Isamu Noguchi


Name Isamu Noguchi
Born November 17 1904
Died December 30 1988
Birth Location Los Angeles, CA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

An internationally celebrated sculptor, landscape architect, and theatrical and industrial designer, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was perhaps the most famous and visible American citizen of Japanese ancestry during most of his long lifetime. In view of his cosmopolitan, international associations and the marginal nature of his connections with Japanese communities during the prewar era, Noguchi himself cast doubt on whether he could even be considered Japanese American.[1] Yet he devoted major effort to supporting confined Japanese Americans, including voluntarily accepting incarceration in the Poston camp as a sign of his solidarity.

A Prominent Artist

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, the product of an affair between Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi, a Japanese poet and writer who had come to the United States a decade previously, and Léonie Gilmour, the white woman he had hired as editorial assistant and translator to assist him in the creation of his pseudonymous novel The American Diary of a Japanese Girl. Léonie and Isamu were swiftly abandoned by Yone, who returned to Japan. Believing that her son should have a Japanese education, Leonie moved with Isamu to Japan in 1907, though Yone largely rejected him. Isamu's childhood years were spent in various places in Japan. In 1918, Léonie sent Isamu to the United States and enrolled him in a school in Indiana—he later referred to himself as a "waif" without a true home or family.

After graduation, Noguchi moved to the Northeast, briefly apprenticed with sculptor Gutzon Borglum, and then enrolled in a premedical program at Columbia University. After deciding to devote himself to art, Noguchi travelled to Paris, where he worked under the modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi between 1927 and 1929. In 1930, Noguchi travelled for several months to China and Japan, where he studied Asian brush painting and pottery. During the 1930s, Noguchi was centered in New York, where he established himself as a modernist sculptor, even as he made his living doing portrait busts of rich Manhattanites. Meanwhile, he worked on various design projects, became active in landscape design, flirted with leftist politics, and entered into a longstanding collaboration with modern dancer Martha Graham, for whom he designed sets and costumes. Noguchi also settled for a time in Mexico City and created a large-size mural relief for a public market. He gained additional fame when his stainless steel frieze was picked for installation in Rockefeller Center.

Noguchi remained largely aloof from New York's Japanese community during prewar decades. He did become close a few Issei in New York, however, such as modern dancer Michio Ito, the radical painter Eitaro Ishigaki and his wife, feminist/writer Ayako Ishigaki (Haru Matsui). Noguchi also grew friendly with the Nisei journalist Larry Tajiri, who moved to New York in 1940 to work for the Asahi news service.

Opposing Mass Removal and Volunteering for Poston

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced Noguchi, then visiting in California, to take stock of his identity and convictions. Joining forces with Larry Tajiri, who had returned to the West Coast, Noguchi formed an antifascist group, the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy. Noguchi and Tajiri produced a manifesto and attracted a set of West Coast writers, including Eddie Shimano and Kazu Ikeda, to sign on. Working together with Shuji Fujii, the Kibei editor of the leftist magazine DOHO, Noguchi commissioned a series of reports on Nisei in California agriculture and on employment and housing conditions, which were submitted to local authorities.

As February 1942 dawned and the menace of mass removal grew more urgent, Noguchi sought allies to defend Nisei civil rights. First, Noguchi wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking him not to violate the civil rights of American citizens through arbitrary action. Noguchi also wrote to ask help from Archibald MacLeish, Director of the Office of Facts and Figures (later Office of War Information (OWI)). Meanwhile, Noguchi met with progressive writer Carey McWilliams, who suggested that his group assemble an all-star panel of non-Japanese to testify before the Tolan Committee, the congressional committee set up to inquire into the question of mass removal. Noguchi quickly contacted Paul Robeson, the famous African American singer/activist, who agreed to testify. UC Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would soon after be called upon to lead the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, pledged his support as well.[2]

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Once the order was announced, Noguchi travelled to Washington to lobby for permission to establish a pro-allied vernacular newspaper and make a film of the "evacuation." Once in Washington, Noguchi made an appointment with John Collier, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the agency that had been granted authority over the new camp being set up for confined Japanese Americans at Poston, Arizona. It was a fateful encounter. Collier was a visionary thinker who had organized an "Indian New Deal" based on Native American self-government and respect for Indian art and culture. He fired Noguchi with enthusiasm for Poston: there he could teach art, design a built community, and inculcate democratic spirit among the Nisei, to whom he could be a model. Although as an East Coast resident he was not subject to Executive Order 9066, Noguchi volunteered to be placed in the camp. He deemed it a worthy sacrifice for the Japanese Americans, whom he now felt to be his people.

Noguchi arrived at Poston in mid-1942, with all sorts of beautiful plans for parks and agricultural cooperatives, prepared to make a life in the community. Alas, it was not to be. Noguchi soon found that he could not work effectively in the heat and primitive conditions at Poston, and the WRA, which had taken over Poston, had no intention of implementing plans for a permanent settlement. Worse, although Noguchi cut an attractive figure in camp and made many friends, he was viewed with hostility by many of those whom he had romantically imagined were "his people." Not only was Noguchi an outsider—at 37 he was old for a Nisei, and was an artist, a political activist, and biracial to boot—but his connections with the camp administration rendered him suspect. Within weeks of his arrival, Noguchi asked his friends to get him out of camp. He left camp late in 1942, having stayed only six months, and swiftly returned to the East Coast, where he remained for the rest of the war. He resumed making sculptures and designed sets and costumes for Martha Graham ballets, including the notable Appalachian Spring (1945). Noguchi found little ways to assist Japanese Americans—he wrote an article on the camps for The New Republic (another, commissioned by Reader's Digest, was completed but never published), made speeches, and joined an antifascist group, the Japanese American Committee for Democracy. However, his leadership role in community affairs had dissolved, and he never again felt so close to the Nisei.

Postwar Career

After the end of World War II, Noguchi became an internationally known and much-travelled artist and designer. The three-sided glass coffee table he designed for Herman Miller in 1947 soon became a classic of modern furniture. In 1948, Noguchi visited Japan, where he immersed himself in creating pottery as well as sculpture. In 1951 he premiered his designs for akari (Japanese paper light sculptures), which became one of his signature works. In the early 1950s, he married actress Yoshiko Shirley Yamaguchi (AKA Ri Koran). Beginning in the 1960s, he collaborated with stone carver Masatoshi Izumi on the island of Shikoku, Japan, where he ultimately established a studio. In addition to producing sculptures that were featured in collections around the world, Noguchi created a large number of playgrounds, parks, and gardens, including the famed UNESCO garden in Paris and Bayfront Park in Miami. He continued his collaborations with Martha Graham and other choreographers, and also partnered with architects Louis Kahn and Buckminster Fuller. Among the honors he received were election to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1962, and the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government in 1988. In 1987 Noguchi received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, Noguchi designed and opened his own museum, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, in New York City. Although he did not maintain a primary connection with ethnic Japanese communities, he did interact with them in various ways, most notably in his design and sculpture for the Japanese American Community Center Plaza in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Noguchi died in December 1988.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Ashton, Dore. Noguchi East and West. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Duus, Masayo. The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

The Noguchi Museum. http://www.noguchi.org/.

Noguchi, Isamu. A Sculptor's World. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Footnotes

  1. Isamu Noguchi, "I become a Nisei," unpublished article submitted to Reader's Digest, 1942, p.1. Isamu Noguchi Papers, Isamu Noguchi Foundation, New York City.
  2. Letter, Isamu Noguchi to Carey McWilliams, February 25, 1942; letter, Care McWilliams to Robert Oppenheimer, February 20, 1942. Box 2, Carey McWilliams Miscellaneous Papers, 1941-1945, Hoover Istitution Library, Stanford University.