Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was one of the twentieth century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors. Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, he created sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture, and set designs. His work, at once subtle and bold, traditional and modern, set a new standard for the reintegration of the arts.
Born in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of thirteen, when he moved to Indiana. While studying pre-medicine at Columbia University, he took evening sculpture classes on New York’s Lower East Side, mentoring with the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon left the University to become an academic sculptor.
Noguchi’s work was not widely recognized in the United States until 1938, when he completed a large-scale sculpture symbolizing the freedom of the press, which was commissioned for the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. This was the first of what would become numerous celebrated public works worldwide, ranging from playgrounds to plazas, gardens to fountains, all reflecting his belief in the social significance of sculpture.
Noguchi did not belong to any particular movement, but he collaborated with artists working in a range of disciplines and schools. He created stage sets as early as 1935 for the dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, beginning a lifelong collaboration; as well as for dancers/choreographers Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, and George Balanchine and composer John Cage. In the 1960s, Noguchi began working with stone carver Masatoshi Izumi on the island of Shikoku, Japan; a collaboration that would also continue for the rest of his life. From 1960 to 1966, he worked on a playground design with the architect Louis Kahn.
Portrait by Nancy Crampton