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Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was an internationally acclaimed sculptor whose style, combining Eastern and Western elements, made him one of the most important creative minds of the 20th century. Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi spent time in both the United States and Japan as a child. He was deeply inspired after seeing the work of Constantin Brancusi and, at the age of 22, applied for and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel to Paris to study. In the legacy of Brancusi, the reductive forms of modernism would remain a constant in Noguchi’s lifetime of work. In addition to European modernism, Noguchi took inspiration from Japanese and Chinese traditional arts as well as ancient Mexican ruins and applied them to sculptures, furniture, ceramics, garden designs, architecture, and set designs.

In 1930 Noguchi traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad toward Japan, where he hoped to reconcile with his estranged father. The 26-year-old stopped en route in Beijing, where for eight months he studied with celebrated Chinese brush-and-ink master Qi Baishi. During that period, Noguchi made many large ink-on-paper works, a few of which he entitled Mother and Child. Several years later, Noguchi donated Lannan’s Mother and Child to an auction in New York in support of the Chinese Women’s Relief Association for its charitable work in war-torn China. The highest bid came from a wealthy Chinese businessman, K. C. Li, on the condition that Noguchi explain why he, a Japanese American, would choose to help the Chinese. Noguchi shared, “I give this drawing as my way of showing the world that not all Japanese are militaristic.” It was at this time that Noguchi added the poem in honor of China, directly on the artwork. Approximately 20 years later, Li made a gift of the work to J. Patrick Lannan Sr., who went on to collect several more Noguchi drawings and sculptures, establishing a friendship with the artist along the way. Of the many letters between the two, one to Noguchi from Lannan in 1983 reads, “I can say no one, of all the painters and sculptors I have met, match you in accomplishments. You are the Master, always and always.”

Noguchi was honored with his first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968. In 1985 he opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (now the Noguchi Museum) in Long Island City, New York. In 1986, two years before his death, Noguchi represented the United States in the Venice Biennale.

Art without images