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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

“Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor,” opens at the Hirshhorn on Feb.10. It is co-organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and curated by the Hirshhorn’s Valerie Fletcher.

The exhibition brings together approximately 55 sculptures and 25 works on paper and is the first museum show in 30 years to focus on Noguchi’s sculpture, as distinct from his commercial designs. Some have rarely or never before been seen in public, such as all seven surviving “Lunar” works and several examples of “Parisian Abstraction,” a series of subtly toned, boldly simplified compositions of gouache on paper created in the 1920s.

Noguchi experimented with diverse and unusual materials, ranging from plaster, terra cotta and bronze to paper, string, Magnesite cement, chrome, plastic and electric lights. His sculptures hang on walls, suspend from armatures, repose on the floor and stand like apparitional figures. Drawing upon many cultural sources throughout his long career, Noguchi created his own resolutely individual art, characterized by poetic metaphor and technical mastery.

The son of an American writer and a Japanese poet, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) traveled extensively throughout his life. For more than six decades as an artist, he sought to understand and integrate various aspects of Asian, American and European culture. First educated in academic realism, he earned his livelihood as a portraitist but made a radical shift to abstraction during his stay in Paris (1927–1928).

After a period as Constantin Brancusi’s assistant, Noguchi developed his own style of abstraction based on elegantly simplified forms, asymmetrical tensions and constructivist compositions. During 1930–1931, he spent extended periods in Beijing, China and Kyoto, Japan, learning traditional techniques and seeking to unite Eastern and Western aesthetics. While in New York, Noguchi planned several visionary public sculptures, including the “Monument to Benjamin Franklin” and sculpted a savage indictment of racism in “Death (Lynched Figure).”

This exhibition explores in depth Noguchi’s sculptures from the 1940s, after his life was abruptly changed by the United States’ entry into World War II. Persuaded that his design expertise could improve internees’ living conditions, Noguchi spent six months of voluntary imprisonment in a Japanese-American internment camp in 1942. He was profoundly shaken to find that his mixed parentage caused many of his fellow citizens to consider him an enemy alien. This experience moved him to create landscape-like sculptures alluding to his fears and dreams of escape, including “This Tortured Earth” and “Night Land.”

After these dark works, Noguchi created a series using white Magnesite cement and lit the organic shapes with multicolored electric lights, creating the “Lunar” sculptures that glow evocatively in the dark. “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor” reunites for the first time all seven of the surviving “Lunars.”

The show also features the remarkable interlocking totem sculptures of the 1940s, most in their original materials such as wood, gray-green slate and brown marble. For Noguchi, the materials and methods of these pieces express the fragility of the human psyche and the tenuousness of personal relationships and national alliances, as he stated in an interview with Katherine Kuh, “The very fragility gives a thrill.… It’s like life—you can lose it at any moment.” This exhibition reveals the remarkable diversity of forms, ideas and materials of an artist who believed in the power of art to transcend barriers and enrich the lives of ordinary people all over the world.

During his postwar global travels, Noguchi sculpted in iron, rice paper and clay in Japan yet preferred aluminum and stainless steel in the United States—exemplified by “War,” “Calligraphics” and “Solar” in the exhibition. During the last two decades of his life, the artist gathered stones from many countries including white Penteli marble from Greece, pink and yellow marbles from France and Portugal, black granite from Sweden and basalt from Japan; these inspired an astoundingly diverse array of abstract sculptures, as seen in the last section of the exhibition.

Major support for this exhibition was provided by the Holenia Trust in memory of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy, The Henry Luce Foundation and the Friends of James and Barbara Demetrion Endowment Fund.

The Catalogue
In the 240-page catalogue, published by Scala, the main essay by Fletcher situates Noguchi’s sculptures in the context of their time, notably the artist’s utopian aspirations, his relationship to Surrealism, his daring sexual themes and his remarkably prescient globalist approach. Additional essays by Dana Miller, associate curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and by Bonnie Rychlak, curator of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation Museum, address Noguchi’s relevance for land art of the 1970s and his relationship to Zen.

2005 National Cherry Blossom Festival®
“Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor” is an official part of the 2005 National Cherry Blossom Festival®, which will be held between March 26 and April 11. The National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade® and Sakura Matsuri will be on Saturday, April 9. This year’s 2005 festival marks the 93rd celebration of the original gift of the 3,000 cherry trees by the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington, D.C., in 1912. For more information, visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.

About The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the nation’s museum of international modern and contemporary art, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and serves an estimated 700,000 visitors annually. Its collection encompasses some 11,500 paintings, sculptures, mixed media installations and works on paper. The Hirshhorn maintains an active exhibition program and offers and array of free public programs that explore the art of our time. The museum, located at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free.

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