Listening to Stone: The Art & Life of Isamu Noguchi

Listening to Stone: The Art & Life of Isamu Noguchi


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Anne McLean: Good
evening and welcome. Tonight’s lecture by Haden Herrera,
Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, is the kickoff
event for our exciting Martha Graham at the Library Festival,
a 10-day celebration of dance, music and design. And I know that many of you
are already planning to come to quite a few of our
upcoming events. We are very, very pleased to be able to mount three historic works
commissioned by the library from Martha Graham, including the
ballet Appalachian Spring with music by Aaron Copeland, which has
become an icon of American culture. Also Cave of the Heart with Samuel
Barber’s music, and Dark Meadow with a score by Carlos Chavez. And this week we’ll be sharing with
our audiences a beautiful video of a brand-ew Library of
Congress dance commission from Swedish choreographer
Pontus Lindberg, set to music by Irving Fine. So check out our website
next week for a preview. Tonight we are very, very delighted
to have Hayden Herrera here to offer us a scholar’s introduction
to the eloquent and poetic work of Isamu Noguchi, who
created sets for all three of the Martha Graham
ballets in the festival. The profound connection
between Graham and Noguchi, one of the most influential artists
of the 20th century, is in fact one of the program threads
for the festival, as you’ll see in the
program booklet you have. Miss Herrera has received
critical acclaim for her biography of Noguchi, who commented that
dancers brought his sets to life. “Then the air becomes charged
with meaning and emotion, and form plays its integral part in a reenactment of
a ritual,” he wrote. “Theater is a ceremonial,
the performance is a rite. Sculpture in daily life
should or could be like this. They move, and the world moves.” Miss Herrera has also been
admired for her biographies of two other great
modernist figures, Frida Kahlo and Arshile Gorky. After her talk,she’ll be
signing copies of her book and it will also be available in the Library sale shop
during our festival. So we hope you’ll join us
this week for more events. And now please join me in
welcoming Hayden Herrera. : [ Applause ]>>Hayden Herrera: Good evening. I’m very happy to be
participating in the festival. Martha Graham, she was
somebody that Noguchi adored. They had many [inaudible]. Apparently once she
actually slapped him. But he could be irritating. In any case, I’m very glad to be
here at the Library of Congress. And to put the first
— that’s actually — let’s go back for a second. Isamu Noguchi — this
is a photograph. There he is. Isamu Noguchi, this is from
1946, was charming, articulate and passionate about art. But there was, I think,
at his center something that was very closed,
that was secretive. He was a man that did
not want to be known, and his sculpture likewise
is difficult to know. His reticence can be
felt in his sculptures and especially those
carved in stone. On the left is Integral, 1959, and
on the right is Childhood from 1970. Is that making a noise? Maybe if I get back,
would that be better? Okay. The sculptures in
stone are self-contained, mysterious and still. Their energy moves inward, not
outward towards the viewer. It is an energy that does not
propel movement or gesture, but rather it creates
a kind of resonance. What Noguchi thought
of as a kind of hum. It was as if the atoms in mineral
were calling out to each other. People who knew Noguchi remark
on his intensely private nature. He himself spoke often of
being lonely and feeling as if he belonged nowhere. His unhappy childhood
was certainly one source of his emotional disconnect. On the left is Yone Noguchi,
the father of Noguchi, and his mother Leonie Gilmour,
American, on the right. His American mother and his Japanese
father, both writers, never married. And a few months before Noguchi was
born, his father went back to Japan. He basically sort of
abandoned his son and his wife, except that he wrote her a little
note saying, “You are my wife,” but that was the extent
of them being married. When Noguchi was two, he
and his mother lived briefly with his father in Tokyo. After that, Noguchi
saw his father rarely. “All I remember of my
earliest time,” he said, “Is being a child with his mother. That was the total of my existence
all the time I was in Japan.” Because his mother had to learn
a living by teaching English, Nogouchi spent much
of his day alone. A couple of photographs
of Noguchi in Japan. I guess this must be — the one on the left must be
soon after he got there. And then he looks around
eight in his Samurai costume. And then this is his
passport photograph from 1918. So he was 14 there. Noguchi learned to be
extraordinarily independent and his refusal to need anybody
increased when, at the age of 13 — I guess he was 13 there then, yeah. Because he was born in November — 13, he travelled by
himself from Japan to a boarding school in Indiana. And he did not see his
mother for five years. When she and his half-sister
finally arrived in New York in 1922, Noguchi chose to live with them. But the ménage did not last long. In his autobiography,
Noguchi recalled that he really resented the fact that his mother had
sent him to America. He had felt deserted. He said, “My extreme
attachment never returned. And now the more motherly she
became, the more I resented her.” For all his resistance
to his mother’s meddling, Noguchi took her advice — well,
reluctantly took her advice in 1924. And enrolled in the
Leonardo da Vinci Art School on the Lower East Side. It was actually 10th street and
Tompkins Square in New York. After only three months of study, he
became a skilled academic sculptor and he held his first exhibition. So the guy was incredibly
skilled and talented. This is one of his
academic sculptures. It’s called Undine,
and it’s from 1926. In the year that he sculpted
Undine, Noguchi became dissatisfied with his academic work and he began to frequent galleries
showing modern art. He was particularly impressed by a Brancusi show at
the Broomer Gallery. He said he was transfixed
by Noguchi’s vision. In 1927, on the basis of
sculptures like Undine, he won a Guggenheim fellowship
and travelled to Paris, and for five months he served
as Brancusi’s assistant. From Brancusi he learned to
have a reverence for materials and also a deep respect for
the tools that he used to carve and to polish sculptures. He also loved Brancusi’s simplicity. He said, “What Brancusi does
with a bird or the Japanese do with a garden is to take
the essence of nature and distill it just as a poet does. And that’s what I’m interested
in: the poetic translation. To get to the kernel, to touch
most poignantly the key forms.” He didn’t do any work while he
was an apprentice to Brancusi, but the following year he had
his own studio, and you see him in it in this photograph. It’s 1928. And he began making his
first abstract sculptures. And these works were, of course,
heavily influenced by Brancusi. It was a bit of a struggle for
him to free himself from Brancusi. But he never actually did. And he ended up wanting
to be, sort of — for Brancusi to be
part of his being. I’m just going to show
you a series of works that show Brancusi’s
continuing influence. This is Peking Duck. It was done in China in 1930. And this is a model
for what was going to be then a little garden area in
the Lever House Plaza in New York. It’s 1951. And this is a ceramic
called Man from 1952. And this is an exhibition from 1959
at the Stable Gallery in New York. “To prepare for this show,” he said,
“I worked with a fury in a cloud of dust and chips and complete
immersion, oblivious to everything but my own confrontation
with marble.” He recalled that for him,
the Stable show, this one, was really his homage to
Brancusi as he put it. And here are three birds that were
done in preparation for this show in a fury, although they
don’t look very furious. They look extremely serene. They’re all from 1958. And just a couple more
Brancusi-oid sculptures. Small Torso from 1958-62. And 20 years later,
the Detroit Pylon — it’s part of a great
park in Detroit. Maybe some of you have seen it. It’s really inspired by
many of Brancusi’s — their names are so similar —
Brancusi’s towering sort of columns. This photograph was
taken in the ’70’s. The sculpture that he’s sitting
near is called Another Land and it’s from 1968. As a child of mixed
parentage, Noguchi was subject to prejudice both in
Japan and in the US. He always felt different
from other people. He always was a foreigner,
and he was always torn by this conflict of east and west. In his autobiography he wrote,
“With my double nationality and my double upbringing,
where was my home? Where my affections? Where my identity: Japan or America? Either or both? Or the world?” Noguchi sought to resolve
this quandary through art. His father, he explained in
his Guggenheim application, was “An interpreter of the east
to the west through poetry. I wish to do the same
with sculpture.” More completely than any
other artist I think, Noguchi merged aspects of both his
mother’s and his father’s cultures, creating a language which
was incredibly varied. And he did all kinds
of different things, but also it was very much his own. The east/west conflict and his
feeling of not belonging made for a person for whom
intimate friendships were rare. With people, he could
be wary and untrusting. His most abiding attachment
was not to human beings, but to making sculpture,
particularly making sculptures of stone for which he
shared a Japanese reverence. I mean, it sounds as though he’s
very standoffish, which he could be, but in fact the man was very
incredibly sophisticated and charming and you know, would
have been a good dinner companion. But there was a limit to how much
you could know about Noguchi. To him stone was, “Our
fundament, the direct link to the heart of the matter. It was the earth itself.” For Noguchi, stone transcended time, and time’s passage was a
constant worry for Noguchi. He wrote, “To counter the
passing, I would seek the enduring. From the depth of time-consuming
hardness,” meaning stone, “I would find the lasting
and essential.” So carving stone was a way of
finding something that wasn’t going to disappear into the ether. This is a photograph of
Noguchi carving the disc for the Beinecke Rare Book and
Manuscript Library at Yale. It’s taken around 1963. Creating shapes and spaces out
of stone was an impassioned act. Sensuous, spiritual
and sometimes violent. He said, “I cut. I go to the jugular. I attack the stone with violence. Is this to tame it
or to awaken myself?” And here he is not
looking very violent, but I suspect he is
posing for a photograph. Yep. In order to make a living after
he returned to New York from Paris, where he worked with Brancusi,
he had to come back to New York because he was running out of money. And he came back and had no money. So he had to put aside
abstraction in favor of portraiture. And here you see two portraits. The one on the left is of
Bernice Abbot, a photographer. And his great, great friend
Buckminster Fuller is on the right. They’re both from 1929. His portraits are incredibly
varied too. He was incredibly successful as
a sculptor of heads and busts. And by 1930, he had saved enough
money to travel to China and Japan. And in Japan, he produced a group
of splendid sculptures out of clay. Some of them, like this one
which is called The Queen, 1931. It’s in the Whitney
Museum, were influenced by ancient Japanese grave
sculptures called Haniwa, which he greatly admired. And he was back in New York in 1931,
and he participated in the struggles of vanguard artists during
the Depression years. He knew everybody who ended
up in the New York school. Gorky was a great, great
friend, Arshile Gorky. Besides portraiture, he also
designed several monuments, public sculptures that
had a social purpose. Here’s one of them. These were deemed either
too visionary or too modernistic to be built. This was just a sketch for one. It’s called Monument to the Plow. It’s 1933. It’s prophetic of the earth works
that many American sculptors made in the late 1960’s and ’70’s. It was to have been an earth pyramid
close to a mile long at each base. And he planned to have
one side plowed, one planted and one left fallow. Another 1933 public sculpture that also didn’t get
made is Play Mountain. It was the first of Noguchi’s many
unrealized playground proposals. He was very, very interested
in playgrounds and had a childish side himself. Play Mountain was, he
said, “The kernel out of which have grown all my ideas
relating sculpture to the earth.” In 1942 — Noguchi, as you see
during the Depression had shared artists’ poverty and also
their left wing politics. In 1942, Noguchi’s social
conscience prompted him to voluntarily enter an internment
camp for West Coast people of Japanese origin, including
many that were American citizens. And the one he went to
was at Poston, Arizona. This is a photograph of it. He believed that he could
improve the lives of the internees by creating a park and
a recreation center. His time there was
miserable and lonely and none of his projects were built. He was stuck in Poston for six
months, and he felt like a prisoner. He wrote to his friend, the
surrealist artist Man Ray. He said, “This is the weirdest, most
unreal situation, like in a dream. I wish I were out here. Time has stopped and
nothing of any consequence, nothing is of any value.” Well, he finally did escape. Apparently, he was allowed to leave
temporarily, but he never went back. And he went to New York and took
a studio in McDougall Alley, and that’s the studio
as you see here. After returning to New York,
he vowed to stop making art that served social values. He said, “I decided
simply to be an artist.” He rented the studio. It’s near Washington Square, and
it became like an oasis for him. He was very happy there. He loved it. And here he produced several
sculptures which have to do with his feeling about World War II. One of them is I am a Foxhole, which later was called
The World is a Foxhole. It was made very soon after
he was released from Poston. Of this sculpture, Noguchi wrote,
“The war weighed heavily on my mind after my escape from that reality,”
meaning Poston, “to the safety and remoteness of New York.” The peace, he explained,
alludes to “the thoughts of a soldier in a foxhole. A red rag atop a pole, a
signal of hope and despair.” Perhaps the most despairing of Noguchi’s wartime sculptures
is Monument to Heroes from 1943. Protruding from these holes in a
black cardboard cylinder are pieces of wood, somewhat carved
pieces of wood. And actually I think there are
several human bones there as well. He said that the bones stood
for the remains of aviators who did not return, or in his
words, “The bones of the unknown. The residue of bravery
blown by the winds.” In his McDougall Alley
studio in the mid-’40’s, Noguchi carved what are
perhaps his most-loved works. The surrealist inspired abstract
figures carved out of thin slabs of stone or wood and
then constructed out of notched, interlocking parts. He loved their fragility. The feeling that they could
collapse and fall at any moment, like blossoms from a cherry tree. Of Kouros, this sculpture
here, you’re seeing him and the sculpture there at a
1946 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of many —
it was a group exhibition. 14 Americans, it was called. Of Kouros, 1945, the largest of the
interlocking sculptures, he said, “The structure of Kouros defies
gravity, defies time in a sense. It’s like life. You can lose it at any moment.” Kouros and many of the other
sculptures were inspired by archaic Greek Appolonian figures. They were called Kouros, and there’s
a marvelous one in the Museum of Modern Art that he admired. Noguchi’s Kouros is magisterial
I think, and even heroic. In a letter, Noguchi wrote that
it expressed, “An affirmation.” It was much less negative
than the wartime sculptures. “An affirmation. I wanted something purposeful. Bigger than our individual selves. Classical and idealistic. Representative of something
that doesn’t pass with the passage of time.” Just another of these
interlocking sculptures. Some of them convey, I
think — and this one does. It’s called Remembrance from 1944. A mood of melancholy. Noguchi said, “There are many
sides of me I want to express. The loneliness, the sadness,
and then something about me which you might call
precise and dry, which I want to express as well. I wouldn’t want to express
only my serious side. I am also playful sometimes. And then again, completely
introspective.” This sculpture is carved
out of mahogany in 1944, and I think it does, like some
of Arshile Gorky’s drawings from the ’30’s, convey a
feeling of loss and longing. Likewise, the aluminum Hanging
Man on the left from 1945, and the balsa wood Kronos from 1947, on the right envisage the
human figure as despairing. Noguchi described the sprout shapes
inside the arch form in Kronos, the one on the right,
as falling tears. He also saw these shapes as
the limbs of Kronos’ sons who are being devoured
by their father. In a rare avow of an
autobiographical connection to his subject matter, Noguchi
said that Kronos alluded to his own father’s hostility
towards him, and his own ambition to surpass his father’s fame. This is Sculpture to
be Seen from Mars. It’s 1947. He did it the same year
that he carved Kronos. He actually just formed a model
for this sculpture out of sand, and that’s all that
exists, is the photograph of this model made of sand. The war and the bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had left Noguchi with
a keen awareness of transience and a deep fear of atomic cataclysm. He talks about that atomic cataclysm
all the time in his letters. This sculpture, as I said,
recorded only in a photograph, was to have been a
10-mile long earth work. A face staring upward with a
mile-high pyramid for a nose. Noguchi said the face was a
memorial for extinct mankind. It would be proof to Martians that human beings had
once inhabited the earth. When Noguchi returned to Japan in
the early ’50’s, he was received, he said, like the pigeon
coming from Noah’s ark. He was swamped by people,
especially artists, wanting to know about the latest thing that
was happening in Western art. Because Japan had been so
cut off during the war. While in Japan, Noguchi made
models for two Hiroshima memorials, neither of which was built. On the left is Bell Tower
for Hiroshima, 1950. It was intended to be a 70-foot
tower, and it was supposed to be placed in the
Hiroshima Peace Park. On the right, Memorial for the
Dead, 1952, was also planned for the Peace Park, and it
would have been a massive black granite arch. And Noguchi saw the part — this
would be the level of the earth. I don’t — anyway, where
you see that sort of grid. That’s the level of the earth. And then underneath was to
be the place which he saw as the womb of generations. You can almost see this is two legs. And also he called it “a cave beneath the earth,
to which we all return.” Years later, Noguchi used
the same arch shape — I showed you earlier
the Pylon in Detroit. And this is in the same
sort of park space. It’s his Horace E. Dodge fountain. He took from 1972-1979
to complete it. But both of them have this. He loved an arch shape. The idea of, as he said,
there was the Memorial for Hiroshima he thought of
as having a womb underneath. This one is a little bit the same and can be seen as
an image of birth. Now Noguchi did get married once. He was married for five years to a Japanese film star
called Yoshiko Yamaguchi. He tried to become, during this
time Japanese, to belong to a place and to resolve his
conflict of East and West. In 1952, he and Yamaguchi lived
in a traditional Japanese house. That’s this house they’re
sitting in the veranda. Overlooking rice paddies
in Kita Kamakura. They dressed in kimonos, ate
Japanese food seated on the floor, bathed in a Japanese tub, et cetera. It was, Noguchi said, one of
the happiest years of his life. And during it he produced many
wonderfully spontaneous clay sculptures, such as the one on
the left which is called Marriage. And the one on the right
is Even the Centipede. There were a lot of centipedes in
the house, and he got used to them. The one on the right is in New
York’s Museum of Modern Art. But life in Kita Kamakura
was not always idyllic. One day when Yamaguchi returned
from a day of filming — she was a very successful actress — in Tokyo, she had exchanged
the Japanese sandals. Let me just go back. See those sandals on
the ground there? Anyway, she had exchanged
the Japanese sandals that Noguchi insisted she wear
and that made her feet bleed. And she put on a pair
of pink plastic sandals. Footwear that represented to
Noguchi the distasteful post-war Americanization of Japan. Noguchi threw his wife’s pink
sandals into a rice paddy. For Yamaguchi, this
was the last straw. At least her brother-in-law
said it was the last straw. I think there were
probably many last straws. Yamaguchi found it very
difficult to be molded into one of her husband’s artworks. And to be really a prop
in the drama of his search for his Japanese identity. After Yamaguchi left him,
Noguchi took refuge in work. “My solace has always
been sculpture,” he said. And he produced in Japan a series
of metal sculptures, either iron or bronze, that were inspired
by ancient Japanese iron pots and also the wonderful
Japanese bronze bells. Endless Coupling, the
one on the left, 1956, and the one on the right
is called The Self. The Endless Coupling I think is,
for all its Brancusian majesty, an amazingly non-intimate
view of sexual intercourse. In The Self on the right, an iron
loop is held almost shut by six, what you could call either
sprouts or fingers or shapes, so that The Self can be
seen as hugging itself and perhaps holding itself together
in a period of emotional loss. That’s an interpretation. It may not be that way. Back in 1945, Noguchi
had carved a similar but much more sensuous sculpture
which you see on the left. It’s called Noodle. But both sculptures are very
similar in having a kind of loop with these kind of sprout
shapes in the middle. It’s — always with Noguchi — you could see it as him
guarding his inner life, these kind of enclosed shapes. But always — many of Noguchi’s
sculptures are full of allusions to fertility, emergence and growth. Another one. Now we’re comparing Noodle
to Humpty-Dumpty, 1946. The one on the left
is just a year later. It’s the same thing. An arch with a lot of organic or biomorphic shapes
poking out of the middle. Humpty-Dumpty is like a dour
version of his bumptious Noodle with its protruding sprout
forms contained in an arch, favorite Noguchi shape, the arch. It had, Noguchi told a friend, to do
with “Things that happen at night. Somber things.” Sculptures like these with loops or
arches enclosing biomorphic shapes, again I think bring
to mind Noguchi’s need to keep the world at bay. In a number of Noguchi’s
sculptures from the 1940’s, energy seems to pull inward rather
than thrusting outward into space. This one is Leda from
1942, highly sensuous. And then Lunar Infant from 1944. There’s a light inside. And then The Ring from 1945-48. Everything is sort of going inward
rather than bursting outward. And likewise in Mio, which you
see on the left, and The Gift — Mio on the left took him
a long time to figure out what to do with that stone. It took from 1957-1966, so nine
years, the one on the left. And then the one on the
right is called The Gift. It’s from ’64. In both of them, energy moves
inward creating a strong sensation of compression, rather
than expansion. In Shotoshima on the left, ’78’,
1978, two arms embrace a cluster of granite eggs, suggesting once
again Noguchi’s defendant self. Again, it’s just an interpretation. Similarly, in Spirit of the Lima
Bean, 1980-81, on the right, egg-like boulders seem
to huddle for comfort. They seem to pull inward. Now there are some
sculptures that don’t do that. From 1959, come a group of balsa
wood sculptures, such as The Cry on the left, and Solitude
on the right. Which with their long pendulous
elements convey a downhearted state of mind. The Cry’s oval head, which
actually reminds me of Brancusi, is cut with a hollow form from
which the Cry must shoot forth. And the attached length of
wood, very precarious looking — I don’t know, it’s either
projection of the Cry, or maybe I’m being much too literal. Or maybe an arm flailing in despair. But anyway, it does — you
can see it as part of an image of a loud and desperate cry. This one is called Mortality. It’s a 1959. He did it in balsa wood, but
then in ’62 he went to Italy and had many of them cast in bronze. So this looks like bronze to me. The pendent elements in Mortality
capture the down-pulling sensation of depression. Of this sculpture, Noguchi wrote,
“The mortal remains of skin and bones, the tears of things. Our pendulous and precarious
existence is shaped by gravity.” Now some more sanguine sculptures. Origin on the left, ’68, and
Childhood on the right, 1970. In the late ’60’s and the early
’70’s, Noguchi carved a group of stone sculptures that
are partially pitted to give life, vitality and light. In both Origin and Childhood,
energy seems compressed, but at the same time it also seems
to be expanding, pushing outward as if something were being born. The pitted sculptures are a paen
to emergence and growth, to nature. Subjects that Noguchi
valued more highly than the expression
of personal emotion. He said in his Guggenheim
application, “It is my desire to view nature through
nature’s eyes.” And he wasn’t that interested in
dealing with human subject matter. Noguchi wanted to be
inside of nature, but his sculptures do
not always invite us in. Like nature itself,
they do not confide. Their voice is quiet, meditative. They do not come out
and grab your feelings. You have to move slowly
towards them. Noguchi’s immensely varied art
includes not only individual sculptural objects but also dance
and theater sets, playgrounds, plazas, fountains, furniture. All of which he thought
of as sculpture. And here we finally
get to Martha Graham. On the left is Cave of the Heart. On the right is — that’s Martha
Graham in Cave of the Heart. And then Mary O’Donnell in Herodiod. Herodiod was 1944. Cave of the Heart, 1946. Apparently they got along very
well, but there were tense moments. Martha Gram would call up
Noguchi and say, “I need a dress,” or “I need something to sit on.” And he — this was sometimes at
midnight, and he would go over, and they’d talk about it. Then he’d come back with something and usually she liked
what he had done. But if she didn’t, she said,
“No, let me think about it.” Then he knew it was a disaster, and
he was furious, and he’d go home and make something
completely different. So there were some tense moments. But they adored each other. He designed some 20 dance sets
over the years for Martha Graham. And working with the stage made
him realize that what he wanted to do was to create
a sculpture of space. Just to not ignore the furniture. This is the famous coffee table
that is still made by Herman Miller. It’s from 1947, so
it’s that same moment that the interlocking
sculptures like Kouros. Starting in the 1950’s, Noguchi had
a business designing mulberry paper and bamboo lanterns
that he called Akari. Which he insisted were art objects. He shared the Japanese belief that
there was no division between art and craft, or even between
art and commercial design. But his involvement with design
made many observers see him more as a designer and not as an artist. He was worried about that aspect. As the years passed, Noguchi
took on more and more commissions for large-scale public works. Especially gardens, like the
so-called Jardin Japonais. It’s in Paris for the
UNESCO building. He did it between 1955 and ’58. Making gardens was part of
his wanting to create works that could be part
of people’s lives. He wanted them to have a use. The UNESCO garden, he realized
it wasn’t maybe his best garden, but it was very important to him
because he confirmed his desire to create what he called, “Total
sculpture space experience.” And also he kept talking about his
gardens as a place for people to go. The project was important to Noguchi
also because he said it led him, “Deeper into Japan and
into working with stone.” The quietude that we
have seen in some of Noguchi’s stone
sculptures is present in some of his public projects as well. This is the Supreme Court
Fountains, 1970, in Tokyo. There are six dark granite fountains
in the Supreme Court building, 1970. They were inspired by Japanese
Socupai, or these are hollowed out stone basins that are used for
purification in temple precincts. Noguchi wanted these fountains
in the Supreme Court to prompt in lawmakers a greater
sense of justice. With their slow-moving water and
their mirror-like top surfaces, the fountains imbue
the space around them with an almost sacramental
atmosphere. Probably his most successful
garden is California Scenario. He did it between ’80 and ’82. It’s in Costa Mesa California. It’s actually a very small space. The perfectly calibrated
succession of forms and the stream of water emerging from a pyramid and winding along a sandstone
terrace create a space that is at once serene and lonely,
vibrant and utterly quiet. Here’s another one of
the public sculptures. The water flowing past
a single basal rock in Noguchi’s Domon Ken Museum
Garden, and that’s in Sakata in Japan, 1984, gives a
similar feeling of being at once transient and eternal. Noguchi said that the water — he
doesn’t usually explain anything, but he did say the water
symbolized the passage of time, and the rock standing
firm in the current stood for his friend the
photographer Domon Ken for whom the museum was
— it was his museum. Noguchi not only spoke of loneliness
and homelessness and conflict of East and West, et cetera, he
did talk about these things a lot. His feeling of not belonging. But he was also haunted
by emptiness. For him, emptiness was not
always a negative thing. He embraced Zen ideas about
nothingness and the void. In 1950, in Japan he
created these two sculptures on the theme of emptiness. The one on the left is called Mu, which actually means
emptiness or the void. And the one on the
right in clay is Mimu. The one on the left was
eventually carved — this is a model in plaster. And there’s Noguchi
working on the model. It was eventually carved in stone
and is at Keio University in Tokyo. Anyway, he placed the one on
the left, Mu, outdoors so that at a certain moment, the circle’s
void would hold the setting sun. He also said that the one on
the left was like a mirror that reflects but retains nothing. In the following decade,
these are both 1969, Noguchi made many sculptures such
as The Sun at Noon on the left and Black Sun on the right, that
are rings surrounding empty space. Then in the 1970’s he made a series
of what were called void sculptures. This one is Energy Void, as
Noguchi admiring his own work. The largest of them is The Black
Granite Energy Void, 1972-73. It is a grand frame for nothingness,
and a void that invites us to pass through it like a portal to nowhere. Noguchi said, “I have carried
the concept of the void like a weight on my shoulders. I could not seem to
avoid its humanoid grip. It is like some inevitable
question I cannot answer.” A couple more things
having to do with void. The Mermaid’s Grave
on the left, 1982. Ends on the right, 1985. These are two other sculptures
that deal with the idea of void, but this time it is a hidden void. In both, an invisible volume
of dark space enclosed by walls of stone alludes to mortality. Of the one on the right, Ends,
he wrote that the cube was, “The realization of death and
that man is here only temporarily and must establish
his mark in the cube.” In the last two decades of his life,
Noguchi carved Domon-like sculptures out of basalt and granite
that seem halfway between being rocks
and being sculptures. This is age on the left, ’81, and Breakthrough Capestrano,
1983, on the right. To a friend he explained,
“When I face natural stones, they start talking to me. Once I hear their voices, I
give them just a bit of a hand. Recently I don’t have to
carve or polish them much.” Standing like ancient
markers of time’s passage, the late sculptures have a
primitive mystery and power. Age on the left, it seems like
the back of a human being, might allude to time’s slow
ravaging of the human body. This morning I saw a very
beautiful Noguchi basalt sculpture at the National Gallery
in the East Wing. It’s one of his best. It’s called Stone of
Spiritual Understanding. He could be a little, not pompous, but he could be a little
heavy in his titles at times. These are both in the
Noguchi Museum. Concerned with his legacy, Noguchi
opened his own museum in 1985. The first sculptures that you see
when you visit the Noguchi Museum — it’s in Long Island City — are these on the left,
these anthropomorphic. Totemic presences that seem
to watch and listen just as Noguchi observed
and listened to them. “A museum is,” Noguchi said,
“a repository against time. There is a semblance of eternity.” He wanted his museum to define his
role as a crossing where inward and outward meet, East and West. Beloved to New Yorkers, the Isamu
Noguchi Garden Museum is an oasis of beauty and serenity. In the last two decades of his life,
Noguchi spent half his time in Japan at a studio on the island
of Shikoku and the rest of the time in the United States. But he did most of
his carving in Japan. You see him working — this
is a very late photograph. He had a kind of outdoor
studio, a circle or wall of stone went around it. Still does. It’s now part of the
Noguchi Museum in Shikoku, a nice place to go, actually. He said at this point in his
life, “I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen,
world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.” Noguchi’s antidote for his feelings
of disconnection was to sculpt. Carving stone tied him to the earth
and wrestling with such hard rocks as basalt and granite must have
counteracted what he called that “resonant void within
us and without.” Carving was, he said, “a
dialogue between himself and the primary matter
of the universe.” Noguchi finally found intimacy,
I think, by listening to stone. This is his grave on a
hill behind his house in Shikoku where this studio is. Noguchi’s grave is a huge
pinkish granite boulder set on top of a hill behind his house. When he found this rock in Okayama, he had it set up in
his outdoor studio. And he asked his assistant,
“Would it be okay for me to be inside this stone?” His assistant told Noguchi that he
was too young for such thoughts. But three years before he
died, Noguchi drew a line around the stone’s girth,
indicating where it should be cut. After Noguchi’s death in 1988,
his assistant cut the stone where he could still just
make out the faded line. He hollowed out a cavity
for Noguchi’s ashes, and he put the two
halves back together. Like so many of Noguchi’s — oh, I
want to show you the color actually. Like so many of Noguchi’s
sculptures, this stone, this grave, is silent still and secretive. Although the egg shape is a
death marker here, it gives voice to Noguchi’s reverence
for emerging life. Thank you. [ Applause ] Questions? Yes? You. Yeah. Oh good, yes.>>I guess this is
a simple question, but there may be a
number of answers. He switched from marble
to a harder stone. Apparently it took place sometime. I don’t know what year
you might pick as sort of the dividing line between those. Or even if I’m right in
thinking that he did marble all through the early part of the
20th century and then, you know, later on used harder stone. Does he talk about that at all?>>Hayden Herrera: I think he liked
the struggle with the harder stone. That feeling of timelessness. Remember he talks about enduring
because it’s this hard stone. But actually, just before
he died he was in Italy in the fall carving away marble. So it wasn’t something
he completely gave up.>>Maybe it was a nostalgic
thing for him.>>Hayden Herrera: Maybe
he was going back to it. Or maybe he was going back
to Brancusi or something. But you know, when I first saw
the basalt sculptures, I thought, “You know, how can you
get away with that? It’s hardly carved at
all, some of them.” I’ve come to love them,
but it took a while. They are not very intimate
and they’re not — I don’t know, they’re very bold
and somewhat totemic to me. A little bit like Noguchi,
a little standoffish. Any other questions? You, yes.>>I had a quick question. I’ve got a louder voice.>>One second, sir.>>When he was in the — they
call them containment camps. Is that what that was?>>Hayden Herrera: Internment camps.>>Internment camps. When he was in the camp,
I notice when you come out with his next sculptures that he
did, he moved into the wire phase. Did he pick that up maybe
out of the internment camps?>>Hayden Herrera: I don’t think so. Because he did do some
sculpture in the internment camp and he’d find sort of driftwood. He’d go out in the desert and
find driftwood or bits of wood. He did apparently in front of his
room in one of those awful houses, there was a kind of a wooden
carving that he had made there. But I think the wires
had to do with sort of not wanting something sensuous
and material and having to do with love and life and emergence, but something really
somewhat despairing. I would think that is what it was. Other questions?>>You had mentioned — hi,
thank you for your presentation. I’m over here. Could you speak a little bit more about his relationship
with Martha Graham? When they met, what attracted
them, things like that.>>Hayden Herrera: Well,
his sister, his half-sister, was a Martha Graham dancer. But also his mother to make
money helped sew costumes for Martha Graham. And at one point Martha Graham and
Noguchi lived in the same building or part of the same building. A building in New York that
supposedly was one building, but it may have been two
buildings put together. I don’t know. But anyway, it could have been that. And he used to just go and
watch her dancers practicing. He loved watching them practice. They became fond of each other, and then she asked him
to, you know, make a set. And it was her first
set that wasn’t — I think she hadn’t used sets before
and I think she didn’t like the idea of the sort of ballet type
sets that have all these flats. And so the first one was called
Frontier and it was extraordinary. It was just two ropes and a fence. Maybe you’ve seen a photograph of
Martha Graham, a famous photograph of her in front of this
fence, lifting her leg so that actually the diagonal
of her leg is the same as the diagonal of the ropes. It was having to do for him a
sort of plunging the audience into the space, plunging
everything together. The dancers and the audience. This thing brought the whole thing into one space in a
very dynamic way. I must say I’ve only
seen it in photographs. So I’m not sure how it worked. But I think it did. And their friendship as
I said could be thorny. They really loved each other. Martha Graham said it
was never romantic. She was very clear about that,
and I think that’s probably right. She was probably eight or
ten years older than him. But there was enormous respect. And actually she’s
quoted in one of his — I think it’s the New
York Times obituary. She said beautiful things about
how important his work was for her. He enabled her to invent
and choreograph. It was a sort of a mix. She helped him create a sculpture
of space and he helped her with invention I guess is
what she would have said. Any other questions?>>You mentioned that both
his parents were writers and that Noguchi himself
acknowledged early in his career that he felt that he was in
competition with his father. I was wondering whether or
not Noguchi spoke about this or whether you found any
of his parents’ writings, and whether you see a connection
between the themes that they dealt with and the themes
that he dealt with.>>Hayden Herrera: Well he was
so hostile towards his father, but when he lived later
— actually in 1930 — when he was in Japan in 1931,
first in China, then Japan, he started reading a lot
of his father’s books on Japanese art and
Japanese culture. And I think they had — his father
talks about not being aggressive and pushy but just
being sort of passive. I think some of that actually
rubbed off on Noguchi. He read a lot about Zen. He ended up really
respecting his father. And as he said, trying to be
— wanted to be as famous. I think they did have
a reconciliation through letters after the war. Noguchi sent care packages
to his father and his stepmother and
their many children. And then he got to know all
these half-brothers later. And it was all very good. Yeah, it was friendly. Okay.>>I wondered if he had other
creative collaborations. You had mentioned Man
Ray as a good friend, and there perhaps were others
within his circle of friends. So beyond Martha Graham, were
there artists inspiring him to move into other directions? Was he inspiring others? Did you get a sense of what
that circle of friendship with visual artists was about?>>Hayden Herrera: Are we
talking about performance art?>>No, the visual arts, like
Man Ray and some of the others.>>Hayden Herrera: Well I think
Gorky had a huge influence on him in terms of those biomorphic shapes. Gorky and Noguchi in the ’30’s would
go to museums together and Gorky was by far the most articulate. Not that Noguchi wasn’t articulate,
but they were the same age, although in fact Gorky
lied about his birth so he was probably four years older. But anyway, Gorky would just
expound about different works of art in the Metropolitan Museum, and Noguchi just said he
learned a huge amount from him. And I think some of those
shapes are very, very similar. I can’t think — you
know, David Smith. He knew David Smith. I mean, he knew everybody,
but David Smith kept saying, “Why don’t you use metal
and make metal sculptures?” And he did briefly and
they weren’t his best work. But Noguchi said he didn’t
want to go around taking pieces of used metal and welding
them together. He just liked carving. And others that influenced him, he
liked Gaudier Brzeska, a sculptor, but that wasn’t a contemporary. And he basically loved
Brancusi and Gorky. Any other questions?>>I’m wondering if the sets that
the Graham Company currently uses –>>Hayden Herrera: I’m sorry. What?>>I’m wondering if the
sets designed by him that the Graham Company currently
uses are preserved originals, or are they reproductions,
do you know? And the headpieces and the props?>>Hayden Herrera: There was a lot
of conflict over who owned the sets, and I don’t know the
whole story of that, but I know it was a big problem.>>Okay.>>Hayden Herrera: But I believe that what would be used now
would certainly not be the original pieces.>>Okay. Thank you.>>Hayden Herrera: Yes.>>Is this working? If he liked carving and basalt
and granite so much and yet worked so closely with Martha Graham
who made dances but happened once and then they’re gone,
they evaporate because another performance
is a different performance, did he ever address that dichotomy
and whether it attracted him in the sense of giving a relief, an opposition to what he devoted
his life so much to doing?>>Hayden Herrera: Right, because he’s making an object
and she’s making an act.>>Well he was working with
stone and you said how he talked about that was the
fundamental thing. It would never go away. But dance is totally ephemeral.>>Hayden Herrera: It is ephemeral. I mean, I guess it’s written
down in whatever it’s called, the language in which
you write dance. But it’s never the same. You’re right. It’s different dancers doing it. He didn’t talk about
it to my knowledge, no. It’s an interesting point though. But of course he liked
everything that was fleeting, even though he kept
making these solid stones. And you know, the idea of the
petals falling, that’s his thing. He likes things that are transient. But the fact is the passage
of time drove him nuts.>>Hi. Thank you very much for
the very interesting presentation. I wanted to hear a little
bit more about his legacy and his devotion to his legacy. He seemed preoccupied with
that, setting up his own museum, wanting to be remembered as an
artist that worked in things that weren’t going to fade
with the passage of time. And so if you could
maybe comment on how that occupied his life
and his space. And then also what you think
his reaction would be to being so well-known for some of his
furniture, specifically the table, when that wasn’t his kind of
life’s mission of being a sculptor.>>Hayden Herrera: Well, along
that last point, he gave a lecture. I can’t remember, maybe
it was Chicago. And he was very defensive about
furniture and light and the Akari. But he said he told the audience
that he actually made more money out of his art than he did
out of his design objects. So he was being quite defensive. What was the first part
of your question again?>>His legacy. He was very preoccupied with
what his legacy was going to be. Most artists don’t build
their own museum whilst alive.>>Hayden Herrera: Right. Well, you know, if he couldn’t
bear the passage of time, he wanted to have everything
in one place. Actually, he tried to get the
Met, I think, and the Whitney and different museums
to take his work. But he knew that they would
just put it in the basement. They couldn’t show it all at
once, and that also he said some of his sculptures were really
too heavy for any museum floor. That seems a little odd,
but maybe that’s true. So the idea of putting his work
in another museum didn’t work. And I think he was wanted — he
was a very controlling person. And he wanted to control exactly how
everything was placed in the museum. He wanted to sort of — the whole
sequence from where you begin with these totemic ones, to the
late basalt and granite ones. And then you go up to Akari and
it’s a very beautiful sequence. He raised money for — I mean, he
was very serious about that museum. He raised money and he
made multiples in order to make money to support the museum. So he gave everything
in a way to the museum. Any more? Yeah?>>I would be very interested in knowing why he went
to the internment camp.>>Hayden Herrera: I can’t hear you.>>Oh, I’m sorry. I was wondering why he went
to the internment camp. He wasn’t forced to go in there. And my understanding is
that many Japanese artists in New York were prohibited
from going more than a few miles from
where they lived. So I’m just curious about it.>>Hayden Herrera: He was
in California at the moment of Pearl Harbor, and he was driving to get some onyx or
some kind of stone. And he turned his car around and realized everything was
going to change for him. And he went back and tried to help
Japanese Americans to organize so they would be able to
tell the American people that the Japanese Americans
were on the American side. That they were not fascists, and
they were not against America. They were willing to work for peace. So he worked with Japanese
Americans on that. But then I think he had
to get out of California. And he felt a little
guilty about that. And he went to Washington,
and he found out — I forgot the name of the man who was
in charge of the Indian territory where the internment camp post was. But this guy suggested he go there and help create these
happier situations. So Noguchi felt it was part of his social conscience
coming out of the ’30’s. But he felt that he could help. He said at one point,
“I’m no longer Noguchi. I am a Japanese American. I’m a Nisai.” You know? So he felt like a
different identity all of the sudden because people were
being really horrible about the Japanese at that point. So anyway, he felt
compelled to help in some way. Any more questions?>>Anne McClean: I think this
might be a good time to move to having the book signing. I just wanted to say
thank you so much. It was a wonderful lecture. Thank you so much for coming. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.

local_offerevent_note September 26, 2019

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