Whither Goest Thou, Isamu?
In 1922, just out of high school, Noguchi went to work for Gutzon Borglum (see Butterfield), who soon told Noguchi he'd never be a sculptor. Noguchi enrolled at Columbia as a pre-med student, but a visit to a New York gallery led to a fascination with the works of Constantin Brancusi, an early abstract artist.
Art history is not a Hegelian progression, marching inevitably along. Just as every detail in a sculpture is put there by choice, so is every artist's style a matter of choice - even when the artist's decision is to be lazily content with copying other artists' styles, or to abandon representation altogether. "I wanted other means of communication - to find a way of sculpture that was humanly meaningful without being realistic, at once abstract and socially relevant," said Noguchi in 1933.
But simply wanting to create works like that didn't mean he could support himself by selling them. Wealthy people who grew up surrounded by the works of John Quincy Adams Ward, Daniel Chester French, and Augustus Saint Gaudens would not pay artists' rates for rocks in a garden. Noguchi was Brancusi's studio assistant in Paris for half a year. Back in New York, though, his first exhibition of abstract sculptures sold not a single item. "The pursuit of art based on reflective leisure had now to be superseded by application to a job," wrote Noguchi. "Due to this necessity I did not do a single abstraction for a long time."
To make ends meet he fell back on portraiture of such notables as Buckminster Fuller, Martha Graham and George Gershwin. In the 1930s he noted that "[C]ontrasts of poverty and relative luxury made me more and more conscious of social injustice, and I soon had friends on the Left." One of the most notable was Diego Rivera (see web page on Atlas), who in 1933 became notorious for incorporating a portrait of Lenin into his fresco in the RCA Building, Noguchi had worked with Rivera in Mexico City, where Noguchi designed a 72-foot-long relief that made his political leanings obvious: "At one end was a fat 'capitalist' being murdered by a skeleton ... There were war, crimes of the church, and 'labor' triumphant. Yet the future looked out brightly in the figure of an Indian boy, observing Einstein's equation for energy."
Noguchi submitted entries for the Associated Press Building relief because he badly needed the money. News turned out to be the most dynamic of the Rockefeller Center sculptures and reliefs, with its energetic diagonals and its gleaming stainless steel surface. The inclusion of the latest technology to collect and distribute the news was a perfect match for Rockefeller Center's artistic theme, "New Frontiers." (See Prometheus.)
News was a boost to 34-year-old Noguchi's reputation as well as his bank account, although decades later he wryly commented that "The real danger of competitions is that one might some day win one. Then there is the time-consuming job of execution - and one is stuck with its reputation."
Given the similarity of style between the burly workers on his Mexican relief and the men on the Associated Press relief, it's safe to say that Noguchi considered the hard-working, mostly anonymous journalists more admirable than the famous newspapermen who helped found the Associated Press, such as Bennett and Greeley.
By the mid-1940s, Noguchi was so well known that he had a one-man show at the Musuem of Modern Art (cofounded by Abby Rockefeller in 1929; see Prometheus). He never had to do another representational piece. He never did.
Manhattan has his Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza (Nassau / Liberty / William / Pine Sts.), Red Cube (140 Broadway), and the sublimely named Unidentified Object (Fifth Ave. at 80th St., just south of the Metropolitan Museum).
Copyright (c) 2013 Dianne L. Durante