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Isamu Noguchi

“You can find out how to do something and then do it or do something and then find out what you did.”

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About Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1904. His father, Yonejiró Noguchi, or Yone as he was called, was Japanese, and his mother, Leonie Gilmour was American, but both of them were writers. Isamu spent his childhood living in Japan with his mother, but moved back to the United States for high school. When he was eighteen, he started college at Columbia University in New York City. Although he was studying medicine, he was also taking sculpture classes at night. Sculpture won out, and Isamu left school to become at artist.
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After seeing the work by French sculptor Constantin Brancusi, Isamu decided to go to Paris and study with him. He worked as Brancusi’s assistant for two years. By the time he was twenty-four, Isamu was making sculptures out of all different kinds of material—stone, wood, and metal. Influenced by Brancusi, his work generally featured simple free form shapes inspired by nature. Unlike geometric shapes, such as squares or rectangles, that tend to have straight edges, free form shapes are generally wavy or curvy and asymmetrical. Asymmetrical means not exactly the same on both sides.
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Not everyone liked or accepted the kind of abstract art that Isamu was creating. So when he got to back to the United States, he made a living by making more recognizable portrait sculptures. As soon he had earned enough money, though, he decided to travel some more.
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After a quick trip back to France, Isamu went to China where he studied brush drawing with Qi Baishi. From China, he traveled on to Japan, where he studied pottery with Jinmatsu Uno. Pottery is a kind of ceramic art, which means that it is made with clay. Later in his life, Isamu would take a trip across the United States, travel to Mexico, India, Italy, and lots of other places around the world. He learned different things everywhere he went and used them all in his own work.
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Isamu made individual sculptures and ceramic pieces throughout his life, but he was also interested in designing whole environments, or spaces that people could move through. Not only did he design stage sets for Martha Graham’s dance company and the New York City Ballet, but he also designed public spaces, like plazas (large open areas in cities), gardens, and even playgrounds. A lot of people said “No” to his designs, but he didn’t give up very easily. Isamu submitted his first playground design in 1933, but his first playground didn’t get made until 1965, over thirty years later!
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Isamu’s work is full of opposites in perfect balance. It incorporates old Japanese traditions with the most modern ideas in European art. It pays respect to nature, but also reveals the touch of human hands. Sometimes it puts rough areas next to smooth areas or plays with dark and light. Isamu’s art can seem quiet and still one moment, but alive and moving the next!
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Licensed Images Information

Mrs. White (Shirofujin) (Lady in White), 1952 | Shigaraki stoneware; wood base | 42 ¼ x 9 ½ x 8 7/8 inches | © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York
Globular, 1928 | Polished brass on marble | 20 x 9 ¼ x 11 ½ inches | Base: 3 ¾ x 9 x 7 ¾ inches | © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York
Uncle Takagi (Portrait of My Uncle), 1931 | Terracotta | 12 3/8 x 8 3/4 x 8 ½ inches | Base: 5 5/8 x 9 x 6 ¾ inches | © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York
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Keyword:
Abstract

Some art is interested in copying things in the real world—people, for instance, or objects. Abstract art is more interested in just being art. It focuses on things like lines, colors, and shapes. It doesn’t try to represent something else. Some art that we call abstract actually falls somewhere in between these two descriptions. A work of art might represent or suggest the idea of something even if it doesn’t look exactly like the thing itself. Some of Noguchi’s sculptures, for instance, look abstract, but remind us of forms in nature, like bodies or birds or mountains.

Activities and Questions

  • Make an abstract picture or sculpture that represents a person or thing.
  • Make an abstract picture or sculpture that represents an idea or mood.
  • Make an abstract picture or sculpture that doesn’t represent anything in particular.
  • Come up with a plan for a playground or a garden.
  • Learn how to make an art form that is practiced in another part of the world.
  • Isamu Noguchi’s American and Japanese backgrounds both played a role in his art. What is your cultural background? How has it influenced you or the art that you make?
  • In addition to sculptures, Noguchi also designed furniture. Can furniture be art? How do you know what is art and what isn’t art? Do you think art means the same thing to everyone?