Noguchi's Moment

This iconic artist and Midcentury star is being embraced by museums and design enthusiasts alike.

At the moment it seems like Asian fusion is everywhere. You can see its influence in everything, from Zen-inspired hotel lobbies in London to the exquisitely edited shops on New York's Lower East Side with just five spotlit limited-edition Japanese sneakers on display. So it's tempting to think that the recent surge of interest in Isamu Noguchi, the celebrated modernist sculptor and designer, is just another manifestation of a trend. His curving, clean-lined version of organic modernism is seemingly all around. In recent years the Japanese American has been featured in large-scale museum shows in Spain, Germany, and Japan. A full renovation of the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, established in 1985, was completed, to almost universal praise, in June 2004. The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art are collaborating on a major retrospective of his sculptural work, which runs through mid-January in New York before moving to D.C. But, points out Zesty Meyers, owner of R 20th Century, a New York modern design gallery, the current fascination with the artist goes well beyond mere fashion.

"No one has had the impact of Noguchi, and I believe it's possible that no one ever will," Meyers says. "He combined everything—organic shapes, abstract art, streamlined design, different cultures—perfectly." Though Noguchi contrived projects in nearly every medium, for years it seemed that he would be remembered almost solely for his endlessly copied Akari lights and furniture. But the world finally caught up with him. Today the general public can see past the knockoffs and catch a glimpse of the artist's true brilliance—the apparently effortless way he fused ancient craft traditions and philosophy from the East with the most technologically advanced materials and methods from the West.

Noguchi's upbringing undoubtedly contributed to his ability to bring these potentially conflicting elements together. His father was a noted Japanese imagist poet and academic; his mother, an American writer and journalist. An eclectic education mirrored his background. It included stints at a Jesuit school in Japan, followed by several years in America with an Indiana family who followed the philosophy of Swede Emanuel Swedenborg. In Paris Noguchi worked in Constantin Brancusi's studio, where he found himself at the heart of the international avant-garde. Like many of his peers, Noguchi was famous for engaging in endless conversations about revolutionary utopias with Communist activists. His features, especially his blue eyes, were intriguing, making him irresistible to the likes of Kiki of Montparnasse, the artist and original bad-girl memoirist. Later on he began to travel in earnest, learning ink-painting techniques in China, gathering inspiration from the vast architecture of India's Jaipur observatory, and studying woodworking and rock gardens in Japan.

The result of this unique learning experience was an outpouring of work that eventually encompassed gardens, monuments, set design, furniture, and public parks. For Noguchi there was no separation between these arenas—the very reason, according to Meyers, that his art is so powerful today. "He created from an artist's perspective," he says. "Many of the big designers who worked for Knoll or George Nelson designed for a corporate, rather than a home, environment—they had to. It was the only way they could afford to make amazing, beautiful objects. But Noguchi answered to no one beyond himself."

Ironically, Noguchi's productivity might have worked against him. Valerie Fletcher, curator of the Hirshhorn/ Whitney show, says that "he created so many pieces in so many media, it was almost impossible to take in. I think it took a while for people to get a handle on the sheer scope of his art and focus on what went beyond trends." For the largest overview of his sculptural work in 36 years (the Whitney mounted the first one, too, in 1968), Fletcher chose to hone in on Noguchi's most original and rarely seen sculptures.

This proved to be no small task: Noguchi started sculpting in the early twenties, continuing until his death in 1988. The variety is tremendous. He formed interlocking abstractions in stone and wood, seen in Remembrance (1944), curving and spiky and surreal. He also did boulder monoliths, such as Hakuin (1965-66) and The Inner Stone (1973), carving and polishing small sections of the stone, leaving the rest raw. In the late fifties, he used metal, folding it like origami and polishing it. A strong example of this style is his 1958 bent aluminum Noh Musicians.

The Hirshhorn/Whitney show presents numerous forms, materials, and stages in the artist's nearly 60-year career. In mood, the works in the show range from hopefulness to wartime despair. Some are dark and concern death and destruction: A 1942 bronze, This Tortured Earth, was intended as a landscape sculpture, but Noguchi later thought of it as a model for an earthwork to be made with actual bombs. Others imply a soaring, utopian optimism; the dynamic Solar (1958-59) is crafted from gleaming eight-foot pieces of cut and burnished stainless steel holding an exuberant abstract sun. And with the series called the Lunars, it's as if, Fletcher says, "Noguchi was coming to terms with the idea that there are no absolutes, that life happens in shades of gray." The Lunars works consist of soft biomorphic shapes lit from within. They give off a gentle radiance, at once eerie and comforting.

There's probably no better place to experience the paradoxes of Noguchi's oeuvre than in the museum he started himself. Located in Queens, the photoengraving plant is in a part of town populated by auto repair shops, a Costco, and a park with a gorgeous view of the Manhattan skyline. As redone by the architecture firm Sage and Coombe, the interior echoes Noguchi's iconic stone sculptures: a combination Zen garden and elegantly hard-edged industrial space. It's also the only place where you can see the piece Fletcher refers to as the one that got away. "There was just no way we could put it in the Whitney or the Hirshhorn. The floors and elevators could not support it," she says. "When you stand in front of it, there's a feeling that goes beyond mere age or history—a kind of spiritual connection, for want of a better word." The sculpture is one of Noguchi's signature stone works, a monolith broken into three pieces, then reassembled. It's called Brilliance.


Buying a Noguchi

Now that artists such as Damien Hirst fabricate martini glasses especially for their own restaurants and Takashi Murakami creates designs for Louis Vuitton, one might find it hard to grasp how radical a move it was when Isamu Noguchi began creating modern furniture and lighting in the forties. Back then the divide between commercial and fine art was immense. That his pieces retain their appeal even after a half century of counterfeits and knockoffs is a testament to the strength of his vision.

Noguchi was as catholic in his design as he was in his art: He fashioned tables, chairs, lamps, cutlery, and teacups. When shopping for a Noguchi, make sure you're getting the real thing. Authentic Akari light sculptures, which have been manufactured by Ozeki & Co. since 1952, will be marked with the artist's red sun-and-moon logo (most likely designed by half brother Michio Noguchi) along with a facsimile signature. As for furniture, originals turn up only rarely at auction, such as the Knoll rocking stool, like the one pictured, which brought in $29,900 at a 2001 Phillips sale. But keep in mind that even at such prices, Noguchi's work is still undervalued, according to R 20th Century owner Zesty Meyers.

One side benefit of the resurgence of Noguchi and Midcentury Modernism is that licensed versions of most of the artist's designs have been brought back. You can order them on the Noguchi Museum Web site (www.noguchi.org).