The Beauty and Wisdom of Noguchi’s Late Work

Few sculptors of the modern era have matched the success of the late Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) in meeting the very different challenges of an art designed for public space and an art conceived to serve as an object of private delectation. He had few peers, either, in successfully negotiating an esthetic dialogue between the traditions of Western sculpture and those of Eastern art and design. Add to this Noguchi’s easy mastery of modernist stage design and his contributions to commercial design, and you will have some idea of why, 10 years after his death, he remains a figure quite unlike any other in the art world of his time. In a period when so many other talents were tethering their ambitions to scenarios of affront and “transgression,” Noguchi remained dedicated to-dare one say it?-the idea of the beautiful. Which is to say, an art that flatters our capacity for esthetic delight at the same time that it addresses the mind as a spiritual adventure.

The Noguchi exhibition called Stones and Water , which has now come to the Pace Wildenstein gallery, is solely concerned with some of the work that occupied the artist during the last years of his long career when he spent a part of each year working in his studio on the Japanese island of Shikoku. These were also the years in which he was working to establish the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, Queens, while completing work on a water garden for the Domon Ken Museum in Sakata, Japan-yet another reminder that in his art, as in his life, Noguchi was the offspring of two worlds, that of America, with its legacy of European art, and that of Japan, which played an equally large role in shaping the course of his artistic development.

He was born in Los Angeles, the son of a Japanese poet, Yonejiro Noguchi, and an American writer, Léonie Gilmour. He was scarcely 2 years old when he went to live with his parents in Japan, and did not return to the U.S. until 12 years later, when he went to school in Rolling Prairie, Ind. He was graduated from high school in La Porte, Ind., in 1922, and that summer served an apprenticeship with the American academic sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut. In 1924, he moved to New York, where he enrolled in an evening sculpture class at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, and such were his gifts in that field that he was elected a member of the ultra-conservative National Sculpture Society at the age of 20. He was not to return to Japan until 1931.

His point of entry into modernist sculpture came in 1926, when he saw the work of Constantin Brancusi for the first time at the Brummer Gallery in New York. Thanks to a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927, he traveled to Paris, where he worked for some months as Brancusi’s studio assistant. Brancusi was to remain, of course, the principal Western influence on Noguchi’s sculptural esthetic, yet in that early period of his career Noguchi made a living in New York mainly as a portrait sculptor, an aspect of his oeuvre that is still too little known.

Of the 12 stone sculptures and fountains that are on view now in the Stones and Water exhibition, only one-an elegant erotic abstraction called Endless Coupling (1988) in red Swedish granite-recalls us to the Brancusi connection. More of a surprise, perhaps, is a tabletop sculpture called Galaxy Calligraphy (1983-84), in gray Swedish granite, that, as Jeremy Strick writes in an excellent essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, recalls us to the very different genre of “the Surrealist game boards of Giacometti.” The influence of Surrealism on Noguchi’s sculpture has not, perhaps, received as much attention as the subject deserves-it was certainly a major factor in some of the stage designs he created for Martha Graham in the 1930’s and 40’s-yet in the sculpture the Surrealist element is often so subtly assimilated into an esthetic of abstraction, as it is, for example, in the current show in the piece called Fullness With Void (1984), that one cannot be absolutely certain that it is even there.

In the two stone fountain sculptures that dominate the Stones and Water exhibition-the 1985 untitled work in Ibaragi granite reproduced here and the larger Fountain (Proposed for Seagram’s Building) in basalt from 1987-the Eastern and Western elements in Noguchi’s sculpture seem to meet in a perfect unity. But that unity is present and palpable in all of these sculptures from the last years of Noguchi’s life as an artist. All partake of some of the qualities we have come to associate with the “late” work of artists who have enjoyed a long and productive development. They are at once marked by a radical concision of form even as they evoke a memory of things past. And in their close attention to the nuances of surface, texture, shape and the light in which all the attributes of such sculpture have their being, they constitute something like a final testament of the sculptor’s faith.

Stones and Water remains on exhibit at the Pace Wildenstein gallery, 32 East 57th Street, through June 26. The Beauty and Wisdom of Noguchi’s Late Work