Untitled, 1978
Isamu Noguchi (1904—1988)

Isamu Noguchi is best known for sculptures in stone and bronze (often situated in a landscape garden or urban plaza of his own design) that fuse Japanese art traditions with European and American modernism. Untitled was the first work to be acquired for the Osher Sculpture Garden. On this strategic site, Untitled serves as a symbolic bridge between Asian and American cultures in the Pacific Rim city of San Francisco.

Characteristically, in Untitled Noguchi explored and exploited the boundaries between the sculpture’s raw, natural granite material, shaped by the forces of nature, and the conscious articulation of that material by the hand of man. A rough-hewn shaft of granite, Untitled recalls the Japanese landscape tradition of selecting naturally occurring but visually striking stones and isolating them within a landscape garden for aesthetic contemplation. Noguchi’s careful study of landscape masterpieces such as the fifteenth-century Ryoanji Temple rock garden in Kyoto gave him an understanding of their subtle explorations of the garden as microcosm, in which a single stone may be perceived as a mountain or as a landscape unto itself. Dramatically cantilevered over its supporting base and projecting out into the surrounding space, Untitled embodies Noguchi’s belief that “if sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.”[1]

The natural igneous origins of Untitled are counterbalanced by Noguchi’s careful cutting, carving, and polishing of the stone surface. The serrated bottom edge of Untitled, created by drilling and prying this stone megalith from its quarry bed, is suggestive of the cutting edge of a primitive Stone Age tool. Noguchi noted that humans first used stones to sharpen or polish tools, and the blade-like form of Untitled recalls his aesthetic admiration for “the sharpness and purity of the Japanese Shinto sword.”[2]

Although Untitled remains enigmatic and multivalent in its seemingly unfinished state, it embodies Noguchi’s fascination with archetypal nature, man, and culture: “Actually, the older it is, the more archaic and primitive, the better I like it. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s simply because the repeated distillation of art brings you back to the primordial: the monoliths, the cave paintings, the scratchings, the shorthand by which the earliest people tried to indicate their sense of significance, and even further back, until you get to the fundamental material itself.”[3]

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles to the American writer and teacher Leonie Gilmour and the Japanese poet Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi, who abandoned his family and returned to Japan before his son’s birth. In 1906, Gilmour moved to Tokyo, where she unsuccessfully attempted a reunion with her husband. In 1910, she moved to Chigasaki, where young Isamu was later informally apprenticed to the Japanese carpenter who built their half-American, half-Japanese house.

After high school graduation, Noguchi pursued his dream of becoming a sculptor by traveling to Stamford, Connecticut, where he apprenticed with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. Although Borglum told Noguchi he lacked talent as a sculptor, the young artist persevered and enrolled in 1924 in the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo’s Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York, where he learned the rudiments of stone carving.

The artistic turning point of Noguchi’s career occurred in 1926, when he accompanied the artist Marcel Duchamp to an exhibition by the great modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The following year, a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Noguchi to travel to Paris, where he commenced a two-year apprenticeship in Brancusi’s studio. Brancusi’s distillation of sculptural form down to its most elemental materials and abstract forms provided a model of eloquent understatement that influenced Noguchi’s subsequent sculpture.

[1] Isamu Noguchi, “Meaning in Modern Sculpture,” Art News 48 (March 1949), p. 55

[2] Martin Friedman, Noguchi: Imaginary Landscapes, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1978), p. 19

[3] Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p.186, cited in Dore Ashton, Noguchi: East and West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 9

Isamu Noguchi (1904—1988)
Untitled, 1978
Shodo Shima granite
Museum purchase, gift of Bernard and Barbro Osher

Listen to Colin B. Bailey, Director of Museums, provide his perspective on Isamu Noguchi’s Untitled.