07 July 2007

Noguchi -- This Tortured Earth, 1943

sculpture: model for This Tortured Earth.
sculptor: Isamu Noguchi.
materials: bronze casting (of plaster or magnestite original)
dimensions: 28" x 28" x 4".
date: 1943.

Noguchi apparently said he'd conceived the piece after seeing an aerial photograph of a North African desert riddled with bombs. I can understand the literal destruction and idea for representing it, but I suspect there's much more angst in this work that addresses human interaction, behavior, hatred, violence, racism, and other forms of discrimination. I see this work as a abstract reconceptualization of his earlier, more literal image of a contoured, twisted human figure in Death (Lynched Figure) of 1934.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Sunday 7 December 1941), people of Japanese descent in the Western part of the United States were interred in relocation camps. Noguchi voluntarily left New York to work with the Japanese-American community. He made plans for crafts, parks, playgrounds, etc. for the settlement in Arizona where he was placed (Poston I). The government managers (Bureau of Indian Affairs because the settlement was located on Native American reservation) encouraged him to develop these plans for improving the life of the Nisei (people of Japanese descent born in the U.S.). Unfortunately, they had no intention of providing him with any assistance. It seems that Nisei viewed him with suspicion because of his cooperation with the government.

After enduring terrible living conditions, heat of 130 degrees F., people being made to construct their own dwellings, stuff their own mattresses, etc., he eventually decided to leave. At that point, his case came to the attention of Washington bureaucrats who opened an FBI file on him. He was refused permission to leave.

He eventually obtained a temporary pass to leave and returned to NYC. It is at that point that he began to develop works such as:
-- Monument to Heroes
-- My Arizona
-- Red Lunar Fist
-- I am a Foxhole

A more recent color photograph depicts this piece at a downward angle where it is positioned like a table.

Archival photograph by Kevin Noble.

Noguchi -- This Tortured Earth, 1943

sculpture: model for This Tortured Earth.
sculptor: Isamu Noguchi.
materials: bronze casting (from original in plaster or magnesite)
dimensions: 28" x 28" x 4".
date: 1942.

"The idea of sculpting the earth followed me through the years, with mostly playground models as metaphor, but then there were others. This Tortured Earth was my concept for a large area to memorialize the tragedy of war. There is injury to the earth itself. The war machine, I thought, would be excellent equipment for sculpture, to bomb it into existence."
-- Isamu Noguchi.

It's unclear whether Noguchi considered this model for a large scale earthwork sculpture to be considered metaphorically or as an actual proposal. The story is that he'd seen an aerial photograph of a bombed area in North Africa and was struck by the incredible malleability of the earth as a medium for three dimensional sculptural exploration. From the title and his comment regarding the "tragedy of war, it seems clear he saw this approach as an opportunity to make a statement about the destructiveness of war.

His rendering of the earth as a tortured surface suggests a living being that's been torn, damaged, and deformed as a human body might be following torture. It seems to draw upon the analogy common to many world cultures of the idea of the earth as a mother, as a source of life and regeneration. Noguchi explored these themes throughout his career in representational, symbolic, and abstract works.

Here is a link to an alternative view of this work looking directly downward on the model.

Archival photograph from The Noguchi Foundation, Inc..

05 July 2007

Noguchi -- My Arizona, 1943

Isamu Noguchi produced this abstract piece following his return from confinement at the Japanese-American internment camp in Poston, Arizona (from May through November 1942). It seems that he's attempting to use "pure abstraction" to express some very real, powerful emotions and perhaps to purge some of the harsh memories of his time there.

Although Noguchi initially volunteered to join other Nisei (American born Japanese Americans) at the camp in an effort to improve their living conditions, help set up programs for cultural awareness & development, and develop plans for community's future expansion and development. He pursued these objectives at the urging of some U.S. government officials. Ultimately, he realized the government had no intention in investing in the community or improving their living conditions. Instead he saw it for what it was: a concentration camp surrounded by high fences, barbed wire, security towers, and machine guns.

Once Noguchi put in a request to leave the camp, he then realized that even he was being confined against his will. It took many months for him to secure a temporary pass to leave the camp. On leaving the camp, he headed directly for New York, essentially having escaped imprisonment by the U.S. government.

Although Noguchi had done some explicitly social and political art in the past (such as the sculptural mural in a market in Mexico and his piece Death (Lynched Figure), he turned away from realism toward abstraction. At the same time, he turned from making works with explicit social or political content.

On his arrival in New York, he secured a secluded studio in Greenwich Village and set to work on new sculptural work. My Arizona is one of the early examples of his new commitment to abstraction and formal investigations.

Although the components of this four-square design seem on the surface "pure forms", they also appear to suggest strong emotive significance for Noguchi. One way to read this work is by examining and comparing it with a seemingly abandoned piece that may have been a predecessor for the base of this wall-hung work. Both pieces are visible in a photograph of Noguchi's studio by Andre Kertesz from the mid 1940s. The apparently earlier version has a similar overall structure (four square organization, but somewhat different details. Comparing the details and forms of each may be instructive toward understanding Noguchi's ideas for this work.

The addition of red plexiglas elements (one that is a square with a central circular opening and the other an element (perhaps symbolizing a heart?) at the apex of a hemispherical mound. A cone with an open top and a four-sided pyramid occupy the other two squares.

The two square corners and two rounded corners suggest a locus with a multiplicity of formal pressures. I read this compression of ideas and forms as an encapsulation of the confined landscape of the Poston internment camp as well as a symbolic representation of Noguchi's own experience in the form of a "psychological landscape".

I'll explore these themes further in additional posts.

Archival photograph by Michio Noguchi.