15 October 2013

Noguchi's Light, 1

Throughout Isamu Noguchi's career, there's repeated evidence of his fascination with light and its wide ranging effects on our understanding and perception of form, space and volume. His great interest in the effects, behavior and uses of light may stem from some early experiences recounted from the ten years between the ages of three and thirteen when he lived in Japan (between 1907 and 1917).

Isamu Gilmour, age 13. His mother Leonie Gilmout included this photograph with his application to attend the Interlaken School, Rolling Prairie, Indiana. Image: Lilly Library.
While one can speculate on his perception of light filtering through paper shoji screen, traditional lanterns and other possible sources, there are stories from his youth that are so specific and meaningful they seem hard to dispute as having taken place, particularly since they were published in an article by his father Yone Noguchi in Sunset Magazine, Volume 25 (San Francisco: Southern Pacific Company Publishers, July–December 1910) entitled, "Isamu and Others: Parental Pointers Concerning Babysan and His Koishikawa Playmates."

Sunset Magazine's masthead. Reference to publication.
As a child, Isamu had an especially strong connection with shadows and light. With regard to shadows his father writes:
He made a habit of playing with our shadows on the walls of the sitting-room after supper every evening. "Mama, shadow gone! Give baby shadow, mama," he will exclaim sulkily, seeing his own shadow disappear. "Go to papa! he will give it to you," Leonie will say; then he will hunt for it, pushing his hand everywhere about my dress. "There it is, baby," I will say, seeing his shadow accidentally appear on the wall. How glad he will be."
Baby Isamu also loved to watch for the moon to rise over the garden. He would insist on remaining awake until his reliable, magical friend would return to watch over him. His father writes:
I doubt if he has any real knowledge of the moon. When I say that he must go to bed, he will push a little outside door, and say that no moon is seen yet. Then I will quietly steal in to the drawing-room and light a large hanging lamp with a blue-colored globe, and say to him: "Moon is come now. See it baby!" He will be mightily pleased with it; a few minutes later, he will be found in bed soundly sleeping.
This story would likely be considered apocryphal (a forced interpretation reading backwards from his later works incorporating light) except for the fact it was written by his father Yone Noguchi long before Isamu became an artist. He even illustrated an essay he published with photographs depicting some of the scenes he describes.

Photographs of baby Isamu illustrating Yone Noguchi's article in Sunset MagazineArticle reference.

It is possible Noguchi later read his father's stories (or heard the incident recounted by his mother) which could have influenced the artist's later interest in creating Akari lights, lunars with embedded lights and other works dealing with the reflection and transmission of light. Nevertheless it's certainly appealing to think those early memories evoked such strong visceral reactions in him as a child that those desires to manipulate and control light remained with him.

When examining Noguchi's career, his output and his writings, it becomes clear that understanding the various ways light interacts with translucent materials (for example, paper and plexiglas) and casts shadows to define volumetric form. In particular he seems to have maintained a fascination with the qualities of lunar reflections from the moon and the manner it pierces the darkness of night.

Many works can be considered exemplars of his ongoing fascination with light's properties. We can find this interest in some of his earliest works within just a few years' time. Over the course of the 1920s, he explored radically different approaches to dealing with light and its manifestations vis-a-vis sculptural form.

His earliest training in the classical mode of sculpting relied on manipulating clay or plaster to create shadows and highlights as a primary means for defining and describing form. His plaster life-size female nude figure Undine (Nadja) of 1926 is a tour-de-force in its manipulation of volume to establish delicate lines separating areas of highlight and shadow. These areas of light, shade and shadow reveal the details of her soft, beckoning erotic form in accordance with the academic techniques he rapidly mastered after leaving his Columbia University pre-medical studies.

The photograph of him looking admiring upon his creation is a classic image representing this early period following his studies at the Onorio Routolo's Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. This image would have been taken in his studio at 127 University Place in New York. Most reproductions of the photograph are cropped. However examining an original photographic print reveals a bare incandescent bulb hanging down above the window. It seems likely that he would have relied on artificial light periodically when he was creating this figure of a water nymph.

Original photographic print from the Rumely Collection, Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
Examining the temporary wood base he's using, it seems to have been constructed so he could rotate the piece and thus view it in under various lighting conditions. The artificial light might have been used to supplement the available light and/or as a means of testing and examining the piece at nighttime. Interestingly, Noguchi was so proud of this image he printed it on a smaller scale to create his own Christmas greeting for the Rumely family who had been his benefactors and supporters throughout his high school years in Indiana, while he was getting his start in New York and even later.

Christmas Card from Noguchi to the Rumely family. Image: Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
In 1928 after working for a period of time in Brancusi's Paris studio, Noguchi undertook the production of a series of works referred to as his Paris Abstractions. He experimented with highly polished, reflective surfaces, not unlike those in some of Brancusi's work. Part of his responsibilities was periodically visiting the Salon des Tuileries to polish Brancusi's Léda of 1926. Brancusi later mounted Léda on a slowly rotating reflective silver disk to further emphasize the changing effects of reflecting upon it's surface.

Constantin Brancusi's Léda, 1926. Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Some of Noguchi's "Paris Abstractions" of 1928 used polished sheet metal ship-brass curled in such a way to create inner reflections multiplying and distorting the reflections of the work in its own surface. In this way, it suggested a sense of dematerialization as one views the piece trying almost desperately to grasp its actual form. The natural response of a viewer to sculpture of this scale (table top display) is to almost imperceptibly adjust the position of one's head as a way of determining, verifying and interpreting the actual form upon which we're gazing. In this example, such an approach to discovering the "objective" form is suppressed in favor of a multiplicity of subjective views which diverge rather than converging on a static reading of the piece.

Isamu Noguchi: Sail Shape, 1928. Photo by Shigeo Anzai, Noguchi Museum.
One of his Paris Abstractions which was to use light in a profoundly different way from what was generally understood to be sculpture was a proposal entitled Zing or Power House (Study for Neon Tube Sculpture). While his prototype was formed using zinc tubing, Noguchi photographed the work and printed it as a negative to suggest the dark metal tubing was actually the light source itself. He intended to produce this work using glass neon tubing to emit light in such a way as to essentially dematerialize the physical object, i.e., what would commonly be considered "the sculpture". While possibly suggestive of an abstracted human head, he also seems to have been attempting to "see into the shape of the intricately curled wires contain within an incandescent bulb".

This proposal for a work in neon tubing was printed both as a negative (left) and as a positive (right) in documentation of Noguchi's designs of that period. It was never realized.

Power House, 1928. Images: Noguchi's A Sculptor's World (left) and Nancy Grove's Catalogue (right).
His mentor and sponsor during his high school years in Indiana, Dr. Edward Rumely, emphasized the importance of new technologies and inventions such as Franklin's experiments with electricity and Edison's invention of the light bulb. Rumely himself was involved in developing lighting technologies in connect with the perceived health benefits of artificial light. A few years later, Rumely engaged Noguchi to design such a light fixture for the Curtis Lighting Company which was apparently manufactured, but no examples or record of its form has yet been located (Deborah A. Goldberg's unpublished NYU doctoral dissertation).

So from his earliest years as a sculptor, Noguchi revealed a subtle, inquisitive understanding of the properties of light and its effects on the perception of mass as well as unorthodox uses of light in the context of sculpture that was difficult for others at the time to fully appreciate.

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This essay is the first in a series concerning the multifaceted career of Isamu Noguchi which encompassed modern sculpture (both abstract and figural), landscapes, playgrounds, plazas, fountains, furnishings, light fixtures, stage sets and many other forms of artistic expression. He was never one who would allow himself to be constrained by categories, definitions or preconceptions (including his own).
These writings are a prelude to my upcoming lecture "Noguchi and 'My Arizona'" to be presented on Thursday, October 24, 2013 at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey in connection with the sale of "My Arizona" (Lot 994) on Sunday, October 27, 2013. Questions regarding the auction should be directed to David Rago.

Andrew Raimist, Lecturer
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri 63130