Isamu Noguchi: An Artist with a Collaborative Appetite

The list of influential artists and architects with whom Isamu Noguchi collaborated in his lifetime reads like a Who’s Who of the 20th-century’s most gifted talent.

Among them were Alfred Stieglitz, Constantin Brancusi, Buckminster Fuller, Richard Neutra, Martha Graham, Man Ray, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Willem De Kooning, Edward Durell Stone, Marcel Breuer, Gordon Bunshaft and Louis Kahn.

His relationship with each, and more, is the subject of a near-documentary show of his work, curated by Amy Wolf and opening on Nov. 17 at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. “On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922–1960” walks the viewer through nearly every modern movement of that time.

“It shows how he intersected with so many people and movements, including cubism, abstract expressionism, surrealism, Mexican murals and futurism,” Wolf says. “He didn’t miss a trick. He had a voracious appetite and went from field to field.”

Noguchi was born in 1903 to a Japanese father and an American mother who placed a high value on education. When they split up, she sent him from Japan to Edward Rumely’s Interlaken School in Indiana, a note pinned to his coat. From there a series of powerful and charismatic individuals guided his life and career.

He went to Paris in 1927, one of the first recipients of a Guggenheim fellowship, hooking up there with Stuart Davis, Morris Kantor and Alexander Calder. “He saw them as mature artists and modeled himself on them,” she says. “He made abstract things, then came back to the U.S., thought it an indulgence, and abandoned it.”

Once he’d developed his own unified philosophy of what sculpture could be, he began to explore and articulate it within the larger contexts of architecture, dance and theater.

The theme of the Noguchi exhibit asks how a person without any real formal education in the arts could launch himself onto such a sweeping trajectory above the horizon of the creative arts.

“He did it with a combination of incredible will, obvious talent and strong relationships with all these people,” she says.  “He was the product of a slow and steady self-education in what he wanted to say and who would influence him.”

He wanted to connect with the ancients, by working with Brancusi to learn how the Greeks once made sculptures.  But he sought also to find meaning in the present and the future, by working with Buckminster Fuller on projects for the machine age, with new technologies and materials like chrome and aluminum.

Through what she calls a scrapbook of his life, Wolf reached out to Noguchi collectors worldwide to curate an exhibition of 50 pieces of his work, with supporting letters, documents, photos and invitations.  “It hard to believe how rich a figure he was,” she says  “He lived a life in New York that’s gone now – it was an art world where everybody was connected.”

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