Mr Expanding Universe: Isamu Noguchi’s Affiliations across the New York Art World(s) of the 1930s


Isamu Noguchi’s reputation as a master modernist lies largely (and squarely) on his achievements as a sculptor who created abstractions in stone and wood during the mid-to-late twentieth century. Noguchi is also well known for having designed emblematic objects of the twentieth-century decorative arts. Starting in the late 1920s, when Noguchi began his career, his ideas of the artist’s role exceeded the prescribed parameters. This exhibition validates Noguchi as a visionary. Determined to shape every aspect of life, from dishware to public parks. It also raises the question: where does this encompassing perspective originate in the development of his art? The answers to this can be found in a period that Noguchi himself later reflected upon as containing the “uncertainties of the 1930s.”1

Returning to New York at the age of 25, having just left Paris and his apprenticeship with Constantin Brancusi, Noguchi settled himself into the New York art world. “It became self-evident to me that in so-called abstraction lay the expression of the age and that I was especially fitted to be one of its prophets.”2 Noguchi’s prophesies of the 1930s take the form of Brancusi-inspired pieces on marble bases; large drawings using traditional Chinese brushwork; an architectural mural influenced by Mexican socialist artists; stage sets for dance, and proposals for public works. His materials were stone, wood, cement, bronze, iron, zinc, stainless steel, terracotta, magnesite, marble, sheet metal and plaster. He was exhibiting regularly and garnering critical acclaim. Despite the attention, the reaction to Noguchi’s far-reaching approach to sculpture was uneven.

Of course the 1930s were a period of uncertainty not only for Noguchi but for the world at large. An attempt was made to lessen the effects of the Depression on artists’ lives with the creation in 1933 of the PWAP (Public Works of Art Projects), later known at the WPA (Works Progress Administration). This government-sponsored relief project for artists provided them with a regular salary in exchange for making works to be located all over America. While numerous artists benefited from the programme, Noguchi’s involvement was unsuccessful. His multifaceted approach was ill-suited for creating art that had to conform to governmental guidelines. He fell through the national safety net at a time when art galleried were also unable to provide artists with their conventional means of support. Noguchi was in need of devising his own source of income. To solve his economic problems, he began sculpting portrait heads: “There was nothing to do but make heads. It was a matter of eating, and this was the only way I knew of making money.”3

Noguchi made his first portrait head in 1925, but it was upon his return to New York in 1929 that he sculpted commissioned portraits. Throughout the 1930s, the portraits appear to have constituted his primary, or at least most reliable, source of income. Almost life-size, these heads present various modes of representation. While such portraits were relatively conventional for a sculptor drawn to the abstract, they none the less allowed Noguchi a chance to experiment with forms and materials. As one contemporary reviewer observed: “His portraits, which are invariably distinctive of his personality and style, are also likenesses and achieve an air of sophisticated modernism. This is arrived at … by emphasizing the sitters’ salient characteristics and by using such materials as seem symbolic or suggestive of their personality.”4 Among the many personalities who sat for Noguchi were Clare Boothe Luce, then working for Vogue and Vanity Fair before she became a playwright and politician; Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco; mime Agna Enters; waitress Ruth Parks, composer George Gershwin; art dealer J.B. Neumann; the Museum of Modern Art’s first president A. Conger Goodyear; architect Ely Jacques Kahn; Hollywood actress Ginger Rogers, and stage actress Helena Gahagan Douglas, once hailed as “ten of the twelve most beautiful women in America” and later a member of the United States Congress.5 This body of work was treated in full by the exhibition Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculpture, held at the National Portrait Gallery in 1989. In the invaluable catalogue, curator Nancy Grove provides an art history of the portraits and profiles of their subjects. We have selected from these fascinating figures a group that intersected in Noguchi’s life within an expanded environment of 1930s New York culture. There one finds the points of origin for Noguchi’s creative potential. In this world of artists, dancers, architects, gallery owners fashion designers, we start with Julien Levy, the pre-eminent dealer for advanced contemporary art.

A child of privilege, Julien Levy (1906-81) was part of the generation known as the Harvard Moderns, who attended college together before embarking on careers that would essentially institutionalize Modernism in America.6 Just two years older, Noguchi’s background was worlds away from Levy’s. Growing up estranged from his father, the renowned poet Yone Noguchi, Isamu lived with his American mother in Japan until he was sent to America at the age of fourteen. He cobbled together an education, studying medicine before enrolling at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York. Despite these differences, Noguchi’s and Levy’s lives intertwined to a remarkable degree. Both went to Paris in 1927, where they met the writer Robert McAlmon and were inducted into the same circles. McAlmon allegedly introduced Levy to his wife Joella Lloyd, daughter of the poet Mina Loy, whose friend Constantin Brancusi presented the newly-weds with Le Nouveau Né, a bronze sculpture head of an infant.7 It was in the artist’s studio that Levy recalls meeting Noguchi: “Brancusi wears a smock and has a white beard and a white dog, and any stranger is shortly rendered indistinguishable by the white dust that falls over him. Noguchi was happy to work there, polishing and cutting stones and listening to Brancusi talk, learning about materials and about form.”8 (The lives of Levy and Noguchi share some racier episodes; in his autobiography, Levy recounts a tour he conducted at the behest of Clare Boothe Luce, with Noguchi in tow, of the Paris brothel Le Sphinx.9 Both men had affairs with Frida Kahlo – Levy a brief dalliance in New York, Noguchi a love affair that raged in Mexico until it outraged Kahlo’s husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.)

Levy opened his art gallery in 1931 to promote experimental film and European photography. By 1932, the gallery had presented the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York, codified the ritual of the opening night cocktail party, and become known as the place to see something new. There were premiere exhibitions of photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson and Man Ray; collage films and objects by Joseph Cornell; “snapshots of the mind”, as Salvador Dalí called his early paintings; Alexander Calder’s mobiles; modern day ex-votos by Frida Kahlo; Surrealist paintings by René Magritte; proto-Abstract Expressionist works by Arshile Gorky; plans and models for fantasy architecture by Emilio Terry, even cartoon cels by Walt Disney. This diverse programme was unusually brilliant in its vision, but not in its eclectic embrace. Levy’s gallery was a microcosm of the art world of its day, an art world in which creative people working in all media mingled freely, irrespective of the boundaries that have come to separate them since. An exhibition of paintings by the Neo-Romantic Eugene Berman was illuminated with lamps by the industrial designer Russel Wright. Artists’ sets and costumes for the newly founded American Balley Theater were shown accompanied by the music that was scored for them, including one piece by the writer/composer Paul Bowles. As a phenomenon of the 1930s. this expansive approach to culture suited the restrictive economic conditions. With little money to go around, artists could afford to let their egos relax, pool their efforts, and work as many angles as possible.

The entrepreneurial Levy had several ploys to earn income for the photographers he represented, including brokering portrait commissions. “It was one of my many ventures – I just tried to hit photography from as many angles as I could think of. Including applied photography. I tried some photographic textiles…”10 The portrait venture was well in keeping with the means by which many of Levy’s artists had already reconciled their Modernist ambitions to the exigencies of earning a living. The expatriate Man Ray had a handsome income throughout the 1920s and 1930s as a fashion and portrait photographer. He applied the same compositions and radical techniques – the photogram, solarisation and double exposure – that characterised his most purely experimental works. The sculptor Alexander Calder drew portraits in wire, often on commission. Fleshed out by shadow and space, these directly anticipate the artist’s most important works, the kinetic sculptures that Marcel Duchamp dubbed “mobiles”.3 As with Noguchi, the artistic conventions – and, when the work was a commission, the economic incentive – of making portraiture supported and advanced these artists’ respective innovations. Also like Noguchi, their bodies of work portray the larger contexts of the art world and society in which these makers moved.

Levy showed another Modernist-cum-portraitist, whose life and work overlapped with Noguchi’s, the photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Man Ray’s assistant in Paris, Abbott had been well trained. When she left him, she opened a rival portrait studio. It was in Paris that Abbott met Noguchi, though he did not sculpt her head until 1929, when they were both back in New York.12 Cast in bronze, light nervously pattering over its surface, Abbott’s portrait shows her boyishly bobbed hair massed to a point on her forehead and focuses her being into a pair of eyes that view the world wide open. Documenting the many aspects of the city – its buildings, people and strange empty spaces – is the crux of Abbott’s art, as exemplified by her celebrated work, Changing New York, the urban portrait she created as an employee of the WPA. As a financial sideline, she took pictures of other artists’ works and of gallery installations.13 Abbott’s photograph of Noguchi’s 1934 sculpture Death (Lynched Figure) is a complete visual document: it records the image and conveys its impact. From the angle and lighting of this shot, one immediately appreciates the contemporary critic’s disturbed reaction: “If there is anything to make a white man feel squirmy about his color, he has it in this gnarled chromium victim jigging under the wind-swayed rope.”14

The unnamed critic writing about Noguchi’s 1935 exhibition at the Marie Harriman gallery for the left-leaning journal Parnassus was exceptionally full of praise for this work when it was shown alongside the admirable portrait heads, three models for the public sculptures and some brush drawings. He or she concluded: “But it is when he goes in for sociological ideas that Noguchi seems the freest.” According to the artist, Death was made after a photograph he saw reproduced in the International Labor Defense, and intended to be shown alongside Birth, a work he modeled from life, after watching a woman at Bellevue Hospital endure the agonies of labor.15 Objecting to the depiction, Harriman excised this white marble sculpture from the installation, though she permitted Noguchi to show the lynched man. The exhibition was extensively reviewed and, unlike the Parnassus writer, most critics agreed that Noguchi should stick with portraiture. Arch-intellect Henry McBride put it most nastily: he deemed Death “just a little Japanese mistake”. These words were still ringing when, in his 1968 autobiography, Noguchi declared his conviction to seek acceptance for his work outside the conventional art world. “That settled it!” he wrote, after quoting McBride’s review at length, “I determined to have no further truck with either galleries or critics.”16

Julien Levy had not yet opened his art gallery in 1929 when Noguchi sculpted his head in bronze. He never gave Noguchi a solo show, even though he apparently respected his work; perhaps he found his relationships with other dealers too polygamous. Noguchi’s habit of showing around New York certainly raised eyebrows in the press. Following simultaneous exhibitions at the John Becker and Demotte galleries, a review of Noguchi’s December 1932 show at the Reinhardt Galleries begins: “As if two exhibitions in a single season were not enough to satisfy any artist, Isamu Noguchi displays yet another segment of his talents before the turn of the year.” The reviewer goes on to note “the strange and floating Miss Expanding Universe that has been dangling conspicuously in Julien Levy’s front window this winter.”17 The following month, Julien Levy’s beautifully illustrated six-page monographic essay on Noguchi’s work, the first ever published, appeared as the cover story in Creative Art. In it, Levy attributes a “bi-polarity” to Noguchi’s work: “He is always attempting a nice balance between the abstract and the concrete, the relating of fact to meaning, while specifically he exercises a vigorous interpretation of oriental and western aims.”18 Levy accounts for Noguchi’s catholic tastes and diverse talents as a search for a singular style. He strongly encourages the artist to follow in the direction of the portrait heads, which he applauds for “applying the formal elements of sculpture to enhance the psychological implications of a portrait” to such a successful degree that “if the portraits were featureless, there should still remain a sort of impression of the subject.”19 By contrast, he warns Noguchi against his proclivity for the purely abstract; Levy called the latest large-scale figures in aluminum, including Miss Expanding Universe, “only half-realized, amorphous”. (Here one can detect why Levy hesitated to represent Noguchi fully at his gallery.) The essay concludes: “At first glance, Noguchi appears to have lost connection with the logical continuity of his past progress, but one cannot predict toward what end this tangent may lead.”20

The Noguchi feature had repercussions over several issues. In March, Creative Art ran a notice to identify the photographer whose pictures “aroused so much favorable comment” as F. S. Lincoln, Massachusetts Institute of Technology=trained biologist and mechanical engineer. His talents as an art photographer were discovered by Buckminster Fuller, when Lincoln, seeing one of his exhibits, offered to make photographs of it as speculation in publicity.21 In May a heated round of lengthy letters between Robert Josephy, a designer, and Julien Levy was published. Josephy admonished Levy for his use of the term “style” and admired Noguchi’s attempts to be true to himself: “and if at twenty-eight he has not yet done his masterpieces, there is still no need for him to embrace any such rationalization of artistic sterility.”22 Levy defended his position. Josephy rebutted. Levy let his case rest. But the essay and exchange marked Isamu Noguchi as a controversial Modernist, even within the informed art press.

As Levy confided after seeing Noguchi’s ceramic vases: “one sometimes wishes [Noguchi] would forego some of his more ambitious projects and give us more of these comparative ‘trifles.’”23 Levy’s final presentation of Noguchi’s work is perhaps the most significant – though the objects themselves might be considered mere “trifles”. The occasion was The Imagery of Chess, a group show held in 1944 that featured artist-designed chess tables and chess sets. The announcement card was by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp who, as one reviewer described, had “stopped painting when he took up chess and is now one of the leading spirits in the ‘art applied to chess’ movement.”24 During the show, Duchamp refereed the event that matched the world champions of blindfolded chess in simultaneous games against players who included the artist Max Ernst and The Museum of Modern Art Director, Alfred Barr, Jr. The sets were more-or-less functional – the Surrealists André Breton and Nicholas Calas submitted a board covered with drinking glasses filled with red and white wine, permitting captors to drink the sweet taste of victory, literally. More pragmatic, Noguchi’s contribution was singled out in Newsweek for being functional and well in keeping with his work as a whole: “The sculptor Noguchi, who is a modernist but no surrealist and has designed playgrounds as well as the panel over the door in Rockefeller Center, created the most beautiful piece in the show – a black plywood chess table of curved design with quarter-size pieces of inlaid plastic to indicate alternate play squares. This table, which would also be nice for tea, can be raised or lowered and the top opens out revealing a pocket to hold the chessmen. Noguchi’s men are angular abstractions of red and green plastic (acetate).”25

Following the reviewer’s advice, the table went into commercial production: from 1947 to 1949 it was manufactured by Herman Miller. One promotional picture shows it against a bamboo backdrop set for cocktails with a Japanese-inspired arrangement and a sake bottle. Another shows it being used as a sewing table, with skeins of yarn, buttons and pins displayed in the partially opened pockets. The plastic chessmen were not manufactured.

By this mid-century point, Noguchi was no longer interested in making portrait heads. He had developed his work along lines in which figurative representation, as a form of naturalism, was irrelevant. His decorative arts sensibility had become assimilated into a body of work that included affordable, industrially produced furniture. These provided him with a source of income in true with the vision of his mature art.

During the 1930s, Noguchi considered his most successful resolution regarding the problems of space and sculpture – problems that essentially had to do with issues of interaction and movement – to be his theatre sets, especially the 21 sets he produced for the modern dancer, Martha Graham (1894-1991). Prior to 1935 Graham had not used sets; Noguchi’s design for Frontier was the first ever to appear in her work. Their collaborations continued until 1966. Noguchi and Graham met in the late 1920s when his mother made costumes; his sister would later dance with the company. In 1929, Noguchi made two portrait heads of Graham. The first she rejected, although the artist always preferred it over the second version.26

Another portrait subject from the New York world of dance offers an opportunity to explore issues of Noguchi’s identity as they came to bear on the reception of his work during the 1930s and informed one of the most extreme passages in his career. Michio Ito (1892-1967) was a Japanese modern dancer who had trained in Germany. He lived in London, where he starred in At the Hawk’s Well, a play by William Butler Yeats styled after classical Japanese Noh drama. Ito himself was deeply inspired by Egyptian art; his unique dance style was based on definite, almost frieze-like motions. He kept his face still, his features frozen, while he performed. Former student Helen Caldwell recounted: “It was his desire, he said, to bring together East and West in a style of his own. Like a sculptor he worked over every gesture until it meant what he would have it mean. ‘If you cry “Stop!”’ he explained, ‘in any place in my dance, you will find that it is a pose that means something.’”27 No wonder Noguchi responded as he did: unlike any of the other heads, Noguchi’s depiction of Michio Ito takes the form of a bronze mask.

Noguchi sculpted the bronze portrait around the time he had his first foray into theatre, making papier-mâché masks for Ito’s 1926 production of At the Hawk’s Well. Ito had moved to New York in 1916, where he established himself as a leading figure in dance: Agna Enter danced in his Pinwheel Revue in 1922; Martha Graham in his Garden of Kama in 1923. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1929, he played to packed audiences. In 1930, “Michio Ito and his ballet were given a veritable ovation by a crowd that overflowed the [Hollywood] Bowl and filled every standing space on the hillside”.28 Ito’s popularity did not prevent him from being interned, along with the rest of the Japanese living on the West Coast, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He returned to Tokyo in 1942.

As a Japanese-American, Noguchi’s art was never beyond being discussed on racial grounds. Virtually every early review, including Levy’s essay, takes on the artist’s identity as a main subject and/or impetus for his work. Noguchi himself was keenly interested in Asian art and traditions, and cultivated Eastern principles in his work. In 1930, he travelled to China, where he studied brush drawing for eight months; in 1931 he spent seven months in Japan, attempting to renew his relationship with his father, while studying haniwa and Zen gardens and working in ceramics. (He was no doubt attracted to Michio Ito’s dance because of its explicit references to Kabuki and Noh theatre, the latter traditionally performed in mask.) All of these experiences impacted directly on his work. What is objectionable, however, is how broadly Noguchi’s interpreters read his work through his Asian background as opposed to the language of the forms themselves. Attributing the success of a portrait to an artist’s “racial kinship” with his Japanese model is simply racist.29 The fact that Noguchi was part-American only increased speculation. A critic wrote of the artist having “that uncanny intuitive quality and delicacy of perception that sometimes seems to come with a mingling of racial strains”.30 Again, a quotation from Henry McBride exemplifies the xenophobia that seemed to be part of America’s everyday discourse. Not sure what to make of a talent that presents itself in two exhibitions at once, McBride theorises: “Being essentially Eastern, [Noguchi] may eventually arrive at profundity through this virtuosity of his. We must give him the benefit of that surmise. But if he were Western, on the contrary, we should agree that he could never surmount so much cleverness to arrive at sincerity.”31

Noguchi spent seven months in 1942 in an internment camp located on an Indian reservation in Poston Arizona. He says that he went to the camp voluntarily, though one wonders why anyone would willingly forfeit his freedom to live under detention. Perhaps he was determined to make the best of what he saw as an inevitable situation. Having been for so many years the subject of press comments that openly alienated him, Noguchi would have been keenly aware of the vulnerability of his status. When the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on 7 December 1941, Noguchi was staying in Hollywood, having driven out west with Arshile Gorky that summer. He seems to have been actively looking for some kind of patriotic service to perform. In a letter dated 21 October 1941, for example, Clare Boothe Luce advises him to get in touch with a friend in Washington, D.C., who is “looking for someone who could make shortwave broadcasts in Japanese. It seemed to me (knowing where you stood about the horrible war) that you were the person.”32 When this and other prospects failed to materialise, Noguchi decided to go to Poston with the intention of improvising living conditions in the camp. His plans included gardens, recreation areas, even a cemetery.
He had several unrealised public proposals from the 1930s to draw on. From 1933 alone, there was the proto land-work, Monument to the Plow, a pyramid of earth, one mile wide at its base, to be located in Idaho at the geographic centre of the United States, and Play Mountain, the size of a New York city block, a sculpture landscape for sledding, water sliding, and climbing. More recently, on a trip to Hawaii in 1939 to specify a sculpture project for the office lobby of a pineapple company, Noguchi had also, at the behest of the Honolulu parks commissioner, come up with models for playground equipment. Neither of the Hawaiian projects were realised, and nor was Noguchi’s plan for Poston – apparently life in an internment camp was not a subject for improvement.

Noguchi’s mail from the seven months he spent at the camp is eerily studio business as usual.30 There is an order for a piece of pink marble for the portrait Ginger Rogers had commissioned while he was in California. The collector Edward James responds to a request from Noguchi who was hoping to include his portrait head of James in in a forthcoming exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. James had been chasing the apple blossom season up the coast of California and apologises for not getting the letter in time, but he advises Noguchi to obtain photographs of the portrait from Man Ray and send them to a curator at The Museum of Modern Art who, James feels sure, will want to include it in a proposed exhibition. There is a correspondence regarding an exhibition in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organised by the Quakers, of work by Japanese artists in internment camps; the writer looks forward to receiving Noguchi’s contribution.

When Noguchi first showed his proposals for public works of art in 1935, they were accompanied by his statement that “sculpture can be a vital force in man’s daily life if projected into communal usefulness”.34 As Poston, after it became clear that he was not going to be given the opportunity to make such a sculpture, he says he simply took a leave of absence from the camp one day and never returned. Back in New York, his proposal for a war monument stands as a twisted counterpart to a playground model he made just prior to his detention. Contoured Playground of 1941 is an optimistic answer to the city’s call for equipment with no dangerous edges. This Tortured Earth of 1943 is also a contoured landscape, this time sculpted by bombs and other equipment of war. As an image of psychic landscape it is a bleak view. In the light of this, the public monuments and parks that Noguchi did go on to realise appear all the more impressive, their mission of communal usefulness so long in waiting.

In the course of the development of Noguchi’s political consciousness, he crossed paths with American fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes (1903-71). Innovative and rebellious, Hawes changed her course in life many times, from couturier to social activist. Noguchi sculpted a portrait head of her in the early 1930s when she was an observant young woman intent on changing the system.35 Hawes worked determinedly to reroute the origin of styles worn by Americans, who typically favoured Paris for their views on fashion. Her efforts paralleled those of other Modernists who were making New York the new centre of international culture. Today Elizabeth Hawes is remembered primarily by historians who become intrigued with her clothes, the people who wore them and the fascinating life their creator led until she died, destitute, at the Chelsea Hotel.36

In 1928, Elizabeth Hawes, aged 25, established her first couture clothing business in New York City. It was a time when the mere concept of American fashion was untenable to most participants in this exclusive world. While Hawes focused on fashion in the 1930s, it was always from a broad spectrum encompassing many aspects of the arts as well as the social issues of her day. The name Hawes gave to the clothes in each new collection reflect her interests, concerns and sense of humour: “Prosperity is Just Around the Corner” afternoon dress (1933); “Diego Rivera” crepe skirt and chenille blouse (1933); “Alimony” evening dress (1937); and “Beautiful Soup” tea gown (1938). That Hawes seemed so unconventional to the conservative fashion industry is no surprise, nor is the fact that her ideas found appeal with many artists of the period who became her friends, lovers and collaborators.

The wave of young talent going to Paris in the 1920s included both Noguchi and Hawes. Arriving in 1925, Hawes held a variety of jobs in fashion, including reporting back to the United States on the latest Parisian styles. For the newly founded New Yorker magazine she contributed communiqués under the pen name Parisite. In 1928, with the help of Mainbocher, then the Paris editor of Vogue, Hawes designed clothes at the atelier of Nicole Groult, Paul Poiret’s sister. Following Noguchi’s arrival in Paris in 1927, he became an apprentice in the studio of Constantin Brancusi by way of an introduction from the writer Robert McAlmon. For both, working in Paris was an interlude. In 1929 the Guggenheim Fellowship that had financed Noguchi’s travels came to an end, and he had to return to New York. For Hawes it was a well thought-out decision to establish herself in New York as one of the first American couturiers.

The showroom she created in 1930 was fresh and lively. Utilising the talents of friends including Alexander Calder,38 Noguchi and the architect Willy Muschenheim, she created an interior for Hawes, Inc. that was unlike any other clothing establishment in New York City at that time. Calder contributed a wire fish bowl and a reclining chair; there was a scroll by Noguchi, and aluminum tables by Robert Josephy (who championed Noguchi to the readers of Creative Art). Wire soda-fountain chairs and re-upholstered second-hand furniture completed the look. The atmosphere at Hawes, Inc. was salon-like, with a deliberate overlapping of New York circles. For the socialites, actresses and other women of means who could afford to buy Hawes’s custom-made clothing (or have their heads sculpted by Noguchi), viewing her dresses in this unexpected environment was certainly a novelty and in marked contrast to the classic luxury of Parisian couture houses.39

What made Hawes’s establishment even more unconventional were the events that she staged when showing each new collection: “Usually we break the show in the middle with some sort of oddity.”40 There was a performance of Calder’s Circus (perhaps Noguchi assisted Calder with the gramophone, as he did on occasion). In 1933 a short film, The Panther Woman of the Needle Trades, was shown. Directed by photographer Ralph Steiner,41 the film featured Elizabeth Hawes dramatising the development of her creative life. In 1937, the divertissement was a riotous showing of men’s fashions by Hawes. These clothes, a significant leap from then current styles, tested the sartorial limits of her male friends who modeled them. One, an advertising salesman, wore “sailor pants, laced in back, made of light weight, fine wale corduroy, and a sweat shirt of striped upholstery linen.”42

Hawes was always eager to travel, and in 1935 she planned a trip: “Like many another questing soul, I wanted to go to the Soviet Union.”43 Curious about socialism and wanting to see behind the scenes, Hawes arranged for a showing of her clothes at the Soviet Dress Trust: “I was fascinated with looking at a bit of the beginning of something and they were fascinated with looking at my most elaborate and capitalistic clothes.”44 Five years later, following the closing of Hawes, Inc. in 1940, Hawes’s political beliefs become enmeshed with her work. Subsequent jobs included reporting for the leftist magazine PM, grinding screws at an aeronautical plant, and writing for the Detroit Free Press and the United Auto Workers. In 1936, Noguchi, too, desired to see another way of life, particularly a place where artists worked with more freedom than he felt was available to him in New York City. He left for Mexico and spent eight months executing a mural, History Mexico, at the Abelardo Rodriguez Market in Mexico City. Noguchi’s interests in the social and political implications of art led to the rejection of many of his projects by both critics and bureaucrats. One project that was realised was a plaque for the Associated Press building at the Rockefeller Center, New York City. Rendered in a social realist style, the cast stainless steel relief depicts a photographer, a journalist and phone, wirephoto and teletype operators as tireless workers.
The wooden portrait of Eleanor Lambert (b. 1903), made by Noguchi in 1932, sits today in the foyer of her New York apartment.45 Eleanor Lambert is well known for her work as a publicist in the fashion industry, which she began to concentrate on in the 1940s after an earlier period spent handling publicity for art galleries. Her gallery clients, whom she charged $10 per week, included the Wildenstein, Knoedler and Perls galleries, as well as the Marie Sterner Gallery which in 1930 put on the first exhibition of Noguchi’s portrait heads. For an additional fee, Lambert also offered to promote the individual artists. Sympathetic to the financial constraints, she sometimes worked for payment in kind, trading her services for their art. Noguchi was among those who benefited from Lambert’s professional talents and connections for little or no fee; his portrait of her, however, was a commission for which she paid him $150. Admiring the talents of this curly-haired and determined artist, as Lambert today remembers Noguchi in the 1930s, she recommended him to friends – in this way, he came to sculpt Clare Boothe Luce, Suzanne Ziegler and others.

For Noguchi to have a publicist working on his behalf in the early years of his career provided alternative means of visibility. During this period he had obtained recognition from New York art galleries, but he found the context limiting. As publicist for the newly founded Whitney Museum of American Art, Lambert was involved with the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which was headed by the museum’s director Juliana Force. For Noguchi the government programme supplied financial support and allowed him to pursue his views of sculpture as an element of society. Lambert recalls her participation in working with Force to help Noguchi obtain a PWAP grant.46 But in exchange Noguchi was unwilling to produce free-standing sculptures, his ideas being far more inspired and monumental. He proposed Play Mountain to be realised as a playground in New York City. But this, and other ideas such as a “ground sculpture covering the entire triangle in front of Newark Airport, to be seen from the air”, were all rejected.47 To Noguchi this denied opportunity was an affront that stayed with him throughout his life. He stated decades later: “It was true that I could make some money doing heads even then at the depth of the Depression, but it was not what I wanted to do.”48

While as an artist Noguchi was in some conflict about portrait sculpture, he did acknowledge that it was “A very good way of getting to know people. Thus it was that I made long-lasting friendships, in particular with Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller.”49 Noguchi and Fuller (1895-1983) met in 1929 at Romany Marie’s, a bohemian café in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Fuller considered Noguchi’s portrait of him, done that same year, as a cohesive act: “he said, could he make a head of me? and I said I’d be glad to have him do it. So posing for him day after day gave us a chance to build up our friendship that went on and on from there.”50 Both Noguchi and Fuller were beginning to pursue their visionary ideals, and their immediate friendship influenced events in the early 1930s.

The chrome-plated bronze portrait of Fuller, made at Noguchi’s studio, which was painted entirely silver at Fuller’s persuasion,51 was one of fifteen heads exhibited at the Marie Sterner Gallery in February 1930. Noguchi employed a range of materials and styles. The reflective planar head surface of Fuller’s head strikingly represents this forward-thinking architect of geometric forms. Or, as Fuller describes it: “Completely reflective surfaces provided a fundamental invisibility of the surface.”52 It was just prior to their meeting that Fuller had invented his Dymaxion House. A model of the hexagonal house, constructed around a central mast, had been shown in Chicago, at Marshall Field’s House of the Future, show in 1929. In 1930, Fuller’s energies were engaged in promoting the Dymaxion House to architects, possible sponsors, and all those who would listen to his concepts of the future.

Following the exhibition at the Marie Sterner Gallery, Noguchi and Fuller took to the road with Noguchi’s sculptures and the model of the Dymaxion House packed in the back of Fuller’s station wagon. Their first destination was Cambridge, Massachusetts. For an exhibition at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The Society was founded in 1929 by some of Julien Levy’s fellow Harvard Moderns Edward Warbug, John Walker III and Lincoln Kirstein (whose portrait Noguchi did in bronze). Its innovative approach to exhibiting art included presentations of architectural and industrial design such as Fuller’s Dymaxion House, along with modern paintings and sculpture. The portrait heads by Noguchi, including those of Martha Graham, George Gershwin and Fuller, were unconventionally shown, placed on pedestals made of galvanized furnace pipe.

For the Society’s exhibition, the model of the Dymaxion House was placed in the courtyard of the Fogg Art Museum. Presumably Fuller’s architectural drawings were also exhibited. These plans contain handwritten, syncopated poetic descriptions of the house’s remarkable features including “pneumatic beds inflating to desired firmness”, “hexagonal pneumatic divan”, “bakelite floor” and a “dish washing machine which washes dried & returns dishes to shelves”.43 Fuller also gave a lecture, one of many he was delivering at this time to explain his inventions. Afterwards Noguchi and Fuller drove to Chicago, where a similar exhibition was held at the Arts Club of Chicago.

Noguchi returned briefly to New York before sailing in April 1930 to Paris for an extended trip in Europe and Asia. Fuller sent him a telegram from Chicago, intended to reach him aboard the Aquitania before it sailed from New York on 16 April. This Buckminster Fuller monologue on their friendship must have befuddled the Western Union operator to whom it was relayed. It concludes with the following statement: “IDEAL ART WHICH IS PROGRESSIVE INDIVIDUAL RADIONIC SYNCHRONIZATION OF TIME WITH ETERNAL NOW THROUGH REVELATIONS NONWARPABLE TRIANGE.” Fuller was dismayed to find out that his telegram, which he had been “at some pains to compose, as complete summary of our philosophic conversation”,54 did not reach Noguchi before he sailed.

Their “philosophic conversation” continued when Noguchi returned to New York: in 1932. While he was away, Fuller had taken over a magazine called T-Square. He immediately changed the name to Shelter, eliminated all advertising, and announced that issues would come out when “I had something I felt deeply in need to saying”.55 Shelter, published from 1930 to 1932, was an opportunity for Fuller to incorporate the works, ideas and philosophies of friends and colleagues such as Noguchi, as well as to amass support for his own architectural plans. Back in New York, the first sculpture Noguchi made was Miss Expanding Universe. Fuller supplied its title and placed the piece on the cover of the November 1932 issue, where it hovers in a stunning photograph by F.S. Lincoln.

The ideological impact of Shelter is evident upon looking at this issue. The magazine claiming to be “A Correlating Medium for the Forces of Architecture”, incorporates progressive, cross-discipline views on architecture, art and even the English language. There is an article by Noguchi, “Shelters of the Orient”; an article on Noguchi’s sculptures, “Colloidals in Time”; Richard Neutra on “New Buildings in Japan”; and C.K. Ogden’s plan for “Basic English” which reduces the number of words in the language to 850. The ideas contained in the pages of Shelter were not passing, momentary notions fixed in the temporal space of 1932, but concepts that Noguchi and Fuller independently pursued throughout their respective careers.56

In his article, “Shelters of the Orient”, Noguchi establishes a relationship between traditional Asian styles of architecture and modern sensibilities in Western architecture. At its conclusion the correlation becomes a direct link to Fuller: “Translated into modern terms there exists a striking similarity between the ancient Japanese house and Fuller’s Dymaxion.”57 Elsewhere Noguchi speaks of a material that plays an important role in his artistic life – paper and its “multitudinous use – diffuser of light, as protection against the wind and rain, lanterns and umbrellas”.58 When Noguchi began designing his Akari paper lanterns in 1951, he had considered the role of this material in Japanese life for almost twenty years.

As an artist, Noguchi did not recoil from verbal philosophies on art. “Colloidals in Time”, which features two other works by Noguchi (a portrait head, Ruth Parks, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art, and Draped Torso, an aluminum sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), includes his beliefs regarding sculpture and its relationship to the universe, “As a result of our contacts with, and feelings for life, art reminds those, whose minds are clear, of truth.”59 While Noguchi and Fuller worked in different spheres, overlapping only on occasions, they absorbed each other’s ideals, and their shared sensibilities incorporated far-reaching perspectives on the world. Decades after Shelter, Noguchi saw their relationship in this way: “Our imagination expands as far as our expanding knowledge and beyond. We were already there in orbit, Bucky and I. New York was our city that glimmers in the distance, and we talked of time and cosmic space.”60

In 1933, using the money he made from Shelter, Fuller applied his Dymaxion principles to transportation, the result being the Dymaxion Car. Working at a factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Noguchi made the plaster models for the car and Fuller, with a team of 27 men, had this extraordinary vehicle build. Fuller often transported well-known figures around in the Dymaxion car, including the pioneer aviatrix Amelia Earhart and the writer H. G. Wells. Noguchi was a passenger on one particularly notable trip – on 7 February 1934, he and Clare Boothe Luce, Dorothy Hale and others, drove with Fuller to the premiere of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.61

In a letter of 28 June 1933 arranging their plans for Birdgeport, Fuller imagined that these circumstances might allow Noguchi to realise his art more completely: “It seems to tme that this is the chance that you and I have always looked forward to in the matter of your executing the best of design.”62 From these words of encouragement in 1933, Noguchi persevered within the art world, gaining the perspective, discipline and strength to create the range of forms for which he became well known. Perhaps the most complete expressions of his vision are his garden landscapes. It takes only a stroll through Jardin Japonais (1956-58) at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, his first garden project, to experience the synthesis of Noguchi’s work – finally, a large space, such as he had been desiring since the early 1930s, allowed him to transform an urban area using water, stone, copper, wood, trees, grass and even fish. Employing elements of traditional Japanese gardening in unprecedented modern ways, Noguchi unified his Eastern and Western aesthetics, and integrated sculpture and design into everyday life. Stone sculptures function as seating, within a plan of shifting planes and contours that can be viewed as an abstract picture, or moved through and animated as a useful public setting. This garden in Paris takes us miles from the “uncertainties” and strife of the 1930s.

(We are extremely grateful to Amy Hau, whose expert knowledge of the holdings of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation was invaluable to our research. All citations from material in the archives are published with kind permission of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation.)


  1. Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), p. 238.
  2. Quoted in Ruth Green Harris, "Paintings and Sculpture Shown in Paris," unidentified 1928 newspaper clippings, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives.
  3. Isamu Noguch, A Sculptor's World (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 19.
  4. Helen Appleton Read, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1935 clipping, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives.
  5. Quoted in Nancy Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculptor (Washington D.C.: The National Portrait Gallery, 1989), p. 90.
  6. Levy was the subject of an exhibition and book: Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacob, eds., Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998).
  7. Noguchi made two portrait heads of Julien's wife Joella Levy: one in 1929, the other in 1933. See Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculptor, p. 108.
  8. Julien Levy, "Isamu Noguchi", Creative Art, January 1933, pp. 31-32.
  9. Levy says he was flabbergasted at Boothe Luce's fury, since "It was not I who had offered to bring her but she who had asked to be brought." However, he was pleased to have the chance to greet her upon their next meeting, "Why, Clare... the last time I saw you was in a whorehouse in Paris." Julien Levy, Memoir of an Art Gallery (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977), p. 144.
  10. Quoted in the interview by Charles Desmarais, "Julien Levy: Surrealist author, dealer, and collector", Afterimage, January 1977, p. 4.
  11. Levy, who met Calder in Paris in the late 1920s, was probably behind the exhibition at Weyhe Gallery in New York that featured Calder's wire portraits. Levy worked at Weyhe before opening his own gallery, where he was the first to present Calder's mobiles, in May 1932.
  12. Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculptor, p. 38. Grove notes that Noguchi was obviously pleased with this head, since he included it in all four of the exhibitions he had between 1930 and 1931.
  13. This may be another lesson she learned from Man Ray, who had been documenting his own and other artists' works since the second decade of the twentieth century. It was Man Ray who taught Brancusi photography, a technique that the sculptor applied to the making of highly subjective images of his own work in the studio.
  14. J. W. L., "Current Exhibitions," Parnassus, March 1935, p. 22.
  15. See L. E., "Noguchi at Marie Harriman Gallery", The Art News, 2 February 1935; Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, p. 22, and Bruce Altshuler, Noguchi (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994), pp. 28-30.
  16. McBride and Noguchi quoted in Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, p. 23.
  17. "Isamu Noguchi at Reinhardt Galleries", The Art News, 17 December 1932.
  18. Levy, "Isamu Noguchi", pp. 29-30.
  19. Ibid., p. 33.
  20. Ibid., p. 35.
  21. Creative Art, March 1953, p. 242.
  22. Robert Josephy, "Letter to the Editor", Creative Art, May 1933, p. 396.
  23. Levy, "Isamu Noguchi", p. 34.
  24. Kenneth Harkness, "Chessmen of Tomorrow", Chess Review, January 1945, p. 6.
  25. "Levy's Gambit", Newsweek Magazine, 25 December 1944, p. 82.
  26. Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculptor, pp. 46-47.
  27. Helen Caldwell, Michio Ito: The Dancer and His Dances (Berkley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1977), pp. 65, 69.
  28. Richard Drake Saunders, Hollywood News, 16 August 1930, quoted in Caldwell, p. 95.
  29. G. A. M., "John Becker Shows Noguchi's Sculpture", 1932, unidentified clipping, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives.
  30. Rose Mary Fisk, "Two Artists as Revealed by Drawings", Chicago Evening Post, 23 February 1932.
  31. Henry McBride, Art Review, The New York Sun, 20 February 1932.
  32. Clare Boothe Luce to Isamu Noguchi, 21 October 1941, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives, General Corr.: 1941.
  33. Based on material from the Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives.
  34. As quoted in "Social Theme Developed by Noguchi", The Art Digest, 1 February 1935.
  35. The information on Noguchi's portrait head of Hawes is in Bettina Berch, Radical by Design (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988), p. 35; its whereabouts are now unknown.
  36. For a complete biography of Hawes, see Radical by Design. We wish to thank Bettina Berch for her help with this project.
  37. Examples of Hawe's clothes are in various museum collections in the United States including the Brooklyn Museum of Art (64.113.16).
  38. Hawe's clients included Ingrid Bergman, Lynn Fontaine, Mrs John D. Rockefeller III and Gracie Allen, among others.
  39. Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 231.
  40. Ralph Steiner's photographs were exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in the exhibition Photographs of New York by New York Photographers, 2 May-11 June 1932 and in Exhibition of Portrait Photography, Old and New, 15 October-5 November 1932.
  41. Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 308. In 1939 Hawes devoted a book to men's fashions titled Men Can Take It (New York: Random House, 1939).
  42. Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 291.
  43. Ibid., p. 292.
  44. For a detailed description of Noguchi's heads of Lambert, see Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculpture, pp. 68-69.
  45. Eleanor Lambert, interview with the authors, 31 March 2001, New York.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., p. 19.
  48. Robert Snyder, ed., Buckminster Fuller, An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), p. 64.
  49. See Grove, Isamu Noguchi, Portrait Sculpture, p 42, for a discussion of the silver surface and Fuller's portrait.
  50. Fuller in Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, p. 7.
  51. Snyder, Buckminster Fuller, p. 57.
  52. Buckminster Fuller to Isamu Noguchi, 17 April 1930, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives, "Fuller, R. Buckminster - 1930-1949". Noguchi did receive the telegram at some point. The original, from which we quote, is in the Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives. Courtesy of The Estate of Buckminster Fuller.
  53. Snyder, Buckminster Fuller, p. 66
  54. It is also worth noting that in 1935 Noguchi, at Neutra's invitation, designed a swimming pool for Neutra's client the film director Josef von Sternberg. The pool featured a slope upon which, Noguchi imagines, the "fat von Sternberg could lie before jumping into this first lozenge-shaped pool." A plaster model was exhibited at a gallery but the pool was never built. Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, p. 146.
  55. Isamu Noguchi, "Shelters of the Orient," Shelter, vol. 2, no. 5 (November 1932), p. 96.
  56. Ibid.
  57. "Colloidals in Time", Shelter, vol. 2, no. 5 (November 1932), p. 111.
  58. Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, p. 138.
  59. Steven Watson, Prepare for Saints (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 267.
  60. Buckminster Fuller to Isamu Noguchi, 28 June 1933, Isamu Noguchi Foundation archives, "Fuller, R. Buckminster - 1930-1949". Courtesy of The Estate of Buckminster Fuller.