03 January 2007

Isamu Noguchi -- Mirror (Torso), 1944

Noguchi gradually developed a language of biomorphic planes intersecting and interlocking in space. This particular piece, Mirror, was commissioned by Martha Graham for her stage production of Hérodiade. In this instance, some connecting elements are used to join the planes. Later pieces relied solely on the interlocking of the actual planar elements without the use of metal or other fasteners (hidden or visible).

These pieces derive in part from the surrealist abstractions of other artists of the time like Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy. In addition, I believe his three dimensional sculptural work gradually lead him in this direction as well.

Noguchi struggled between the dialectical poles of representational sculpture (such as his portrait busts of the 20s and 30s, done primarily to earn a living) and geometrical abstraction (such as his experiments in Paris following his apprenticeship with Constantin Brancusi). His drawings and sculptures during the course of the 1930s and 1940s exhibit a kind of vacillation between these poles.

His earlier successful bas-relief entitled News for the Associated Press Building (of 1938-40) made use of simplification and abstraction through the use of planes. Three-dimensional figures were broken done using angular planes to effect an Art-Deco cum Cubist conception of positive sculptural objects (generally ignoring the spatial implications of this procedure). That is, the focus is creating an image of the figures as positive, solid bodies within the context of the bas-relief. Representation of the space within which they exist was almost non-existent relying on the abstract diagonal lines of new emerging field of electronic communications.

Noguchi's experimental earthworks developed during this period make use of a similar aesthetic, this time carving and shaping the ground rather than a vertical plane to create large-scale sculpture in the landscape.

It seems reasonable to consider that his inspiration for some of these large-scale earthwork proposals was a countermand the position taken by an earlier American sculptor with whom Noguchi had apprenticed in the early 1920s, Gutzon Borglum who created some monumental sculptural works using industrial equipment and technologies. Within a year of Noguchi's departure, Borglum became involved in a monumental stone carving effort, the creation of Mount Rushmore. This massive sculpture required drilling, blasting, and other advanced methods of creating sculpture in the larger landscape of America.

Borglum was dubious about Noguchi's talent as a sculptor and suggested he should pursue a career as a surgeon instead. Essentially, his suggestion is that Noguchi's talents lie in cutting flesh to remove tumors and correct malformations, rather than in cutting stone to create idealized representations of the human figure.

Perhaps my interpretation is a stretch, almost a kind of joke on Borglum's part. Noguchi did enroll at Columbia University to take up pre-medical studies. Gradually, with the support and persuasion of his mother, Leonie Gilmour (who had returned to New York), he did return to studying sculpture in the classical tradition of clay modeling and bronze casting.

Archival image.

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