Isamu Noguchi- Between Two Worlds
Between Two Worlds
We visit The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City to visit his sculptures and his renowned Akari Light Sculptures and explore his identity forging paths between the east and west.
Across the street from Rainey Park and a short walk from Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City sits a renovated factory that is the Noguchi Museum. Sculptor, land architect, furniture designer, and set designer, Isamu Noguchi's works span across a multitude of disciplines in his six-decade career. The quiet neighborhood the museum presides in exemplifies the personality of Noguchi and his works: hidden in plain sight.
Born as Isamu Gilmore to an Irish mother and a Japanese father, Isamu's identity was caught in the cultural divide between east and west. The misfortunes of having an estranged father who left him at an early age to living with anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II spurred his drive toward self-expression of identity and belonging. Buckminster Fuller, a renowned architect and a close friend of Noguchi, talked about Noguchi's life as an artist born between two worlds. He explained that Noguchi’s ‘European Asiatic-American genes defied his conscious urge to settle down.’ Fuller saw that Noguchi envied natives who belonged to their land, and yearned a sense of belonging to some group of people. But for Noguchi that proved impossible, for fate carved a path for Noguchi to be a member of a world society.
His unique background, his mother being the writer Leoni Gilmore and his father the poet Yonejiro Noguchi, gave Isamu a sense of multi-faceted sensibility and artistic acumen. Due to his multicultural lineage, Noguchi had the awareness of being born of Japanese tradition yet viewing it objectively, which brought new interpretations and realizations. It was only natural that self-expression and his quest for identity became the catalyst for his future creations.
His sense of belonging to Japan also brought considerable anguish during World War II. Shortly after the attacks on Pearl Harbor Isamu created the 'Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy,' hoping to calm the nerves of Japanese antagonism and to prevent the internment of Japanese-Americans. Under the organization, Noguchi and other prominent members who were Nisei, American-born Japanese whose parents came from Japan, wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him not to violate civil rights of American citizens through impulsive actions. On February 19, 1942 the United States issued Executive Order 9066, putting Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps. On the May of that year, Isamu voluntarily entered Poston Internment Camp hoping to improve the quality of life for internees by drawing up plans to build parks and recreational facilities, but both the War Relocation Administration (WRA) and internees saw him as untrustworthy. He entered the camp romantically imagining that the people that were held at Poston were his people, but the internees saw him as part of the administration that held them captive, and the fact that he was biracial made it difficult to be accepted with the rest of the Japanese-American internees. The WRA saw Isamu as an interloper devising plans that they found no interest in. Being discharged from the internment camp would also become an obstacle, being accused of a spy with his relations with the 'Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy.'
Even with his failed attempts during the war, Noguchi would find ways to bridge the east and west in his own methods. His postwar works included working as a set designer for Martha Graham, Buckminster Fuller, and Louis Kahn. In 1948, he went back to Japan to immerse himself in creating potteries and sculpture. In 1951, he premiered his designs for akari, which would be featured in the Noguchi Museum. His influence can be seen all over the world, from a bridge in Hiroshima's Peace Park, The Garden of Peace at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the Sunken Garden at Yale University, the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, to the 400-acre Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. Adding subtle Japanese influences to his sculptures and open spaces, Isamu Noguchi has carved footprints for the world to see the dynamic ties between the East and West.
Opened in 1985, the Noguchi Museum is the culmination of of Isamu's life as an artist and a cultural bridge between the east and west, tradition and modernity. Akari, the self-titled exhibit of the famous light sculptures, are lamps made with traditional methods of rice paper and bamboo. His interpretations of centuries-old tradition of Japanese lamps with the eyes of an abstract sculptor revitalized these objects into mid-century modern classics. The exhibit exemplifies Noguchi's play on scale, environment, staging, and other real-world references he designed into them. Noguchi explains Akari, and other handmade crafts in general, is "a foil to our harsh, mechanized existence." Noguchi has managed to keep one eye on soul of past tradition, while simultaneously tending to the ideas of the present. In this we recognize what he himself has said: