“Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture,” said the prolific sculptor-designer Isamu Noguchi. He believed the sculptor’s task was to shape space, to give it order and meaning, and that art should “disappear,” becoming one with its surroundings. Perhaps it was his dual heritage—his father was a Japanese poet, his mother a Scottish-American writer—that led him to look at the world with an eye for “oneness.”
Unwilling to be pigeonholed, Noguchi created sculptures as abstract as Henry Moore’s and as realistic as da Vinci’s. He used any medium he could put his hands on: stone, metal, wood, clay, bone, paper, or a combination—carving, casting, cutting, pounding, chiseling, or dynamiting as his forms took shape. “To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school,” he said. “I am always learning, always discovering.”
His extraordinary output included playgrounds and plazas, furniture and gardens, those stone-carved busts and delicate Akari paper lights. He also designed stage sets for dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, who was as much an influence on him as was his mentor, Constantin Brancusi.
During World War II, Noguchi voluntarily entered a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans—then was unable to get permission to leave. After seven months, granted liberation, he said, “I resolved henceforth to be an artist only.”
Noguchi’s relationship with Herman Miller began when one of his designs illustrated an article by George Nelson called “How to Make a Table.” The result became the eponymous glass-topped Noguchi Table, introduced in 1947 and reissued in 1984. Other notable commissions include the gardens for the UNESCO Building in Paris, five fountains for the Supreme Court Building in Tokyo, and a high-relief mural for the Abelardo Rodriguez Market in Mexico City.
Told by his first art teacher that he’d never be a sculptor, Noguchi went on to leave an amazing legacy before he died in 1988.