Dore Ashton is a historian and critic whose numerous books and articles have covered three centuries of artistic achievement. Her subjects have included Jean-Honoré Fragonard from the eighteenth century, Rosa Bonheur from the nineteenth, and Philip Guston, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso, among others, from the twentieth. Of particular interest to her have been modern painting, architecture, and sculpture, especially as practiced in New York. Consequently, it is only natural that she should devote her latest book to a critical examination of the career of her longtime friend Isamu Noguchi, and, in so doing, offer perhaps the definitive biography of this difficult, misunderstood artist whose works still inspire debate as to their merits and as to their meaning.
Born in 1904 to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan from ages two to thirteen. His father, Yone Noguchi, a well-known poet, became increasingly nationalistic and, eventually, rejected his gaijin (outsider) son, who was educated in a progressive school in Indiana. From the beginning, Ashton says, Noguchi felt alien in both worlds, the East and West; yet, of all artists, Noguchi is one of the most cosmopolitan. He roamed the world, literally, in search of that point where East and West meet in harmonious concourse. Although she specifically denies that hers is a psychological biography, Ashton does link Noguchi’s affinity for the void, the empty spaces important to his art, to the ambiguities of his childhood and education: “The feeling of incompleteness expressed so often was deeply connected with his craving to know the father who was at once ‘loathed’ for having abandoned his American family and revered for his international position as a poet.”
Noguchi made his way from Indiana to New York, where he studied briefly in the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. It would be the other Renaissance immortal, Michelangelo, however, whose art would serve as lifelong inspiration. At the age of twenty, Noguchi already had his own studio in New York and began to receive commissions for portrait sculptures. Before long, he discovered the new creed of modernism as preached by Alfred Stieglitz and J. B. Neumann, and, because he already felt distaste for academic conventions in sculpture, he embraced its tenets with enthusiasm. In 1927, Noguchi received a Guggenheim grant to study in Paris. Within a year of his arrival, he was working alongside Constantin Brancusi in his studio and associating with other artists such as Stuart Davis, Morris Kantor, and Alexander Calder. Modernism was their mantra, Paris its holy city; Noguchi received as much of an eduction in the ateliers and bistros of the city as in his apprenticeship with Brancusi.
By 1929, he was back in New York, where he developed a friendship with the eccentric visionary Buckminster Fuller, whose futurist ideas profoundly influenced the younger man. For an American artist of the early twentieth century, Paris was the first stop on any aesthetic pilgrimage; Noguchi, however, had been as heavily influenced in the French capital by Japanese artists as by European. After his return to New York, he began to plan a return to his father’s homeland in order to find his Oriental roots. In a militaristic phase at that point, Yone Noguchi preferred that his son not publicize those roots too widely and that he postpone his visit. Isamu, intent on the East, went instead to India and China, where he served a study apprenticeship. Eventually, he made his way to Japan. His early explorations of Japanese art and culture, to become a lifelong study, were crucial to the development of his philosophy.
In fact, Ashton could have added the subtitle “Backward and Forward” to Noguchi East and West, referring to travel not only between continents but in time as well. In spite of the general prewar emphasis on Japanese nationalism and cultural integrity, Japanese aesthetes argued then, as they continue to argue, the pros and cons of adapting Western ideas, of following traditional artistic practices, and of finding the balance between “vulgar” and “aristocratic” artistic expression. Noguchi listened, joined the debate, and attempted to resolve an ambivalence over whether to reject the contemporary world in favor of traditional, more static, solutions to artistic creation.
After the Manchurian incident dictated his leaving Japan, Noguchi arrived back in New York in 1931. Even though he had been influenced profoundly by his sojourn, particularly in the clay studios of Kyoto, Noguchi found the American innovations in the arts of the 1930’s infectious and exciting. Too strongly attached to “modernist ideas” to abandon them entirely for those of old Japan, he turned himself toward what Ashton calls the development of a “theater of two worlds,” a plastic cosmos in which East and West meet but neither is entirely effaced, an eclectic universe of borrowings from both cultures. The stage itself was naturally the best venue for such theater, and Noguchi quickly found himself designing sets and costumes for Martha Graham’s dance performances.
Noguchi had been impressed profoundly with the...
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