Coffee with the Curators | Isamu Noguchi: Art Without Borders

Tongyun Yin, Cofrin Curator of Asian Art
May 28, 2021

 

During the month of May we celebrate the heritage of Asian Pacific American communities and their contributions to pluralistic American history, society, and culture. The Harn Museum of Art’s collection encompasses works of art by Asian American artists such as Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), ceramicist Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011), and Korean-American new media artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006). Their dual heritage and cross-cultural perspectives not only shaped their artistic expressions as shown in Isamu Noguchi’s ceramic art but also continuously inspire artists around the world. 
 

Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to American mother Léonie Gilmour, a literary lover, and Japanese father, Yonejiro Noguchi, a noted poet, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of 13 when he moved back to the United States. Complicating his biracial and bicultural upbringing was his father’s abandonment when he was a child. In search of his identity straddling two cultures and his voice as an artist with a combined legacy, Noguchi kept reinventing himself and created artworks that cross cultures and boundaries. 

 

Internationally recognized for his sculpture, furniture, theatre sets, and public installations, Noguchi only created ceramics during his three sojourns in Japan in 1931, 1950, and 1951 to 1952. The artist attributed the brevity of his involvement with this natural medium to his association of clay with Japan but not America. Nonetheless, exploring his roots only partially explains Noguchi’s periodic engagements with this medium; “shifting to materials more natural to the place”1 was the driving force that fueled his creative versatility.

 

In 1930, en route to Japan, Noguchi’s path intersected with Qi Baishi (1864–1957), one of the greatest painters in 20th-century China. Intrigued by Qi Baishi’s simple yet expressive brushstrokes and rhythmic vitality of his flowers and insects, Noguchi studied ink painting with Qi Baishi for a few months. The ink-and-brush figure paintings created during this short period evince Noguchi’s experiments to develop his own vocabulary of abstract forms. Claiming to be Qi Baishi’s student, however, Noguchi did not try to imitate his teacher’s calligraphic brushstrokes. Instead, he requisitioned ink painting to depict monumental human bodies in nudity. Rendering a painting subject that he studied in Paris in this quintessential Chinese art form, Noguchi’s works resonate powerfully with China’s rich artistic legacy while hewing closely to the modern engagement of this tradition.

Qi Baishi, Morning Glory, Corn, and Grasshopper, 1949, hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, Museum purchase, funds provided by the Robert H. and Kathleen M. Axline Acquisition Endowment, 2001.9
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noguchi’s ceramic art demonstrates his continuous endeavors to respond to and transform indigenous artistic heritage. In 1951, the artist moved into a farmhouse on the property of Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959), a master potter and gourmet chef with a range of artistic talents. Adopting the material Rosanjin used, Noguchi once again took a different path from his mentor’s. Contradictory to Rosanjin’s rejection of Western ideas, Noguchi integrated surrealistic abstraction with rustic aesthetics featuring traditional Japanese Shigaraki ceramics.

 

Kitaoji Rosanjin, Glazed Kogo box, Taisho period (1912–1926), ceramic, Bequest of the Estate of Sandra G. Saltzman, 2012.8.47

 

The ceramic piece on view in the Harn’s Asian art gallery was made by Noguchi in 1952 for his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Kamakura. On this traditionally made work, Noguchi showcased his signature style with the surreal design of two primitive circles joining in the center. The two small ovals and a shared upward curve invite us to see the circles as two partially overlapped faces. The sketched lines break at the end, capturing the swiftness and spontaneity of the artist’s hand movements. The abstract image attests to Noguchi’s enduring fascination with concise forms and his unique straightforward yet playful visual language.

 


Isamu Noguchi, Human Face Form Plaque, 1952, ceramic, Museum purchase, funds provided by The David A. Cofrin Fund for Asian Art, 2011.38. On view in Ceramics: Avenues of Exchange in the Cofrin Asian Art Wing.

 

When we look at the two overlapping faces, we cannot help but wonder what crossed the artist’s mind when he drew the crossing lines—the duality of his identity and heritage, his longing for his father’s embrace that was never realized, his determination to draw together the East and the West as his father did through poetry? Or maybe it is just a spontaneous improvisation that Noguchi espoused in 1952: “the best ceramic work is not carefully designed. It lets nature speak through it.”2
 

All photos by Randy Batista

 

1 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, Exhibition Catalog, 5 Continent Editions, 2013, p. 71.

 2Caroline Tiger, Isamu Noguchi, Chelsea House, 2013, n.p.