Isamu Noguchi: Biography, Sculpture & Furniture

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about the life of sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Discover how Noguchi combined the artistic traditions of the United States and Japan to create a dazzling variety of sculptures and furniture.

Everything is Sculpture

A fountain rises from the plaza that stretches along Detroit's east riverfront. To the citizens of Detroit, the Dodge fountain is simply a fun place to spend a summer day. Only a few of the plaza's visitors realize the fountain's designer was Isamu Noguchi, one of the most important sculptors of the 21st century.

Dodge fountain by Isamu Noguchi
Dodge fountain

During a career that spanned over 60 years, Noguchi created hundreds of sculptures. A prolific and versatile artist, he also designed numerous public and private spaces including parks, gardens, fountains, and playgrounds. He created set designs for stage plays and furniture intended for everyday use. He worked in many artistic styles, and he used a wide variety of materials including metal, stone, paper, plastic, earth, and wood. As he said, 'Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.'

Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, California, on November 17, 1904. His mother was an American writer and his father a well-known Japanese poet. As a young child, Noguchi lived in Japan, but he moved to Indiana at the age of 13. Throughout his life, Noguchi would spend time in both Japan and the United States. A desire to blend the modern, industrial culture of the United States with the traditional culture of Japan would inspire Noguchi to create his most important sculptures.

As a young man, Noguchi worked as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. It was during his tenure with Brancusi that Noguchi developed his love of abstract sculpture. Abstract sculpture is sculpture that does not attempt to represent a subject realistically but rather uses the subject as a starting point from which the sculptor creates his own artistic statement. Noguchi would become one of the most renowned abstract sculptors of the 20th century.

Career Highlights

Noguchi created hundreds of sculptures throughout his career. Among his most significant and representative works are News (1938), Kouros (1945), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Garden of Peace (1958).

News (1938) was Noguchi's first major commission. Made of stainless steel, the 22-foot-high sculpture was installed above the entrance to the Associated Press building in New York City. The sculpture depicts five journalists and symbolizes the freedom of the press. The sculpture's radiating lines and intense angles suggest the hectic nature of the news business. Like many of the sculptures Noguchi would create, News was designed to be displayed in a specific public location. Incorporating large sculptures into public spaces would become one of the hallmarks of Noguchi's career.

As it did for most Japanese Americans, the war between the United States and Japan (1941-1945) had a profound effect on Noguchi. Dismayed by the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, he voluntarily spent time in an internment camp. Deeply changed by his experiences during the war, he responded with Kouros (1945), a marble sculpture standing over nine feet tall. Using techniques he learned while working with Brancusi, Noguchi's Kouros uses simple shapes carved in stone to represent the human form. Held together without the use of adhesives, the sculpture's fragmented and precarious construction reflects Noguchi's feeling that an 'encroaching void' threatened the stability of the post-war world.

While his artistic output was large and diverse, Noguchi is best known for integrating sculptural works into public spaces and for artworks that combine the artistic traditions of the United States and Japan. One such work, UNESCO's Garden of Peace (1958), was designed by Noguchi and installed by renowned Japanese gardener Toemon Sano. The garden is located at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and is dedicated to world peace.

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