- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) made his landmark terra-cotta “Queen” in 1931 in Japan. Raised there until he was packed off to an American boarding school at age 13, the artist had returned to Japan to find his personal and artistic roots. He later described the work as “my close embrace of the earth.”

Mr. Noguchi had studied with the Romanian-French modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris. The 3-foot-plus-tall “Queen,” in which he stacked rounded forms for a human-looking column, drew from both Brancusi’s abstractions of women and prehistoric Japanese “haniwa” tomb figures. The sculptor not only distilled thousands of years and miles with “Queen,” he re-created it as an “akari” lamp-sculpture as well.

Straddling diverse continents through his split heritage and working with mediums as different as paper, plastic, metal, stone and clay, Mr. Noguchi synthesized diverse cultural and artistic traditions in art that transcended time and space.

He was already successful in the United States when he made his first trip to Japan in 1931. The work from this stay, as from later visits, expressed deep feeling and crackled with electric energy. The intensity came from experiencing Japan and reconnecting with his cultural heritage.

Mr. Noguchi was a master of biomorphic sculpture, tranquil gardens such as those of UNESCO in Paris, modernist furniture made for Herman Miller, paper lamps and avant-garde stage sets.

His passion for pottery is less known. Fortunately, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery showcases the sculptor’s revolutionary work in clay as part of its new exhibit, “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Ceramics.” It’s the first major showing of his often wild and witty ceramics, and they’re crucial to understanding his art as a whole.

He created approximately 200 abstract pottery objects during three brief, intense visits to Japan, in 1931,1950 and 1952. Exhibit curator Louise Cort chose 38 Noguchis and 36 by contemporary Japanese ceramicists.

The 1950s were turbulent years in early postwar Japan. Mr. Noguchi joined other potters in searching for ways to link their work to international art movements. The younger generation of ceramicists had been forbidden to work during the war, and they rejoiced with Mr. Noguchi’s arrival.

The artist’s superbly lighted sculptures, vases, dishes, boxes, columns, animals, masks and men appear to dance through the Sackler’s two-level exhibition space. The museum’s dramatic use of vertical panels of golds and reds anchors the often modestly scaled work. Few have been exhibited in the United States since 1954.

Mr. Noguchi’s father was the celebrated Japanese poet Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi (1875-1947), his mother the writer Leonie Gilmour (1873-1933). They had met in Los Angeles, where the Bryn Mawr College-educated Gilmour had assisted Noguchi by translating his work into English. The son modeled Leonie’s moving portrait in 1932. It’s one of the first sculptures in the Sackler show.

The couple separated before the sculptor’s birth on Nov. 17, 1904. Yone Noguchi was an ardent nationalist by the time his son visited Japan in 1931. They had a difficult reunion, but Yone helped Isamu find a ceramics workshop in Kyoto. The younger Noguchi labored there for five months, creating some of the early rough, unglazed ceramics of the Sackler exhibit while absorbing the designs of Kyoto’s ancient gardens and temples.

The sculptor waited until 1950, three years after his father’s death, to revisit as the international art celebrity he had become. He began questioning the aims of modernist art during the war and wanted to make art more spiritual and meaningful for society. Unfortunately, his proposals for the Hiroshima peace memorials were rejected because of his American citizenship.

While in Tokyo, he turned out sensational ceramics for a solo exhibition. In one intense week, he made 20 sculptures and containers of unglazed stoneware, directly building the clay, or collaborating with Japanese potters to make wheel-thrown forms. Among them, and also at the Sackler, were the hilarious “The Policeman (Junsa),” mystical “My Mu (Watashi no mu)” and intriguing “Tabi (Journey).” They were basically three-dimensional reworkings of geometries taken from his sculpture and furniture designs, but they startled the Japanese by moving away from traditional vessel forms.

He surprised them even more when he returned in 1952 with his Japanese-Manchurian movie-star bride, Yamaguchi Yoshiko. They set up a home and studio in traditional potter Kitaoji Rosanjin’s Kita-Kamakura ceramics compound. The sculptor, using Mr. Rosanjin’s clays, glazes and kilns, made some 100 ceramic objects in just a few months. Finally, he was able to work with the earth with which he so closely identified. The work at Kita-Kamakura would be his last, and largest, body of ceramics. It included high-fired, glistening glazed ceramics and grander, more complex sculptures.

The experience liberated him. Now the ceramics exploded into primitivist figures, large abstract forms and naked human bodies. Mr. Noguchi dug his fingers directly into the clay and quickly created new shapes. Just as swiftly, he drew freely into the wet surfaces. He exhibited 119 functional and sculptural ceramics at the Kamakura Museum of Modern Art, and they’re well-represented at the Sackler.

Abstract works such as “War” and “Atomic Man” look back to traditional Japanese forms. “Mrs. White” and “Torso” evoke the body. Clay slab structures envelope tiny figures like “Buson.” The 7-foot-tall column titled “Unknown,” of Shigaraki stoneware and green Oribe glaze, demonstrates Mr. Noguchi’s continuing fascination with “haniwa.” Though critics and the public largely misunderstood the show, he perceived it as representative of a highly fertile, productive period.

He also inspired younger Japanese potters to explore new styles. Miss Cort ambitiously includes works by several as well as ceramics from Mr. Rosanjin’s traditional output. They serve largely as confusing distractions in an already fragmented show.

Clay clearly seduced Mr. Noguchi, just as he seduced clay. He wrote, “The attractions of ceramics lie partly in its contradictions. It is both difficult and easy, with an element beyond our control.” (“Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World,” New York, Harper Row, 1968) .

Mr. Noguchi exulted in these and other contrasts and contradictions that recurred throughout his life and work. Opposites had structured his personal background. He almost gleefully met the ying-yang challenges that began with his birth to a Japanese father and American mother. These dichotomies continued through his upbringing in two diametrically opposed cultures, in his synthesis of modernist Western aesthetics with Japanese artistic traditions and, finally, in his use of both natural and man-made materials.

He refused to be cowed by the racial intolerance he experienced in both America and Japan, parental rejection or the controversy that raged over his Kamakura museum work. Instead, he created a cultural and artistic identity that raised him high above the different geographies, wars and artistic mediums he experienced. It’s a pleasure to see that struggle, and success, at the Sackler’s show.

WHAT: “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 7


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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