|Isamu Gilmour, age 13. His mother Leonie Gilmout included this photograph with his application to attend the Interlaken School, Rolling Prairie, Indiana. Image: Lilly Library.|
|Sunset Magazine's masthead. Reference to publication.|
He made a habit of playing with our shadows on the walls of the sitting-room after supper every evening. "Mama, shadow gone! Give baby shadow, mama," he will exclaim sulkily, seeing his own shadow disappear. "Go to papa! he will give it to you," Leonie will say; then he will hunt for it, pushing his hand everywhere about my dress. "There it is, baby," I will say, seeing his shadow accidentally appear on the wall. How glad he will be."Baby Isamu also loved to watch for the moon to rise over the garden. He would insist on remaining awake until his reliable, magical friend would return to watch over him. His father writes:
I doubt if he has any real knowledge of the moon. When I say that he must go to bed, he will push a little outside door, and say that no moon is seen yet. Then I will quietly steal in to the drawing-room and light a large hanging lamp with a blue-colored globe, and say to him: "Moon is come now. See it baby!" He will be mightily pleased with it; a few minutes later, he will be found in bed soundly sleeping.This story would likely be considered apocryphal (a forced interpretation reading backwards from his later works incorporating light) except for the fact it was written by his father Yone Noguchi long before Isamu became an artist. He even illustrated an essay he published with photographs depicting some of the scenes he describes.
|Photographs of baby Isamu illustrating Yone Noguchi's article in Sunset Magazine. Article reference.|
When examining Noguchi's career, his output and his writings, it becomes clear that understanding the various ways light interacts with translucent materials (for example, paper and plexiglas) and casts shadows to define volumetric form. In particular he seems to have maintained a fascination with the qualities of lunar reflections from the moon and the manner it pierces the darkness of night.
Many works can be considered exemplars of his ongoing fascination with light's properties. We can find this interest in some of his earliest works within just a few years' time. Over the course of the 1920s, he explored radically different approaches to dealing with light and its manifestations vis-a-vis sculptural form.
His earliest training in the classical mode of sculpting relied on manipulating clay or plaster to create shadows and highlights as a primary means for defining and describing form. His plaster life-size female nude figure Undine (Nadja) of 1926 is a tour-de-force in its manipulation of volume to establish delicate lines separating areas of highlight and shadow. These areas of light, shade and shadow reveal the details of her soft, beckoning erotic form in accordance with the academic techniques he rapidly mastered after leaving his Columbia University pre-medical studies.
The photograph of him looking admiring upon his creation is a classic image representing this early period following his studies at the Onorio Routolo's Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. This image would have been taken in his studio at 127 University Place in New York. Most reproductions of the photograph are cropped. However examining an original photographic print reveals a bare incandescent bulb hanging down above the window. It seems likely that he would have relied on artificial light periodically when he was creating this figure of a water nymph.
|Original photographic print from the Rumely Collection, Lilly Library, University of Indiana.|
|Christmas Card from Noguchi to the Rumely family. Image: Lilly Library, University of Indiana.|
|Constantin Brancusi's Léda, 1926. Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris.|
|Isamu Noguchi: Sail Shape, 1928. Photo by Shigeo Anzai, Noguchi Museum.|
This proposal for a work in neon tubing was printed both as a negative (left) and as a positive (right) in documentation of Noguchi's designs of that period. It was never realized.
|Power House, 1928. Images: Noguchi's A Sculptor's World (left) and Nancy Grove's Catalogue (right).|
So from his earliest years as a sculptor, Noguchi revealed a subtle, inquisitive understanding of the properties of light and its effects on the perception of mass as well as unorthodox uses of light in the context of sculpture that was difficult for others at the time to fully appreciate.
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This essay is the first in a series concerning the multifaceted career of Isamu Noguchi which encompassed modern sculpture (both abstract and figural), landscapes, playgrounds, plazas, fountains, furnishings, light fixtures, stage sets and many other forms of artistic expression. He was never one who would allow himself to be constrained by categories, definitions or preconceptions (including his own).
These writings are a prelude to my upcoming lecture "Noguchi and 'My Arizona'" to be presented on Thursday, October 24, 2013 at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey in connection with the sale of "My Arizona" (Lot 994) on Sunday, October 27, 2013. Questions regarding the auction should be directed to David Rago.
Andrew Raimist, Lecturer
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri 63130