Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee

Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee

Isamu Noguchi


Between 23 September 2022 and 8 January 2023 the Zentrum Paul Klee is devoting a comprehensive exhibition to the Japanese-American world citizen and important sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). It reveals a radically interdisciplinary reuvre that brings together art and design.

Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee

Isamu Noguchi is one of the most experimental artists of the 20th century, and one of the most important sculptors and designers of the United States. His varied body of work is marked by a search for the connection between art and life: among other things he made stage sets, light objects, furniture, public gardens and playgrounds. He drew inspiration from past and contemporary cultures: Japanese gardens, astronomic observatories in India or the abstract art of Surrealism.

As a politically committed artist he used his interdisciplinary and intercultural approach to expand the understanding of sculpture. He was not interested in making objects solely for galleries and museums, but in designing spaces for society.

On the exhibition
Over ten sections, this comprehensive exhibition explores the work of Noguchi, who moved regularly, as a world citizen, between the USA, Japan and Europe, and combined different cultural traditions and techniques in his incomparable work. It is the first extensive show in Switzerland to present the full range of Noguchi's category-defying practice.

The earliest works are brought together in the section Portrait Heads - Friendship and Collaboration. It includes figurative works from the 1920s, when Noguchi was at the beginning of his artist career, to the early 1950s.

Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee
Isamu Noguchi. Globular, 1928
Brass, marble base. 50,8 × 23,2 × 29,2 cm. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York
The Noguchi Museum Archives
© INFGM / 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich

The various different techniques of the portrait busts confirm Noguchi's early skill in the use of different materials, techniques and tools: I don’t believe in sticking with one medium, i’m afraid of its dominating me and becoming my trademark.
In 1927 Noguchi worked as an assistant in the studio of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris. There he not only became proficient in the use of different tools but also learned what a sculpture can do in space. In the section Endless Coupling - Abstractions, numerous works with shiny surfaces and biomorphic shapes testify to the tasting impression made on Noguchi by this stay in Paris.

Noguchi found the formal reduction that he learned from Brancu§i, as well as the perfection of his training in his use of tools and natural materials confirmed in the Japanese conception of art. The radical way in which he incorporated techniques from different cultures - traditional and contemporary - in his works is apparent in terracotta figures and mechanically pleated metal sculptures shown in Global Distillation - Between Tradition and Modernity.

Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee
Isamu Noguchi. Red Lunar Fist, 1944
Magnesite, plastic, resin, electric components. 18,1 x 21,3 x 22,2 cm The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York
Photo: Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 9864
© INFGM / 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich

Noguchi is presented as a political artist in the section Tortured Earth - Political Commitment. As a consequence of the burgeoning racism in the United States, which had the most devastating effect on the African-American population, he adopted a committed position against this injustice. Among other things he designed the set for Erick Hawkins' play about John Brown's struggle against slavery. ‘Clearly I yearn to bring sculpture into more direct contact with the day-to-day experiences of life. 'Noguchi involved himself in the political and social discussions of the day with designs for monuments and sculptures made after his stays and travels in Europe and East Asia in the early 1930s. Under the title Social Protest the Zentrum Paul Klee is showing a selection of his conceptual projects for public spaces that addressed social issues.

Noguchi's love for artistic experimentation and his sculptural interest in technology and science are manifested both in his use of industrial materials and in his new vision of space. He was inspired to engage with contemporary discourses by his lifelong friend, the inventive architect R. Buckminster Fuller. This area is addressed in the section entitled Expanded Universe - Science and Technology.

In the 1940s many Surrealist artists fled from Europe to New York. The abstract biomorphic forms of the dreamworlds that they depicted were one inspiration for Noguchi to make what he called his ‘Interlocking Figures'. In combining traditional Japanese carpentry techniques with contemporary abstraction, he also processed his wartime experiences of uncertainty and helplessness in these works, to which the section Interlocking Worlds - Biomorph ic Forms is devoted.

Noguchi had been interested in the desert landscape of the American State of Arizona when he became a voluntary inmate of an internment camp for Japanese people living on the West Coast. Later he captured his impressions of the landscape and its light in a series of works presented in the section Lunar Landscapes - Light and Lightness. For Noguchi, light - in addition to the impressions of the desert landscape, also the light of the moon and fire - became a sculptural material. In the 1950s his experiments led to the Akari lamps made of Japanese paper and bamboo. In the Japanese language ‘Akari' means both light in the sense of consciousness and lightness in the sense of being or essence, and is thus the ideal name for Noguchi's light sculptures.

In numerous sculptures from the 1960s the artist combined smooth perfect surfaces with roughly carved stone. His visits to quarries in Italy and Greece brought him closer to the essence of marble and different mechanical ways of working it. New Explorations - Rawness and Perfection shows the new forms and surface treatments that Noguchi deliberately leaves in tension with one another.

Throughout his career, Noguchi's interest in play becomes apparent in many different media and collaborations. Playscapes - Ideal Worlds reveals that as well as different playgrounds Noguchi also made the set element Jungle Gym for Erick Hawkins' Stephen Acrobat (1947). Central to this is the interaction and involvement of the public, as visitors can experience for themselves with the Play Sculpture placed outside the Zentrum Paul Klee.

Noguchi’s artistic practice
Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904, the son of the American author Leonie Gil- mour and the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi. He lived and worked in the United States and Japan, undertook projects throughout North America and in Europe, Japan and Israel, accompanied by extensive travels. In his work he connects ideas from both past and contemporary cultures. Japanese gardens, astronomical observatories in India and the earthen mounds of prehistoric North American cultures resonate in Noguchi's work just as much as the abstract art of the early 20th century or the Surrealist movement. According to time and place Noguchi employed the most diverse materials such as stone, wood, metal, plastic, ceramics, paper and electrical components. He worked both traditional craft and modern industrial techniques.

The furniture that Noguchi designed in the 1940s and 1950s have become design classics. The best known of these are the Akari light sculptures. In his work Noguchi did not distinguish between free and applied art. He wanted to make sculptural spaces in which people perceived space and sculptures in different ways through their movement.

The exhibition is organised and curated by Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern), the Barbican (London) and Museum Ludwig (Cologne) in partnership with LaM - Lille Metropole Musee d'art moderne, d'art contemporain et d'art brut. The exhibition would not have been possible without the collaboration of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

The opening of the exhibition will take place on Thursday, 22 September 2022 from 6 pm. Admission to the exhibition is free on this evening.

Fabienne Eggelhofer

Assistant Curator
Myriam Dossegger

With the support of
Kanton Bern, Burgergemeinde Bern, Bundesamt fur Kultur, Terra Foundation for American Art, Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, Phillips, teo jakob

Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee

Catalogue Isamu Noguchi
Published by Fabienne Eggelhofer, Rita Kersting and Florence Ostende
Editorial Coordination: Anna Godfrey and Katrin Sauerlander
Editorial Assistants: Andrew de Brnn, Myriam Dos- segger and Nana Tazuke-Steiniger
Texts: Fabienne Eggelhofer, Dakin Hart, Rita Kersting, Florence Ostende and Nana Tazuke- Steininger, with a conversation between Karen L. Ishizuka, Katy Siegel, Danh Vo and Devika Singh (chair)
320 pages, 23 x 27 cm, 350 colour illustrations
Prestel Verlag, Munich / London / New York, a member of Penguin Random House Verlagsgruppe
ISBN 978-3-7913-7927-2, CHF 48


Last Days: Isamu Noguchi | Zentrum Paul Klee
Isamu Noguchi in his studio at Gentilly near Paris, 1927
Photo: Atelier Stone
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03716
© INFGM / 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich

Isamu Noguchi is born in Los Angeles on November 17, 1904, as the son of the American writer and educator Leonie Gilmour. His father, the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi, returned to Japan before Noguchi's birth.

From 1907, Noguchi grows up in Tokyo and nearby Chigasaki. He helps to build the family house and learns Japanese woodworking techniques.

His half-sister Ailes Gilmour is born. She would later dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Noguchi travels alone to the United States to attend school in Rolling Prairie and La Porte, Indiana.

After graduating from high school, he plans to begin premedical studies at Columbia University in New York. In summer, he completes an apprenticeship with the sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut.

Noguchi lives with his mother and Ailes in New York. He decides to become a sculptor and studies with Onorio Ruotolo at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School.

Noguchi receives a fellowship to travel to Paris and East Asia. In Paris, he works as an assistant in the studio of Constantin Brancu§i, and then in a studio of his own in Gentilly.

Noguchi returns to New York, where he soon collaborates with the architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller as well as the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

He travels via Paris and Moscow to China, where he studies traditional brush drawing with Qi Baishi. In 1931, he goes to Japan and studies Japanese culture, gardens, temples, and ceramics.

Noguchi begins to create industrial designs, large-scale earthworks and monuments, as well as the first of his playground concepts. These designs would remain largely unrealized.

Noguchi's text "What's the Matter with Sculpture" is published in Art Front. Throughout his life, Noguchi questions the role of art in society and his own artistic practice. In Mexico City he creates a large-scale relief mural. In the 1930s, he is particularly interested in political events and tries to respond to social injustices as an artist.

He creates a frieze made of stainless steel for the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center, New York. This work earns him a degree of recognition in the United States.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Peart Harbor, Noguchi is politically active on behalf of Japanese in the United States and Americans with Japanese roots. He voluntarily enters an incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona, in the hopes of improving living conditions there.

The first lunars (illuminated sculptures) are created. Noguchi experiments with new materials, such as plastic and different kinds of wood.

Noguchi receives a travel grant to research the history of sculpture in public and spiritual settings and journeys to France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and in 1950 to Japan. Over the following years, he lives and works alternately in New York, various European countries, and Japan, with travels and projects across the globe.

Noguchi has a studio residency at the Industrial Arts Research Institute (IARI), Tokyo. The first conversations about Noguchi's collaboration on Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park take place, and although he later designs railings for two bridges there, his proposal for a Memorial to the Dead is rejected by the civic committee. In collaboration with the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, he designs a garden and a faculty room in honour of his father at Keio University in Tokyo.

Noguchi visits the Ozeki lantern factory in Gifu and designs his first Akari light sculptures. He marries the actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi.

The Akari lamps go into production. Noguchi lives with Yamaguchi in Kita Kamakura on the property of ceramicist Rosanjin Kitaoji and creates new ceramic works.

Noguchi travels through Greece, Egypt, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore. His travel grant is extended.

Noguchi lives with Yamaguchi in London as well as Paris for two months and designs costumes and stage sets for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Afterward, he returns to New York. He signs a contract with Wohnbedarf AG to distribute the Akari in Switzerland. Noguchi also receives a commission to design a garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Noguchi undertakes journeys to India and Hong Kong. He and Yamaguchi divorce. He works with different casting processes in iron and bronze.

Noguchi's works are on view at documenta II in Kassel.

Noguchi sets up a studio and residence in Long Island City, New York after working in friends' studios since his return to New York in 1958.

In Israel, Noguchi begins work on the Billy Rose Art Garden, a sculpture garden for the Israel Museum. That summer, he has a studio at the American Academy in Rome, where balsa wood and clay sculptures are cast in bronze. Near the Pietrasanta marble quarries, he works on marble sculptures.

A first solo exhibition in Europe is held at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. Noguchi is represented at documenta III.

The first retrospective is shown at the Whitney Museum, New York. Noguchi's autobiography, A Sculptor's World, is published.

Noguchi sets up a studio for large-scale stone sculptures in Mure, Japan (the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan in posthumously established in 1999 at his studio in Mure).

Noguchi proposes a design for Horace E. Dodge Fountain, and the project expands into the Philip A. Hart Plaza for Detroit, Michigan (1971-79), his most ambitious civic project to date.

Playscapes, a playground designed in collaboration with architect Shoji Sa- dao, opens in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia.

Noguchi designs the foyer for the headquarters of the Sogetsu School for Ike- bana. He is awarded the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The solo exhibition Noguchi: Sculptor as Designeris held at MoMA. In 1978, the exhibition Noguchi's imaginary Landscapes begins its tour of six U.S. institutions.

Together with Shoji Sadao, Noguchi begins the construction of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City. It opens in 1985.

At the 42nd Venice Biennale, Noguchi represents the United States. Isamu Noguchi: What Is Sculpture?features Akari light sculptures and the Slide Mantra.

Noguchi dies in New York City.



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