Beyond the Pedestal: Isamu Noguchi and the Borders of Sculpture

Beyond the Pedestal: Isamu Noguchi and the Borders of Sculpture

The Japanese-American modernist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) believed “everything was sculpture.” This contention is the starting point for Beyond the Pedestal: Isamu Noguchi and the Borders of Sculpture, an exhibition that examines the artist’s expansive sculptural practice, which reconsidered the dynamics between objects, spaces, and human experiences. The show includes about 50 examples of Noguchi’s diverse and varied artistic practice from across his six-decade career, investigating the way he challenged entrenched ideas about what sculpture could be and how we relate to it.

Isamu Noguchi was born in California to an American mother and a Japanese father. He spent his childhood with his mother (who had separated from his poet father) in Japan before he returned to the United States for schooling at age 13. Though he aspired to be an artist straight from high school, he possessed little knowledge and aptitude for art, so he enrolled as a pre-med student at Columbia University. Nevertheless, his artistic impulses continued, and he began his formal study of sculpture by taking evening courses at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. Soon the young Noguchi began committing all of his energies to this pursuit and, after seeing an exhibition of Constantin Brancusi’s modernist sculpture in 1926, decided to travel abroad to gain new understandings of modernism and global artistic traditions. He spent the next several years traveling, first to France, where he worked in Brancusi’s studio for a time, and later China and Japan. He would continue to travel extensively for the remainder his career, mining global inspirations and melding them into his unique sculptural style.

Noguchi believed that the essence of sculpture was the “perception of space.” Shifting the focus from an isolated art object to its position within an environmental and social continuum, Noguchi created landscape architecture, playground designs, monuments, stage sets, abstract forms, furniture, and more. A bronze cast of Noguchi’s 1933 Play Mountain, for instance, reveals the way he considered using the earth itself as a sculptural material. He envisioned filling an entire New York City block with an urban landscape with slides and steps as well as mountains and valleys. Unlike traditional playgrounds, the land sculpture would free children from the fenced-in, asphalt blacktops that dotted the city. Instead, Play Mountain would offer them a new engagement with their environment. Though Play Mountain never came to fruition, it continually fed Noguchi’s creativity. He returned to the idea of playgrounds frequently and stressed the importance of play and experience to understanding sculpture. He developed the ingenious Play Sculpture of 1975, which allowed children to climb over and around his art in order to develop a new type of physical literacy.

Isamu Noguchi, (United States, 1904 - 1988) Play Sculpture, circa 1975-1976 Steel, fabricated 2018
The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, CR#649.02-c2

As Noguchi’s art so often considered ideas of space and movement, he frequently collaborated with like-minded modernists in other fields. He worked closely with people such as the architect Louis Kahn and the inventor Buckminster Fuller. He also partnered with choreographers such as Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins, for whom he created stage sets. In 1947, Noguchi designed a 13-foot-high jungle gym for Hawkins’ Stephen Acrobat. Like the playground components, this triangular tower was not a static visual object, but instead a form that gave shape to the environment. In Hawkins’ ballet, Noguchi’s Jungle Gym gave structure to the dancers’ movements as they climbed, swung, and jumped through the performance.


Beyond his theatrical and architectural projects, Noguchi also teamed with manufacturers as he expanded his sculptural practice towards furniture and lights. For instance, he worked with the Ozeki Company to modernize Japan’s traditional Gifu lanterns for electricity. Like much of Noguchi’s design work, his Akari lamps challenge traditional categorization. They glow with a captivating weightlessness and intangibility as they illuminate a room, and their bold, geometrically abstract shapes function as sculpture to define their space. At once functional lights and modern art, Akari were the culmination of Noguchi’s long-standing effort “to further extend the concept of sculpture from light reflective to translucent object.” Noguchi was committed to examining all facets of the relationship of sculpture to human experience and engaged crucial causes of social justice through his art. In addressing issues that impacted his own life as well as broader social concerns—including the lynching of African Americans, his time in an American internment camp for Japanese citizens during World War II, and nuances of national identity— Noguchi’s works evoked the personal and the universal. True to form, regardless of the subject he investigated, his sculptures broke from edifying memorial traditions, and instead suggest a new monumental sensibility rooted in experience, contemplation, and confrontation.

Right: Isamu Noguchi in Venice, standing on top of Slide Mantra, 1986.
©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Left: Isamu Noguchi, (United States, 1904 - 1988)

Jungle Gym, 1947, Steel, plastic, and paint
The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Gift of Erick Hawkins, 1992, CR# 273-1

In 1986, Noguchi served as the American representative at the Venice Biennale—the most prestigious international, contemporary art exhibition of the time. There he exhibited a mix of Akari and stone carvings, play components, landscape designs, and more. He appropriately titled the show Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture? This question, asked just two years before his death, encapsulates the essence of Noguchi’s career. He pushed the boundaries of art and expanded the meaning of his medium through probing forays into the materials and processes of sculpture, but perhaps more importantly, into sculpture’s place within our world.
Blog title image: Isamu Noguchi working on model for Riverside Park Playground, 1963.  ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Michio Noguchi 

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October 31, 2018
Former Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Associate Curator of European Art

Andrew was responsible for overseeing the PMA’s collection of European art, including long-term loans from the Isabelle and Scott Black Collection and the Albert Otten Collection, as well as developing special exhibitions and other projects. He holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Maryland, College Park, an M.A. in Art History from Tulane University, and a B.A. in French and French Literature from Davidson College in North Carolina. A native New Englander, he is fluent in French.