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Shaina Larrivee on Noguchi’s Catalogue Raisonné

Isamu Noguchi by Kazumi Kurigami, 1988

Isamu Noguchi by Kazumi Kurigami, 1988

Artist Isamu Noguchi embraced the ideas of Modernism, believing in the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment with the aid of new industry and technology. But he was also concerned with preserving centuries old traditions of art and craft of Japan, where he lived as a child, and of the countries he traveled throughout his life. His work, equally, crossed several disciplines and was often collaborative, and while his progressive social ambitions prescribed his versatility as an artist, his evolving interest in materials and material expression made him a prolific one. He is the author of over 3,000 works encompassing sculpture, drawings, architectural spaces, stage sets, and manufactured designs. Hence the residual challenges inherent to The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, Queens.

In 1985, at the age of 81, Noguchi opened his own foundation and museum to preserve and display ephemera of his process and his work. He had established his studio in Long Island City on the current premise over twenty years earlier, in 1961. Clearly he was ahead of his time since the neighbourhood has evolved into a hub of cultural institutions, including, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, MoMA QNS, and the Sculpture Center and Socrates Sculpture Park. Today, housed in a converted factory, connected to a building and interior garden of Noguchi’s design, the Museum exhibits installations originally designed by the artist, alongside new exhibitions that contextualise his work contemporarily in its ten galleries.

The Noguchi Foundation shares the 27,000 square-foot space of the Museum and uses an adjacent facility for research, documentation, and storage. Because Noguchi was so prolific, the Foundation’s research is still, in part, dedicated to deciphering what is a “Noguchi” from the unattributed sculptures, furniture and industrial designs, and preparatory materials like pencil sketches and plaster moulds that surfaces on the present, cohesive layer of his known history. While a high percentage of Noguchi’s works were public commissions, such as sculptural gardens and parks, or sculpture that quickly entered museum and private collections, some works, such as industrial and furniture designs have gone unattributed until recently. This has been one of the rewards of the Foundation’s work: discovering artworks lost within private collections or utilitarian objects that have been scattered around the world, stored away, or lingering on the shelves of vintage stores, considered as obsolete.

A Life’s Work
Noguchi’s highly recognisable civic works and public gardens include his UNESCO Garden of Peace in Paris, The California Scenario, in Costa Mesa, California, and the Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York City. These works, involving a large amount of paving with cut and natural stone, are like footprints on the environment, juxtaposed with their surroundings. His other highly public works were theatre sets, of which he made over 30, primarily for the iconic choreographers including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Noguchi’s most ubiquitous industrial designs are traditional paper-lanterns produced by the historic manufacturer Akari. A rarer industrial design, which belongs to the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, is his ultra-modern, sleek baby monitor for Zenith electronics, the Radio Nurse. Some of these works were ephemera – theatre sets, for example, could not be preserved, and many examples of his mass-produced designs, such as his wooden rocking stool, were used casually, as Noguchi wanted, but discarded after becoming worn, the value never realised in the secondary market. The Foundation only recently discovered the Measured Time clock, which it included in the Museum’s exhibition “Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow” (June 4 – January 4, 2015).

Noguchi's sunken garden at One Chase Manhattan Bank, 1946; Photo: Sam Falk

Noguchi’s sunken garden at One Chase Manhattan Bank, 1946; Photo: Sam Falk

An American, born in Los Angeles to Leonie Gilmour, a writer, and a Japanese father, the poet Yonejiro Noguchi, Noguchi lived his young life in Japan. At the age of 13, he returned to the U.S. to attend school in Indiana and went onto study medicine at Columbia University in New York City. While there, his mother encouraged him to pursue sculpture, and sculpting busts became his mainstay financially. In 1927, he travelled to Paris on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, where he met Constantin Brancusi, who became his mentor for several years. Noguchi left for Paris in April, 1930, to travel widely for the next three decades (until founding the Noguchi Museum in Queens). He left Paris on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping first in Peking, where he learned brush painting from Qi Baisi, then he traveled to Kyoto, to study pottery with Uno Jinmatsu. In the 1940s, Noguchi’s home base was his studio in New York City, on MacDougal Alley, where he started producing his iconic, interlocking furniture designs. In 1961, Noguchi moved, aforementioned, to Queens, into a small brick building across the street from what is now the Museum.

Although Noguchi’s studio is currently used for museum offices, the original design is still intact, with movable Soji screens, skylights, a soaking tub, a loftlike sleeping space, and Akari lamps hanging from the ceiling. Likewise in keeping with Japanese tradition, the 24,000 square-foot museum, originally a photo-engraving factory, is marked from the outside only by a discrete sign, and one enters through a simple glass side door. Inside there is no coat room, and the galleries are in plain view from the entrance. Through the museum, one finds that guards are few and far between. Visitors are given ample space to view Noguchi’s carved and polished stone and marble sculpture, welded steel assemblages, sketches, models, and drawings for industrial designs and sets, from all angles, in privacy. Tête-à-tête encounters  between visitor and artwork are provided wondrously, over and over again, as one walks through the Museum.

The Catalogue Raisonné
In addition to preserving Noguchi’s work, the Foundation has the task of constructing the Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, the first comprehensive record of the artist’s life and work. The last book written with this ambition is The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, 1924–1979: A Catalogue, by Nancy Grove and Dianne Botnick, published in 1980, years before the artist’s death in 1988 – fruitful years of production. The catalogue raisonné is a digital publication under construction now by direction Managing Editor, Shaina Larrivee. Because research and writing to a conclusive point was estimated a long, 10-year schedule, the Foundation, ingeniously, decided to present the catalogue online as a work in progress. Today, anyone may visit the Museum’s website and utilise the catalogue extant, which includes complete entries for artworks, exhibitions, and literature where research has been finalized, as well as “research pending” entries for anticipated content. I interviewed Larrivee on the Foundation’s progressive approach to publishing and its inner workings which allow the Museum to fulfill Noguchi’s vision as he outlined.

Area 1 of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

Area 2 of The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

AK: When I started preparing for the interview, I read over the Museum’s recommended reading list. At the top, you have Noguchi’s autobiography, which he wrote in 1968 when he was 64 years old, and the book on the Museum which he wrote in 1987, just before his death. Do you know what compelled Noguchi to write an autobiography at that time?

SL: I imagine that the vast majority of artists have about the same regard for documenting history as Noguchi did – he was of course concerned with his legacy, but felt very strongly that time spent trying to remember and organize the past took time away from his sculpture. Even so, what he did manage to do for his own legacy has made a huge impact. The autobiography is a great example. He actually began with the idea of a monograph in 1957. His publishers, though, encouraged a first-person narrative, so it grew into a “visual autobiography” that was primarily a huge selection of photographs of his work, and after a long series of proposals, revisions, and rewritings, it was published by Harper & Row in 1968. So even though Noguchi had no interest in spending his time on his own past, we ended up with not just the book, but also the complete remnants of his work toward the publication.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoku, Japan

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoku, Japan

The Noguchi Museum’s archives hold thousands of photographs he collected of his own work, exhibitions, and studios. And, to a certain extent, his notes left over from trying to recollect all the works he had made up to that point became the basis for the first catalogue raisonné of his sculpture, published in 1980. These remain some of the most incredible resources we have for understanding his practice, and would alone be a treasure for the catalogue raisonné research. But of course, in addition to the autobiography, Noguchi left behind and intact his entire personal collection and its context.

AK: Was he concerned with his legacy at that point? I’m curious about when and how the idea for the Museum came to him.

SL: The Museum was certainly a legacy project as well, but one that perhaps grew more naturally out of circumstance. Noguchi had a huge collection of his own work. He has established his New York studio in Long Island City in 1961, and, running out of space, purchased a larger building across the street in 1974. It was first used as storage and office space, but by 1980, he was planning to renovate and open the spaces to the public. The Noguchi Museum as it is today is not only the preservation of his collection and wishes for its display, but is also dedicated to preserving and sharing his legacy, through programs that include the catalogue raisonné project.

Proposal for Adele Levy Playground in New York City's Riverside Park, 1960-1966

Proposal for Adele Levy Playground in New York City’s Riverside Park, 1960-1966

AK: Noguchi worked with many artists and architects throughout his career and developed close friendships with several that spanned over 50 years. He met Martha Graham, for instance, in his twenties when she commissioned him to make two portrait busts, and then went on to make some 20 set designs for her major performances over the following 30 years. He had a similar collaborative friendship with Buckminster Fuller, creating sculpture in dialogue with his engineering and architectural designs. I wonder who was helping Noguchi on his large scale projects, behind the scenes, and how he went about production. Was most of the fabrication happening here at his Long Island studio?

SL: If you just focus on the collaborations in Noguchi’s practice, it can start to seem like he lived a completely charmed life – the range of intersections with the incredible figures of the twentieth century is really staggering. Maybe it’s most surprising to those of us who did not know him personally, and did not get to know what was always described as a mesmeric personality. But it’s clearly not just that he attracted fascinating people – he also seemed to thrive on and seek out collaboration. Martha Graham and Buckmister Fuller were some of his early, but by no means earliest group of influential friends and colleagues. He famously studied under the reclusive Constantin Brancusi, and Chinese calligrapher Qi Baishi; he did costumes and a sets for Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and Ruth Page; Berenice Abbott, Rudy Burckhardt, André Kertész and Eliot Elisofon took photograph of his work and studios. As he grew to be involved in large-scale projects, it was a combination of his own drive and connections that pushed ideas forward. He worked many times with Gordon Bunshaft from Skidmore, Owing & Merrill on a range of projects, and with architects including Edward Durrell Stone, Wallace K. Harrison, Kenzo Tange, Marcel Breuer, Yoshiro Taniguchi, and Louis Kahn. Some projects were his original ideas or proposals, and in some cases he was brought on by others. By the 1970s, he was working consistently on large-scale projects and traveling constantly from site to site, splitting his time at studios in New York, Italy, and Japan. Shoji Sadao, an architectural partner of Buckminster Fuller’s, became an instrumental collaborator, who headed Noguchi’s foundation for many years, and most recently wrote an incredible first-hand account of Noguchi and Bucky’s friendship, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends. This book and Amy Wolf’s exhibition catalogue, “On Becoming an Artist,” are wonderful accounts of this life of intersections.

Sky Mirror, 1970

Sky Mirror, 1970

AK: Since Noguchi was so prolific and his work crossed between so many different disciplines – sculpture, ceramics, theatre, industrial design, and architecture, putting together a definitive catalogue raisonné must require an incredible amount of research and intuition. You must be living and breathing Noguchi.

SL: I realize that since this type of work is specialist’s realm, focusing on the microcosm of one person, it may seem very limiting. In fact, it’s actually an incredibly expansive process of gleaning the most specific facts about an individual, their work, time and environment. There are these wonderful moments in research when it feels like you’ve come across the beginning of a path, and you have to make a decision to stay focused on the direction you have been heading, or follow some new fascinating question that may not lead to an easy answer. For those who love research, I think this is what we thrive on. With much bias, I would say that Noguchi, specifically, is an absorbing subject and he did more than enough in his lifetime to sustain what feels like a never-ending collection of discoveries. For the catalogue raisonné, our work involves documenting to the fullest extent more than 2,500 objects and spaces, plus hundreds of works on paper and models. To make sure of even the most essential information – titles, dates, material, provenance – we spend much time with Noguchi’s biography and very personal remnants of his life: photographs, letters to and from friends, notes back and forth with his galleries, accountant, fabricators. But it’s not overwhelming. Instead it feels like each piece, even a random line from a letter or blurry spot of a photo, can add to an ever-growing picture of this full and prolific life.

Isamu Noguchi in his studio by Andre Kertesz, 1940

Isamu Noguchi in his studio by Andre Kertesz, 1940

AK: What are some of your best resources for verifying or fleshing out the facts?

SL: This project could be seen as a combination of two major efforts, primarily the editing of existing research, and to a slightly lesser extent, new research. The catalogue raisonné is incredibly fortunate to be building upon more than 30 years of research into Noguchi’s life and work, starting with The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, by Nancy Grove and Dianne Botnick (Garland 1980), which was the first major accounting of Noguchi’s sculptures, collections, exhibition and bibliography. Research on that publication took place 1978-1979, and while Noguchi lived for nearly another 10 (incredibly prolific) years, the Grove/Botnick publication became the foundation for the continual cataloguing of his work by studio assistants, and later the foundation.

The most tremendous resource we currently have is the artist’s archives, housed by the Museum. Correspondence with his galleries, fabricators, accountant, and collaborators helps document the history of hundreds of works. And Noguchi’s huge collection of photographs was his own best document of his work, and a continual resource for us. Certainly, some lost and undocumented works have been located over the years since 1980, and a huge number of drawings and working models not included in the book were documented by the estate after Noguchi’s death in December 1988. But by and large his work is considered fairly well documented, making our effort more of a verification and editing task. What the catalogue raisonné ultimately aims to do is update the public account of Noguchi’s practice to include works made or found since 1980, and to provide a fully comprehensive accounting of each work, including for the first time artwork provenance, exhibition history, and bibliography.

AK: The catalogue is online as a work in progress, which I think is a really beautiful effort by the museum. The old photographs of his work make his life and career both more tangible and illusive. I wish I could walk through some of his early exhibitions such as his 1930 exhibition “Fifteen Heads” at Marie Sterner Gallery in New York. The missing information makes me excited for what you will hopefully find to complete the book.

SL: Publishing online in the format we have developed has been a wonderful way to conduct our work. The initial idea behind publishing digitally was that, since Noguchi’s work is so interdisciplinary and diverse, it would be too limiting to try to separate his practice into a set of static volumes. You should be able to approach his life from any angle, and sort and shift information based on any one of dozens of factors. What we did not initially expect from the digital approach, but grew quickly to appreciate, was how publishing online could affect accessibility and even work flow. Instead of spending years collecting research for a one-time print publication, we can make public what is learned much quicker, and not work toward a specific end-date or even a finite level of “complete.” Catalogue raisonné research is always at odds with the notion of completeness anyways, since the very process of research invariable leads to more information.

Area 3 of the museum

Area 3 of the museum

SHAINA LARRIVEE is the Managing Editor of The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. It’s mission is to advance the understanding and appreciation of Isamu Noguchi’s art and legacy. The broad scope of Isamu Noguchi’s artistic interests and his creation of a Museum devoted to encouraging the enjoyment and contemplation of these same interests provides us with the challenge to protect and further the legacy of his vision.