GREATEST: Isamu Noguchi
Uncovering the legacy of the Japanese-American artist, embarking on a world tour of Noguchi’s work in conversation with Brett Littman and Dakin Hart of the Noguchi Museum.
Isamu Noguchi’s philosophy was simple: learn by doing. He was a multi-hyphenate creator who circled the world in search of material to sculpt pure forms of empirical expression. His way of putting things in motion opened up a lifetime of artistic experimentation across ceramics, furniture, gardens, landscapes, lighting, parks and set designs, both for self-inquiry and in collaboration with creative partners. Noguchi once said, “I like to think of gardens as the sculpturing of space. A man may enter such a space: it is in scale with him; it is real. An empty space has no visual dimension or significance. Scale and meaning enter when some thoughtful object or line is introduced.” A starting point for comprehending the beauty of such a space is the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. Opened in 1985, Noguchi's mission was not simply to create a museum, but rather to question and open up the conversation of the harmonious interplay between space and objects. The garden flourishes today and is in constant configuration for the public and a growing roster of collaborators. Outdoor public works such as the UNESCO Garden [1956–1958] and California Scenario [1980–1982] continue this exploration. To uncover the themes that run through the artist’s body of work, photographer Johnny Le sits down with Brett Littman and Dakin Hart, the Director and Senior Curator of the Noguchi Museum, respectively.
Join as GREATEST takes you on a world tour of Noguchi’s public works and outdoor spaces.
Let’s start at a place everyone can go today: the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. How did this beautiful space come about?
DH: Noguchi bought a warehouse across the street from here. Sculptors always need more space. It was used for storage, staging and office space initially. It came with an outdoor space, but it really wasn’t a garden—it had one tree in it—it was mostly a junkyard. He got to work right away clearing that out. He had an idea of making a garden for himself and, over time, he started placing things and rearranging the interior spaces. It became less and less like storage and more and more like an installation.
Between 1977 and 1979, he was engaged in a huge traveling exhibition [Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes] that went to many of the most important museums in the United States—from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Detroit Institute of the Arts. It was organized by the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, and a version was re-curated for the Whitney in New York. Remember, he was in his mid-70s during this time, so he was thinking about his legacy. He didn’t have a family, so there was a lot of talk with museum people about what to do with everything. He realized that if he were to gift the whole collection to an institution, everything he owned, maybe a couple things would end up on view, but basically it would all disappear.
He decided to put the time and energy into creating an institution that could preserve his way of looking at things, really his perspective, which he was a lot more interested in than he was the things themselves. [His art was] really just a vehicle for a way of thinking. He was changing in that period too. It’s important to remember that until his 60s, he wasn’t indigent exactly, but he didn’t have resources that would allow him to do whatever he wanted to do. But following the Whitney retrospective and building a relationship with Pace Gallery, he suddenly had this unbelievable market that [Pace founder] Arne Glimcher was building for him, so he had resources unlike anything he’d ever had before.
As he was shaping what would become the museum into something that was a true expression of what he cared about, he was also building cash resources to make it possible to preserve it. I don’t think he ever had an epiphany, “Oh, I’m going to do a museum,” because when you read the letters that he was writing to people, he was puzzling it out as he was going. But by the early ’80s, it was clear that he had it in mind to make an institution, and that he had everything he needed to be able to do that. It opened publicly as a museum in the spring of ’85.
I believe there was also a museum established in Mure, Japan, too?
BL: The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure, Japan was opened posthumously. It’s on the grounds of Masatoshi Izumi’s stone-working business, who Noguchi worked with. Noguchi spent a lot of time there in the ’70s and ’80s. I would describe it as a sister museum, but in a way, the grounds were organically set up by Noguchi during his lifetime. We continue to have a very strong relationship with the museum in Mure.
Noguchi was so prolific in his work and ideas for public spaces. What was the common creative thread that connected him to these spaces and his overall ethos?
DH: That’s a big question. I would say at the end of the day, for him, it was all about connection. There’s that famous Noguchi quote, “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.” Sculpture for him is in the in-between places. It’s in the invisible connections between all of those elements. That’s what he was trying to generate; those special feelings of connection, those bonds, gravity, love. Things that we can’t see, but that exert enormous influence on our reality and our lives. He also said, “Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.” I think that’s really the commonality.
It’s very hard to explain what the Noguchi Museum does and why people are so happy to come and spend time here, because it’s beyond words. It’s beneath conscious awareness. He put a whole lifetime into figuring out how to manipulate those invisible, sub-intellectual connections. He got really good at it. The beautiful thing about the museum, and the garden in particular, is that in such a compact space, he was able to make something that feels like so much.
You can sit there a thousand times, and it still evokes the same kinds of feelings. That’s not a coincidence: it’s a minor miracle, because when you look at the original photographs from the late ’70s, it looks like a prison yard. Then by the time he died, of course, the Virginia Creeper and the Boston Ivy had filled in the walls, some of the trees had begun to mature a little bit, but it still was the seed of an idea of a garden. It wasn’t in any way what it is now, where you have this magnificent Katsura tree that dominates it and really makes it feel like an entirely natural environment. All of that was speculative. He was imagining that in his mind.
BL: For me, after [studying] Noguchi’s work and reading a lot about him over the last couple of years, the clues to the answer to that question are found in a very complex network of endeavors—his work with playgrounds, choreographers, Japanese gardens, his Bollingen Foundation grant; his ideas about sculpture, interest in architecture and maybe even a Shinto approach to the relationship of nature to the world. Maybe throw in a little bit of Carl Jung and some phenomenology, and you may be able to parse out some of the threads [in his oeuvre].
The in-betweenness of Noguchi’s work resonates with me. Like the Japanese garden at the UNESCO Center in Paris, which you can’t visit publicly, but there’s a restaurant where you can have lunch. You can meander your way out of it through the garden. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I love that he creates spaces you can discover in so many different ways. Do you know what the concept behind that garden was?
DH: Most of the resources to create it came from Japan. Noguchi talked to the Japanese government through an ambassador based in Paris to donate all the stone. It was almost a hundred tons of rock, which Noguchi went and selected in Japan, as well as a very complex group of trees. But he was very, very clear and insistent about the fact that it is not in any way a conventional Japanese garden.
He called it a “somewhat Japanese garden” or a “semi-Japanese garden.” That’s also a total misnomer because it’s two gardens that form one larger complex; the Delegate’s Patio is a hardscape, very formal, geometric and has mostly seating components. It has a fountain, which they also treat in and of itself as a separate work, which connects the two gardens together. The water trickles down a course that runs through the causeway and into the lower garden, which is kind of in the style of a Japanese stroll garden.
What excited him was having this huge plot of ground in the middle of Paris. Noguchi was given the opportunity to make a single sculpture and place it somewhere on the grounds along with Calder, Moore, Picasso, Miró and all the other people that were asked.
He was so ahead of his time. His playground designs were a huge but challenging part of his practice. Could you tell us about his playground designs, like the Playscapes in Sapporo, Japan?
DH: It was extremely frustrating for him. His ideas about playground development were just way too ahead of their time. He essentially was trying to make natural environments that were more interactive than a basic park, but that were not so specific and directive as playgrounds of the era. He wanted to make an environment that you can explore, that has a lot of elements to it, rather than an ordered universe of training equipment, which is what playgrounds were. He just didn’t have the opportunity to do it.
Here in New York City, he tried every decade to get a playground built—from the ’30s to the ’80s—unsuccessfully. The only American playground he was ever able to complete is the one in Atlanta: Playscapes. Even that was extremely compromised because he was working with the city parks department. He had to create something that wasn’t so alien or scary so that they were willing to put it in a big public park. It hues a little closer to convention than it probably would have had he been able to do absolutely whatever he wanted.
Moerenuma is super interesting because it was a landfill. It was the city dump. It’s 454 acres in total, so just absolutely massive—that’s the size of Central Park. He created a master plan. He had started thinking about some of the components, but really the park is posthumously produced by his longtime friend and partner, Shoji Sadao, who knew as much about Noguchi’s thinking as anybody ever has. Shoji really drew on all of those unexecuted projects that Noguchi had planned. Really, it’s a retrospective of Noguchi’s earth work and playground ideas from the preceding 60 years. It has a version of Play Mountain: a gigantic step pyramid with a long arcing path up to it.
It actually has another mountain as well called Mount Moray, which is 1,600 feet tall, from which you can survey the entire park. It has an ice skating rink for the winter. It has a beautiful little beach and water area for the summer. It has what, for my money, is definitely a top 10 Noguchi work called Sea Fountain, which is a computer-controlled replay of the biblical flood. It’s completely nuts. It’s almost 200 meters across, a gigantic basin. There’s a long program and a short program, but basically what happens over the course of either 15 or 45 minutes is that you get a huge spray fountain, and then the whole basin fills up with water with a big standing wave sculpture at the center of it that sloshes over to fill the basin. Then it goes totally calm. The basin drains out and you get an amazing mist. If there’s any sunlight at all on a day, you get a standing rainbow that you can see in 360 degrees. It beats anything [Olafur] Eliasson has ever done or will ever do. It’s on that level. I call it Noguchi Disneyland.
BL: In general, I think a lot of Noguchi’s public works have the appeal of movement, of seeing different things from different positions, and maybe sometimes taking a little pilgrimage to get there. That’s all part and parcel, even today at our museum. Obviously for land artists, that’s part of the plan—to get to the Lightning Field [Walter De Maria, 1977], City [Michael Heizer, ongoing] or Spiral Jetty [Robert Smithson, 1970] you have to be pretty dedicated. You’re on a mission to do it and that kind of heightens the experience.
There’s a few works in California and Florida that are profound conceptual and ecological explorations of space, such as California Scenario in Costa Mesa, and Bayfront Park in Miami. How did Noguchi grapple with the juxtaposition of nature and man in these spaces?
DH: Cities are really the best place to put them. It’s worth remembering he was a 70-year New York City resident, but in a way, every Noguchi space acts like a Japanese pocket garden. If you think about a garden in Tokyo, it might only be two meters on a side or three meters on a side, nestled in what are essentially gigantic steel glass canyons. Noguchi loved that high contrast.
I think in a way, Noguchi’s ideal was to make public spaces feel secret. But everyone there gets that feeling and it can be shared—it’s not exclusive or elitist. It’s like the feeling of wandering through the forest and happening onto a glade. You get those moments of extreme experiential serendipity.
Where better to do that than in the middle, for example, of Costa Mesa? It’s a pretty mediocre office park surrounded by a typical California shopping center. Here, at the heart of it, backing onto a gigantic parking garage, is this remarkable distillation of the experience of the insane diversity of the California landscape. Everything from desert to mountains, with a whole narrative about water usage running through it, which is the story of California.
BL: I think Noguchi is very good at that. He can even do it on a micro scale, transforming a small space to really expand your sphere of understanding.
DH: What’s neat about Noguchi is that, from his point of view, Japanese garden techniques and strategies are a form of technology. What Noguchi liked about traditional crafts, and not just Japanese crafts, but worldwide, are these technologies that have evolved and developed over centuries, and in some cases millennia. Anything that has served mankind well for that long, there’s a reason.
Why did Noguchi love pyramids? You have natural and manmade pyramids on every continent on the planet. We’ve been making them for thousands of years all over the world. When you engage with the pyramid, you’re engaging with a commonality of all of humanity. He often did that. When he was making a garden, he didn’t make a Japanese garden by using Japanese techniques; he took Japanese techniques, developed them as technology and then made his own synthetic gardens, and was careful to always hybridize that whole matrix of sources that Brett mentioned earlier. He’s always genuinely making it his own.
In the remaining years of his life, what mattered most to him as a citizen of the planet?
DH: Brett and I both spend a lot of time talking to artists, designers and other creative people. I don’t know a single one who is not investing a lot of energy into being a good citizen of the planet. Noguchi is somebody who demonstrated over decades that that was his prime motivation. He articulated it in dozens of different ways that are incredibly compelling and have held up beautifully over time, but also proved it in the kinds of projects he did. I think in a way, he is the perfect Old Master for our moment.
BL: As one of the great polymaths of the 20th century, Noguchi is difficult to understand in totality. Many people talk about Noguchi as a zen stone sculptor—I think that is incredibly reductive. What’s exciting for people when they learn more about Noguchi is the breadth of knowledge and reference that you need to bring to be in the game with him. You need to know about architecture. You need to know about the history of design. You need to know the history of world culture. You need to understand literature. You need to understand technology. He’s really a towering figure.
What’s inspiring is to try to really put that all together and turn that into some kind of aesthetic value system. Noguchi did it very well, but with failures, missteps and misfires along the way, as every artist has. When you give a lecture and you walk through all the aspects of Noguchi, people just shake their heads at the end. They’re astonished. For me, that’s exciting because I like artists who are really looking at culture at large. Noguchi is one of the great artists.
He’s who we need right now, in a way.
DH: He’s pretty equal to the moment, but not in every way. We are not a hagiographic museum. We’re not trying to turn Noguchi into some kind of saint, but there are a lot of things that we’re struggling with at the moment that Noguchi did think long and hard about, and had some pretty interesting solutions to. Such as our connection to the earth and the dislocation that so many of us experience from nature.
When you look at the knock-on effects of that, which of course, accumulate over time, it’s like the frog: you put the frog into a pot of water and then set it to boil. Why does the frog never hop out of the pot? Before it knows it, it’s doomed. That’s like our relationship to nature. Noguchi thought so deeply about that, especially with his playgrounds. How do you make sure that kids grow up in a way they feel really deeply connected to the planet? He was trying to design spaces to do that. It’s a great thought experiment to imagine: What would a New York City full of Noguchi-style playgrounds be like? What kind of New Yorkers would it be generating?