to his father. And that is when she discovered he had a family.

Since he had left the U.S.? 

Yes since he left the United States. So he grew up kind of at a distance from his father. Saw him like a handful of times throughout his childhood. He mainly was raised by his mother who was essentially a protofeminist. She was perfectly fine raising him herself and giving him a life but she did have to do various odd jobs to make ends meet. She taught English in English high schools in Japan and she also at certain points she sold trinkets, Japanese artifacts. She was a crafty person, resourceful. There’s a story early on I believe that it was in Chigasaki where they moved to, she contracted a carpenter to build a house for them and she somehow insinuated Isamu into the project. This is when he was 9 or 10 years old. Try to get him to learn in the presence of this carpenter and he did become familiar with some aspects of woodworking. And this is related later when he goes back to the United States for his education.

He lived from about 1906 to 1917 in Japan, his mother kind of realized that as a half Japanese and half Western child, he was always going to be treated in a certain regard in Japanese culture. While at the same time he would’ve been conscripted in the military. So she had read about this progressive school in Indiana and decided to send him there. So when she relayed this to his father, he was adamantly against it, he wanted Isamu to remain in Japan. Suppoedly there’s a story where he showed up on the day when Isamu was departing to the United States to try and get her to relent but they went forward with it.

So despite the new family, he still wanted to see Isamu?

Yes, however infrequently. There was still some bond he felt. And he [Isamu] was unhappy leaving, and this goes into the baggage between him and his mother throughout his life even though–it’s strange how he revisited his past life (everyone does) but like over the course of six decades of writings and letters I’ve seen instances where he’s kind of angry at his mother for changing his life in this way but also thankful that this probably led him on the path to being a full artist.

He went to this progressive school [Interlaken School] in Indiana but that school closed for various reasons, like financial difficulties as well as the onset of World War I. So Isamu had a very short time there. But the idea of the school was to raise the future business leaders of America by not only studying math and science but the idea of giving them a full immersion into hands-on processes. Building classes, art classes, carpentry classes, so it was meant to produce physical and mental specimens.

I should mention that at the time the school shut down, his name was Isamu Gilmour, and he went by the name Sam Gilmour for a number of years, kind of Americanized his experience. And Mr. Rumely [founder of Interlaken School] took an interest in Isamu and his background and he arranged for him to have a small apprenticeship in the studio of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who is probably most well known for Mt. Rushmore.

It was an unhappy time for Noguchi. Borglum didn’t take much interest in him, claimed he didn’t have any talent and Noguchi spent most of his time working odd jobs around the studio–taking care of his kids, modeling and most of what he learned in his studio was because there were other craftspeople in the studio that would take time to show him different things. Later Mr. Rumely among his circle raised his money to put towards Noguchi’s education. He ended up going to Columbia University and studying pre-medicine for a short time and that’s where his mother re-enters the picture, she comes back to New York in the early ’20s. And she had a vision of Noguchi’s future that was slightly different than his because of his father’s talent, she saw Isamu as being another artist. So she lived in the Lower East Side, I believe, she noticed a school called the Leonardo Da Vinci school that offered sculpture classes and she pointed that out to Isamu and prodded him to go and try his hand in it again. And there he really excelled almost immediately. He was seen as a prodigy by the teacher that basically set up the school. His name was Onorio Ruotolo, he was an Italian-American citizen. Noguchi progressed so quickly that he dropped out, within a year or two. Ruotolo saw in him a lot of talent and essentially arranged for his first studios.

Lily Zietz, 1941

That kind of is a good set up for this show. There’s a portrait head. This is something Noguchi returns to again and again throughout his early years as an artist. He very quickly tired of representational and classical art, I mean, in making it. He was always interested in it but he wanted to set more goals for himself, new challenges for himself. And when he decides to become an artist in about 1924, he goes by the name Isamu Noguchi.

So no more “Sam.”

It was partly because his mother came back into his life, and she pushed him to become an artist. While he loved his mom, he also butted heads with his mom so I don’t know if this was him making his own way, using his father’s name instead of her name. It’s a little complicated.

So around 1926 he visited the Brummer gallery and it was one of the first exhibitions in the United States by the sculpture Constantine Brancusi and it basically changed his life. He was seeing what was considered avant-garde at this time. So Noguchi, this changes his path. Within a few years he applies for a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship to travel to Europe. Once he gets to Europe he settles in Paris and that really kickstarts his involvement in the avant-garde. And there’s some debate about how quickly he meets Brancusi, even though they don’t speak the common language–Noguchi speaks at that point just English and Brancusi speaks French and his native Armenian. Brancusi is a very hands-on artist. This is another lesson and influence in his life. He works with Brancusi for six to eight months and they keep in touch for the rest of Brancusi’s life. Noguchi always considers him one of his masters in life.

So he returns to New York in 1929 and meets two of his future best friends and collaborators: Buckminster Fuller and also [dancer] Martha Graham. That collaboration is really for him another eye-opening experience because it gets him to think about the space around the object she designs. “The space between the viewer and the object.” He’s a very conflicted artist because in one sense he has these grand visions. For instance, in 1933 he has this idea that you could take an entire city block and make a playground out of shaped earth, calling it Play Mountain. He arranges a meeting with Robert Moses of the Park’s Department with this idea with a small plaster model and apparently the story is Moses laughs him out of the office. It’s a little too ahead of its time. In that sense thats something that keeps him going for the rest of his career. On the other side he is a skim artist, he needs to make a living so he returns to portraiture and like a lot of different artists from that era, he’s proposing projects to the Works Project Administration which was like the only patron of artists in the 1930s after the stock market crashed.

Not a lot of options. 

Not a lot of options, especially for sculptors, too. There are a lot more painting projects. So in the meantime in the 1930s he does whatever he can to kind of get by. All throughout the 1930s he is a sociopolitical artist. He meets with other groups and kind of undertakes his first industrial designs. And this is in the wake of Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Do you also feel that something about his mixed-race identity shapes his sociopolitical worldview? 

I think the time that he spent in Indiana was really formative. This heartland experience, and he’s in the presence of this industrialist who has various farming equipment manufactured, he runs a newspaper so he sees this guy essentially as the personification of the American businessman.

“To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities. The racial and cultural intermixture is the antithesis of all the tenet of the Axis Powers. For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.” – Isamu Noguchi, “I Become a Nisei”

And also he’s learning about the founding fathers and he’s definitely aware of the farming cycle. And he’s getting a mix of agrarian culture but he goes to New York and experiences it becoming the business center of the world. So he very much becomes an American very quickly and his political leanings, I think he visits Japan once in 1930. It’s a very unhappy visit. Somehow the news that Noguchi is en route to Japan makes its way to his father and his father asks when he enters Japan that he doesn’t use the name Noguchi. Somehow on the train he meets a reporter, just a really random meeting and his father catches wind of it. When Isamu gets to China, he ends up staying for about eight months before deciding to go to Japan. He meets his father and his father’s family very briefly. he’s given a very cool reception. He ends up spending a lot of time with his uncle who takes him under his wing and houses him in Tokyo, and we have a portrait of his uncle.

So he was more sympathetic to him?

Absolutely. And his uncle actually liked and embraced his mother, so Isamu knew he felt secure with this guy. Because he uncle accepted that he was half Japanese and half Western.

And the reason for not using “Noguchi” was just because the father was saying do not use my name?

There’s some different tellings of it but it’s partly because of his new family, it would bring shame on them.


Yes it’s very messy, it’s hard to condense his biography. But during this time he goes to Kyoto and when he goes there he says he wants to study ceramics and pottery but he wants to study with somebody that makes knock-offs. So he wants to learn how to perfect mimicking, like ancient Japanese ceramics. He becomes interested in nahanewa ceremonial ceramic dolls that are often put on funerary shrines in Japan. So while he’s in Kyoto he works with a potter there, and he just immerses himself in work. This is the activity that he always returns to that he’s most comfortable with that can help him forget whatever pain is going through in his life. He really thrives in the studio and setting his mind to a task. There’s a lot of interpretation to that but you’ll see it, in his own written remarks, especially after the Poston episode he comes back to New York and finds a studio that’s a live-in, work-in studio and he’s able to just immerse himself.

He is active in artist communities in New York in the late ’30s. Some of his best friends are Arshile Gorky who was an outcast kind of because he’s a European and he kind of creates an identity for himself. The biographers go into their commonalities a lot. But in summer 1941, he and Gorky and Gorky’s wife and a friend drive to the West Coast. Gorky has a show set up there, Noguchi has slim pickings in New York. He’s just accomplished his most major project in 1939 which is the stainless steel freeze at Rockefeller Center. At that point it was the largest stainless steel sculpture in the world, it still could be.

Associated Press Building Plaque at Rockefeller Center

So he and Gorky decide to try their luck with a trip to the West Coast. I think Gorky goes to San Francisco and Noguchi spends a little bit of time there, and he also manages to get a ticket to Hawaii from the Dole Pineapple Corporation. He did manage to set up a museum show at the Honolulu Museum.

“He went to Hawai’i and this is around the time when he starts collecting driftwood, and gets more involved with wood again. It’s always going to be for artists in a time of low funds, an easier material to come up with. Being in the orbit of the European and American surrealists and proto-abstract expressionists, there’s an idea of collage and assemblage that’s really happening in New York. So kind of integrating disparate materials and elements into sculpture.” – Matthew Kirsch, curator

In 1940 he has the show there and when he and Gorky are in San Francisco I think that’s kind of the beginnings of him getting into a show at the SF MoMa. In the meantime Noguchi goes to Los Angeles and during that time, he’s trying to work his network, meet new people. He somehow comes into contact with the actress Ginger Rogers. She commissions a portrait from him and she sets up a studio outside of her house for him to work in.So this essentially sets the stage for December 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Noguchi’s supposedly driving to San Diego from Los Angeles when he hears the news–he returns to Los Angeles. And he gets in touch with as many Japanese and Japanese American organizations as he can. So aside from this commission from Ginger Rogers and a few others, he doesn’t have a lot going on so he kind of dives head first into activism. And he was part of activist organizations on the East Coast before that but never a driving member. He has this natural aversion to groupthink.

So he co-founds the Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy and he gets immersed in a number of projects. They want to convey what commonalities the Japanese and Nisei have with Americans in the United States. They’ve obviously come to the United States to make a better living for themselves. The story of the 20th century is that capitalism needs workers and they’re always willing to short sell one worker for another, and that is the story of why the Japanese are in America and it is because they were seen as cheaper labor. So naturally when Pearl Harbor is bombed, the Japanese immediately become the enemy. Part of this is fueled by the butting of heads or jealousy that the Japanese are taking jobs away from Anglo Americans living on the West Coast. So this group that Noguchi co-founds, they set about writing a lot of radio scripts, they want to show that the young Japanese are as American and just as anti-Fascist as you and I. They escaped or they left willingly, a culture that was becoming more and more militant from the 1910s to late ’30s.

And were these broadcasted? 

I think one was. Noguchi was not totally involved, he was more of a spokesperson, he was happy to lend his name and contacts to the effort. He would contact whoever he could within the government and different activism circles. There was a push to do a documentary, filming the evacuation. He thought it would be valuable for people to see the pain and struggle that was going on.

Meanwhile he’s also working his connections, he wants to get very involved. Once the Executive Order is put into place and it’s clear there’s going to be a mobilization of putting the Japanese Americans into the camps, Noguchi who hasn’t really had much connection with the community up to this point–it’s always been limited and hesitant–he sees this as kind of an opportunity. It’s with the best intentions that he’s going.

He hears of this guy John Collier who’s the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He led the rally to make Indian reservations a more humane place, and he’s kind of like a figure within the government that wants to be more involved in the evacuation of the Japanese Americans and provide the same service. So somehow Noguchi meets this sympathetic ear and he pitches the idea that, “If I can go into the camp I can do good there. I can hopefully lead art classes, I can lead people think more about their Japanese heritage and their American identity.” Because he does see the Japanese in the camps as identifying as American for the most part but while he’s in the camp he does see there are various levels of Americanness. He sees some of the grandparents and parents not speaking English, some of them cling to their traditions, and in a way that makes their children and grandchildren uncomfortable. Kids that grew up listening to American radio have essentially no commonality with the former culture. So he wants to find a way for both of these disparate groups within the camps to maintain an identity as both Japanese and American but first and foremost as anti-fascist. He’s aware that at the same time a lot of these families are put into the camps a lot of their sons are being drafted and going to war to serve the United States. So he’s trying to satisfy all these different elements.

It’s a lot for him to take on.

Yes absolutely. He’s seeking out quotes for ceramics and art classes and he’s also contacting some of his friends. He knows Langdon Warner, a scholar and curator from Harvard University. He and Warner talk about arranging exhibitions in outside world so we can humanize the interns in the camps. He also has friends like Yasuo Kuniyoshi who talk to him about coming in as an outside professor and teaching classes for him. But once Noguchi is immersed in the camp, he sees that he is just as disconnected as he expected he might be. He’s kind of viewed suspiciously by the population of the camp.

How so? That he was a volunteer?

Some people think he’s a government mole. But outside of that he’s kind of an outlier.

And there’s a great letter from one of his friends, Eddie Shimano. Throughout this whole lead-up going into Poston he’s in communication with people on the same educational level and these are activists that are well-educated and also kind of somewhat separate from the Japanese and Japanese American community: They’re all anti-fascist activists first and Japanese second or third. So Eddie Shimano wrote this great letter telling Isamu what he can expect, like feeling lost within the camp. “There’s no one to talk to about the things that I care about. I feel separate, it’s lonely, it’s hot during the day and it’s freezing at night.” Just the discomfort of the experience.

“For most of the nisei here the evacuation has not changed their sphere of friends and activities materially. The most vocal complaint of theirs is that there are no movies here. Would that I were that fortunate.”  Eddie Shimano’s letter written from Santa Anita Assembly Center

Noguchi is greeted with that even before he goes to the camp. It’s quickly apparent to him that he’s going to be miserable when he reaches the camp in May 1942. And within about six or seven weeks he’s already writing letters to his contacts, “Is there a way to get out?” Not only due to the physical realities but social realities within the camp. He sees these different schisms within the community itself. He’s writing to a couple of different friends in Santa Anita who were the editors and publishers of Doho Magazine, an anti-fascist journal. And he’s still got friends who are on the outside. They thought for sure he would be more valuable as a spokesperson on the outside than he would be on the inside. He had the best intentions. So whatever he was promised – support and budget – he’s writes to his friend John Collier: “What happened to what we were talking about? Can you pull some strings to see that we can follow through on our plans? But if this isn’t going to happen I’m not sure what use I am here since I’m an outsider.”

There’s a lot of idealism that went into him voluntarily interning in the camp. When he got to the camp, he came up with a design for the layout beyond the simple military barracks that are dehumanizing, these rigid rows of the same barracks. He wants to make a more humane place, like a playground. He wants to have a cemetery because it’s evident that life is going to continue and that means death is an inevitability within the camp. And how can these people preserve the traditions of burial and other things within the camp? These are all we have, he’s never really able to follow through on these civic designs but they’re among his first real efforts in this area throughout his career. It’s a little ambitious for the time and the circumstances.

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So the War Relocation Authority actually had approved him being given an artist budget?

We don’t have a record of what he was promised but we only have the follow through on his end. I think the interest was also not there within the camp. I don’t know if that’s partly because he was viewed with suspicion.

Did he choose Poston due to it being on an American Indian reservation? 

I think it happened to be under Collier’s jurisdiction and I think he had been through Arizona previously. I don’t think he had too much say.

If he couldn’t get out, why was that? 

Because I think once you’re entered into the system, your file becomes part of the pile and it’s just the bureaucracy of the whole situation. And also, you’re immediately a suspicious element within the camp.

So during his time there he’s contacted by Reader’s Digest and they asked him to write about his time in the camp. He worked on two different drafts during that time but he wasn’t able to send it until he left the camp. The first paragraph is an amazing statement that really lays out his sense of the Japanese and Japanese American plight in the United States. It takes him about seven months – from May to November – to get out. And about five and a half month of that is writing continuous letters to friends asking them to contact people in the government.

Now Noguchi, the one lucky thing for him was that he didn’t really have a fixed address when he left, didn’t have a lot of things to concern himself with as he was improvising. He was already shuttling between the East and West coast.

This is another aspect of this exhibition, we’re not trying to position him as a typical story. His involvement is entirely voluntary. The activist within him that wanted to throw in. He’s a pacifist to begin with so he’s obviously not interested in getting involved with the war effort but what positive good can he do as an artist when things aren’t going well for him anyway? There are a million different stories and Noguchi’s is this weird asterix within the overall arc because he’s able to negotiate his way out.

I think strangely because his experience within the camp was negative for him, as far as the social aspect (not bridging the gaps that he wanted to), when he gets out, he’s in a very depressed state. He’s not as active in the groups that he was at the time. He kind of retreats into his studio.

So he really couldn’t make anything while inside Poston? 

He finished the Ginger Rogers [bust], or at least made it halfway through. We know that because the marble for the bust was shipped into the camp. And there’s a correspondence between Ginger Rogers and he, saying he might need to see her for the finishing aspects.

So after Poston he moves back to New York and finds a studio on MacDougal alley in near Greenwich Village. Historically it’s an area where a lot of sculptors had a lot of live-in studios. So he finds this studio and lives in the studio for the next seven years. He comes back in really bad emotional shape. So just he immerses himself in work again. This is where he carves his first stone sculptures in years, and just the process is kind of nurturing. It’s so simple, going back to stone. We have here Noodle and Mother and Child which are some of the first sculptures upon coming back to New York. And you can tell by the scale of the stone that he’s still living rough. He needs to buy materials that are as cheap as he can get them so in many cases, I’m sure that the stone he got for Noodle was the biggest expenditure he had in years.

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Noodle, Botticino marble. 1943-44
Mother and Child, onyx. 1944-45

He does a couple of autobiographical sculptures at this time, they’re really reflections of his time in the desert. The magenta piece is called My Arizona and it’s has a very surrealist element. This is kind of abstracting the desert into a weird moonscape. For some reason he associates that sculpture with heat. I don’t know if the magenta personifies heat for him.

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My Arizona, 1943 

There’s another surrealist assemblage. This is a piece called My Yellow Landscape, again referencing his time in Arizona. This is really the beginning of him getting into the ideas of fragility, weightlessness, tension. One of these is never truly installed in the same way every time. It kind of speaks to the randomness of assemblage.

So “My Yellow Landscape.” Does that allude to the racial slur? 

I’m sure it does allude–he doesn’t expressly talk about this sculpture.

Yellow Landscape
Yellow Landscape, magnesite, wood, string, metal fishing weight. 1943 

He also did This Tortured Earth, which is said to be a response to seeing these photographs of aerial bombardments of North Africa from the war. He was a pessimist to begin with, he comes out of the Poston experience and once the atomic bomb testing and actual demonstrations were done, he has a very dim view of humanity. This for him is a very dark but also very black comic view, he sees this as conceptual sculpture: that you can sculpt the earth using bombs. He’s being very cynical and what it implies is violent. But at the same time there’s a certain element of levity.

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This Tortured Earth, bronze. 1942-43

How long did he experience his depression? 

It’s not like it changes him overnight to get out of the camp and into MacDougal alley. He just dis-attached himself from everything as much as he could. He still had friends but he was really dedicated to his work, didn’t want to engage too much.

Around 1946 he is invited to be part of a show at MoMa called 14 Americans and he’s one of three sculptors that are chosen. It’s a body of work that he undertakes using cheap material, like wood. He develops this body of work that are like architectural pieces with pieces that are jutting through, or interlocking. This become his calling card, this is what he becomes known for in the mid-1940s:


He’s always been an artist’s artist, and this is just another level of that. He gets a little more notoriety; I there’s a story about him in Life magazine and Time magazine and they definitely look at the sculptures as wacky and weird. Noguchi at this point is interested in as much of the negative space as well as the positive space of the sculpture.

So during this period, his notoriety is sort of on the rise and he has another solo gallery show in 1947 in New York since the mid-1930s. So that gives you a sense of the opportunities to an avant-garde sculptor as opposed to an avant-garde painter. He doesn’t have a serious gallery relationship until the 1970s. It’s always kind of like a one-off experience for him. But industrial design keeps him afloat where fine art sculpture doesn’t. This is around the time he does the glass top coffee table by Herman Miller.

In 1948 he has a couple of different experiences. One of which is his friend Arshile Gorky commits suicide, just a few days after Noguchi has driven him up to the house in Connecticut. He and Gorky  had a very brotherly relationship, they were close but had a lot of disagreements. It was quite a shock to him. It was another aspect of this depression in the 1940s. In 1949 he decides to pack up his studio and he applies for a grant from the Bollingen Foundation and they provide these fellowships to scholars to take trips around the world. He pitches this idea that he wants to study public spaces around the world and see how sculpture within public spaces influences culture. It’s very ambitious. So the entire 1949 and 1950 he’s traveling and at the end of 1950, it’s the first time he returns to Japan since 1930. He’s a little tentative but he is greeted totally positively by a younger generation of avant-garde artists, of through Western publications. So it’s the absolute opposite from his earlier experiences.

He’s getting his first public projects and he becomes a mostly Japanese for a few years. He marries a Japanese actress named Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi and they’re married for about three or four years. He sets up a house in rural Japan outside of Tokyo.

Noguchi and Yamaguchi meet in New York in 1950. Photo courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

It does get a little more positive but it takes another nine or ten years for Noguchi to come out of the Poston experience in a positive way. His fortune has kind of changed in the 1950s. He does the UNESCO garden in Paris in the late 1950s and that really sets the stage for the last three decades of his career. He moves beyond the artist’s artist phase, he’s able to break even for the first time in his life. He has access to materials and projects, and essentially his successful years are from the 1950s on.

So it took a long time. And he and Yamaguchi were married for such a short time. Do you think that was due to both of them being artists? 

Yes, absolutely. They both led unscheduled lives. She was pursuing projects, she was acting in Japanese movies, she did some work in Hong Kong movies. And in 1955 she was in a Samuel Fuller movie called House of Bamboo. And he definitely follows her around at certain points and does work in hotel rooms as she’s auditioning or acting. So I think there’s a tension. She is able to get a role in 1955 but that’s after two years of being denied a U.S. visa. Her own past is kind of complicated. She worked in film in the mid-1940s that were propaganda films in Japan, so she’s got a record with the U.S government. But she’s denied visas and Noguchi still sees himself as an American. He’s always got this dissonance that he wants to give equal regard to both sides of his heritage. He always feels the pull to go back to New York and yet he can totally appreciate the life he can lead in Japan. There’s more opportunity and it’s a more welcoming place to him. And that would exist throughout the rest of his life and career.

In the late 1960s he establishes his studio off the coast of Japan on the island of Shikoku. He’s re-engaged in a very positive way with his Japanese heritage.

Since it started off more contentious, he found his own way back. Did he and his father ever have a relationship? 

There’s a thawing of tension in the time after WWII, and partly that’s because of his [Noguchi’s] own dispiriting experience, he wants to get back in touch. They exchange letters and Noguchi sends a care package to his father and his father’s family at least once. I think his dad died in the late ’40s, so he didn’t make it back in time. But essentially before his father dies, he tells his younger son that if his half-brother ever comes to Japan that he should get in touch with him. So his half brother seeks him out when he returns in 1950. Pretty much for the rest of Noguchi’s life, he shadows him as a photographer. He helps in the early time in 1950 as a translator, and follows him throughout Japan. I can’t say he’s reunited but he’s reacquainted.


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“In Gateways, in your mind you’re able to depart from different circumstances. These are essentially portals for him. These are definitely interpretational installations. Our way to interpret lesser known sculptures.” Gateways and Deserts, 1955-1988


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