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Originally published Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Visual arts

Noguchi: Artist without a country has a place in Seattle

The late artist Isamu Noguchi saw himself as a man without a country. With a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi was born in...

Seattle Times art critic

The late artist Isamu Noguchi saw himself as a man without a country. With a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 and raised in both nations, but he never fit completely into the culture of either place. Until his death in 1988, he remained a restless world traveler, obsessive creator, meticulous craftsman and renowned womanizer, who once got chased from Frida Kahlo's bed at gunpoint by her enraged husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (no slouch himself when it came to seduction).

Noguchi took risks as an artist, too. Known primarily as a stone sculptor, he also applied his skills to landscape and furniture design, functional ceramics, dance sets and photography.

The particular blend of classical Japanese aesthetics and Modernism that characterizes Noguchi's art has always struck a chord here in the Northwest, perhaps because of our long-standing affinity with Asian art and design. Seattle boasts two outdoor sculptures by Noguchi: "Black Sun" at Volunteer Park and "Landscape of Time" at the Federal Building at Second Avenue and Marion Street downtown. Another major Noguchi, the looming black steel "Skyviewing Sculpture" stands on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Yet oddly, until now, no Seattle museum has hosted a Noguchi exhibition. Organized to honor the centennial of the artist's birth, "Isamu Noguchi — Sculptural Design" opens Thursday at the Seattle Art Museum, a welcome addition to SAM's lineup as it heads into the final months before closing for expansion in January.

The show debuted last year at Vitra Design Museum in Germany in collaboration with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation of New York. The exhibition should play well in Seattle, given the region's admiration for Noguchi as well as the current raging popularity for mid-20th century design.

The show holds another attraction, too: The presentation was conceived and designed by renowned multimedia artist and theatrical designer Robert Wilson, known for such groundbreaking productions as "Einstein at the Beach," a collaboration with composer Philip Glass.

The apprenticeship

Coming up

"Isamu Noguchi — Sculptural Design," with installation concept and design by Robert Wilson. June 9-Sept. 5. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (extended hours until 9 p.m. Thursdays), 100 University St., Seattle (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org.)

Special events:

June 12: Masayo Duus, author of the biography "The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders," talks about the artist's creativity and relationships. Lecture in Japanese, translated by Peter Duus.

June 16: "Remembering Noguchi in Seattle." Artists Eric Nelsen and Gerry Tsutakawa met Noguchi in Seattle and later visited his studio in Japan. They talk about the impact of his work on Seattle artists. Moderated by associate curator Susan Rosenberg. 6:30 p.m., Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park.

June 30: Robert Wilson will present a one-person performance lecture, 6-9 p.m.

Early in Noguchi's career, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to Paris, where he apprenticed with renowned sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Brancusi's distilled abstractions were so mesmerizing to the younger artist that he modeled his Paris studio after Brancusi's and for many years much of his sculpture ended up resembling the older artist's as well.

Seattle art dealer Bryan Ohno, who assembled two Noguchi exhibits at his Pioneer Square gallery, recounts a telling story about how, as a young art student he tracked down Noguchi and begged to be taken on as an apprentice. Noguchi refused.

"I said you apprenticed with Brancusi, so you should take me," Ohno recalls. "He said it took him 20 years to break free of Brancusi and do his own work." Noguchi told Ohno it was more important for young artists to work with master craftsmen and absorb technique, as he himself had done, learning woodworking, ceramics and stone-cutting from artisans in Japan.

Noguchi started out by sculpting portraits of famous people and wealthy art collectors. In the 1920s, Martha Graham commissioned a portrait bust of herself from the young Noguchi. In 1935, she asked him to design a stage set for her dance "Frontier." Noguchi saw the commission as a challenge, a way to expand his ideas about sculpture to include the broader space of the theater and the way the audience interacts with it. "I used a rope, nothing else," the artist is quoted in his biography by Masayo Duus. "It's not the rope that is the sculpture, but it is the space which it creates that is the sculpture."

From the almost mystical design of that first set, Noguchi went on the create the set for Graham's masterpiece "Appalachian Spring" — a design he described as "like Shaker furniture" — as well as a number of others.

Part of Noguchi's motivation to work in the field of design was financial. With no other means of support except his sculpture and occasional grants, Noguchi was glad to try his hand at more commercial projects. He designed a coffee table for furniture designer Robsjohn Gibbings but never heard back on the project, his biography states. When he discovered that the table was being marketed without his approval, Noguchi was miffed. He promptly designed another table for the Herman Miller Furniture Company that sold well and helped relieve the artist's concerns about money.

Art, war and love

Oddly, it was World War II and the conflict between Noguchi's two homelands — not to mention a love affair with the beautiful young niece of Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru — that finally brought him into his own as a sculptor. In the early days of the war, Noguchi won a competition to create a bas-relief sculpture at the entrance to the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center that brought him some long-sought critical acclaim. "News," Noguchi's nine-ton stainless steel casting of simplified figures working with typewriter, camera, telephone and notepad, won praise in The New York Times when it was unveiled in 1940.

For a while, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi put aside his own work. Inspired by a desire to support the United States and show solidarity with his fellow Japanese Americans, Noguchi voluntarily entered the internment camp at Poston, Ariz., where he hoped to start an arts and crafts cooperative. He was quickly disillusioned. The sophisticated artist soon learned he was an outsider among the Japanese Americans interned at Poston, too. In the midst of mostly farmers with little interest in art or politics, Noguchi despaired. When he finally was able to gain his release, he returned to his New York studio. He was stunned when the FBI, convinced that Noguchi was a spy, ordered him deported. The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to defend him and the deportation order was eventually reversed.

Meanwhile, Noguchi met and fell for the young beauty Nayantara Pandit, in New York as a student. Noguchi, truly smitten, was in the midst of his affair with her during the creation of his pink marble sculpture "Kouros" (Greek for young man) assembled of carved and notched pieces of stone. The new style he was trying out was based in part on Asian calligraphy, he said. Its title referenced the classical Greek kouros sculptural form, but was informed by contemporary abstractions by émigré artists, including his friend Arshile Gorky.

Symbol of freedom

In 1946, the 9-foot-tall sculpture was included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Fourteen Americans," along with works by Mark Tobey, Gorky, Robert Motherwell and David Hare, among others. A breakthrough for Noguchi, "Kouros" was the hit of the show and an eight-page feature in Art News described him as "one of America's most distinguished yet least-known artists." Noguchi explained to one critic that cold abstraction in art didn't interest him. "It has to recall something which moves a person — a recollection, a recognition of his loneliness, or tragedy, whatever it is at the root of his recollection." In the sculpture portion of the SAM exhibition, you will see examples of Noguchi's stone-work, melding organic and geometric forms, smooth and rough surfaces, classical Japanese and Modernist principles. That's what characterizes Noguchi's style, Ohno said. "I think the duality issue was constant in his work."

Noguchi quickly became a celebrity in Japan, too. "He had a great impact on a lot of artists right after World War II," Ohno said. "He almost has more of a cult figure stature in Japan than in this country. When those young artists after the war were trying to find a voice, Noguchi gave them a lot of confidence. Noguchi lived the free lifestyle that every Japanese artist wanted but couldn't attain. They were trapped by rules, trapped by tradition. He was the symbol of freedom in that regard. The roots of his influence really began at that time and continue to this day."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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