Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a Japanese American artist known for his sculptures that use Zen philosophy and incredible textures, and who, at the end of his life, helped establish the famous Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York. This article will review some of the pieces in the museum, which he founded, and then discuss certain philosophies behind those works of art.
“Brilliance” from 1982 is a three-piece sculpture standing about six feet tall. This piece alternates its natural basalt shell, which is yellow, and its polished black interior. Igneous rock is the result of hot lava pouring out of the earth from a volcano. In sculpting from the natural igneous rock, Noguchi’s method embraced contradiction. First, Noguchi used an ultra-modern diamond-tipped saw to rip into the rock. He then polished the revealed interior to a cobalt-blue-black sheen. On the other hand he also used bamboo rods that he then expanded in order to make pock-mark divots in the stone. The very method, therefore, can be seen as a series of opposites and contradictions: Noguchi used a modern tool in his diamond power saw and diamond drills to work with the rock, and he also used ancient traditional techniques of Japanese sculpting using bamboo in order to dig into the rock. A second pair of opposites have to do with the igneous rock itself, it has new qualities – being “freshly” formed by hot lava; and old qualities, because the rock took time to rust in the sun. The divot holes and the cutting open have a literal revelation that speaks to a more figurative revelation. The entire work has the rough appearance from the bubbling yellow rust of the basalt rock, concurrent with its smooth, polished, revealed interior.
In “Ding Dong Bat” from 1968-69, the sculptor made a thing that looks like a bone, like a femur or a humerus, and a little bit like a baseball bat. The positioning and presentation of the work is low to the ground, horizontal. This sculpture is phallic, certainly. This sculpture is a feat of engineering. The steel rod and mechanical tension of physics push the beads of striped marble and white marble together onto that steel rod, as if on a necklace. The weight of the marble pushes in toward the middle of the sculpture, and because marble is so heavy, the pieces push down and toward each other — locking them in place.
Noguchi’s use of smooth and rough stone is more similar to Japanese Zen Buddhism, and the philosophy’s roots in Chinese Taoism. In The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, one of the central tenets of Buddhism is “tathata.” Watts writes,
The Mahayana does, however, have another term for reality which is perhaps more indicative than sunya, the void. This word is tathata, which we may translate as, “suchness,” “thusness,” or “thatness.” Similarly, the Buddhas are called Tathagatas – they who go, or come, “thus.” The Sanskrit word tat (our “that”) is probably based on a child’s first efforts at speech when it points at something and says, “Ta” or “Da.” Fathers flatter themselves by imagining that the child is calling them by name “Dada” or “Daddy.” But perhaps the child is just expressing its recognition of the world, and saying, “That!” When we say just “That,” or “Thus,” we are pointing to the realm of nonverbal experience, to reality as we perceive it directly, for we are trying to indicate what we see or feel rather than what we think or say. Tathata therefore indicates the world just as it is, unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought. It points to the concrete and actual as distinct from the abstract and conceptual. A Buddha is Tathagata, a “thus-goer,” because he is awakened to this primary, nonconceptual world which no words can convey, and does not confuse it with such ideas as being and non-being, good and bad, past and future…(Watts 67).
Elsewhere in the book, Watts mentions the Zen Koan, “mountains are mountains, but ‘mountains are mountains’ are not mountains,” and this speaks to Noguchi’s use of space and rhythm in his sculptures. In his “Sun at Noon” sculpture from 1969, the artist makes an orange ring of French and Spanish marble into a giant circle. This circle is a feat of sculpture and architecture. Noguchi is not playing any tricks in terms of riddles or irreverent humor — He means marble as marble, and the fancy symbolism that marble conveys when architects use marble. In Western art and architecture, these “feats” serve as a representation of culture and civilization, because it takes time to pull stone from a quarry, and then haul it a distance, and then finally polish it down over time. The use of key stones is a separate feat of architecture, where there’s a stone in the middle of the arch, which was difficult because the tension has to be evenly distributed. And! Noguchi here means mountains aren’t “mountains are mountains.” Noguchi formed his marble – French and Spanish, polished, Western, in a feat of Western architecture – in the shape of a circle, as a shape of Taoism, which is the foundational philosophy for Zen Buddhism. Here Noguchi uses Western forms simultaneously with Eastern forms. The two aren’t in conflict, and that’s the point.
Noguchi’s museum is full of strange meta-contradictions and voided paradoxes. Contradictions and conflicts blend into each other. Rocks jut and swing purposefully enough that these sculptures must have taken serious amounts of time; these sculptures were very much deliberate. At the same time, Noguchi chose what seems like arbitrary messages, points of decision for what to hide and what to reveal (another tenet of Zen Buddhism). In “Brilliance” this meant coring the rocks and polishing them intensely to reveal the deep cobalt-blue-black. The viewer is intuited to ask why Noguchi chiseled for what must have been hours, if he was only going to gracefully stop later?
Noguchi’s museum is in the northern-most part of Queens’ Long Island City, vaguely parallel to Roosevelt Island, and, further across the East River, Museum Mile and hutch of a half-dozen museums for art and culture in Manhattan (including the Jewish Museum, the Neue Galerie, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Met Breuer, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). All of Museum Mile’s buildings are literally architecturally square in spite of their credentials – the Cooper Hewitt is even a design and architecture museum! – but the Noguchi museum sits Zen-like, by itself, in part a huge triangle, almost five miles and forty-five minutes away by train from the squares.
Isamu Noguchi, who was half-Japanese and half-white, who was both embraced by the art establishment and rejected by it, who made sculptures about contradictions and paradoxes, and who survived Japanese internment in the United States -- this artist knew about insider and outsider status. In New York City, commitment to one’s craft borders at any given time on mania, be it concerts at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, finance on Wall Street, or even the cloistered intensity of the art world, considering Museum Mile itself. Noguchi’s museum is a beacon of fun in its outsider status.