Of the five artists and designers profiled in the episode of Artbound's 10th seaosn, “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience,” the sculptor Isamu Noguchi stands out. Not because he is arguably the most well-known figure in the group, but because the trajectory of his experience is so markedly different from the others. The hour-long documentary explores the impact of the U.S. government’s mass incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II on the careers of five Japanese Americans, all of whom spent time in the camps, one way or another.
Unlike the other four, Noguchi, who was based on the East Coast, volunteered to be incarcerated, driven by an idealistic desire to be of service in the camps by using his skills to design and build structural improvements. And while Ruth Asawa, S. Neil Fujita, George Nakashima and Gyo Obata all coped in necessarily pragmatic ways with the circumstances of imprisonment, making the most out of the meager resources at their disposal, Noguchi seemed to float in on a whim, a prayer and a letter of recommendation from top-level officials in Washington, D.C. — hoping to create positive change on a larger, more conceptual level.
By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was already a well-established artist with a thriving international career. The son of a famous Japanese poet and an Irish American writer/editor, Noguchi’s creative endeavors were encouraged by his mother from an early age. He studied art at Columbia University before securing a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to apprentice in Paris for two years under Constantin Brancusi, whose influence on Noguchi’s practice was profound and long-lasting.
During the socially progressive New Deal years of the 1930s, Noguchi was deeply involved with the activist artist community in New York, engaging in current debates about social justice, organized and trade labor, creating community and building a tolerant democracy. Believing that artists and architects were “the planners of a new and better world,” Noguchi aligned himself with collaborative, modernist artists, striving to make sculptures and design public spaces that would have a relevant and positive social impact. He achieved fame in 1938 with a large-scale sculptural commission for the Associated Press building in New York City, meant to affirm the principle of freedom of the press. It was to be the first of numerous celebrated public works worldwide, which ranged from playgrounds and plazas to gardens and fountains.
As a person of mixed race who had had a uniquely dislocated upbringing (his Japanese father showed little interest in him, leaving his Caucasian mother to raise him alone), Noguchi had always questioned his identity. The shock of Pearl Harbor, however, and the growing racial enmity that caused him to be denied entry to Peggy Guggenheim’s birthday party in Los Angeles because “we were shooting Japs at the time,” caused a seismic shift in his outlook. “With a flash, I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone,” he wrote in his 1968 autobiography. “I was not just American but Nisei. A Japanese American.”
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He immediately got to work collaborating with activists and organizing fellow Japanese American writers and artists in support of the Japanese American community. When the opening of the camps became an inevitability, Noguchi drew on his experiences in New York and began proposing detailed plans to turn the camps into productive spaces where Japanese Americans could grow produce, manufacture goods, engage in vocational training and learn traditional arts and crafts. The goal was to support democracy by fostering goodwill, promoting a sense of shared responsibility, giving the inmates agency and hope for a better future and showing the world that Japanese Americans were patriotic citizens who contributed to society.
Inspired by a meeting with John Collier, the visionary head of the Office of Indian Affairs, Noguchi entered Arizona’s Poston camp in May 1942, armed with art supplies and designs for park and recreation areas. Unfortunately, his plans did not get the reception that he expected. Camp jurisdiction was unexpectedly shifted from Collier’s office to the War Relocation Authority, which had no interest in improving the camps. Previously promised support in the form of personnel and supplies did not materialize. Noguchi also became the target of hostilities from all sides — from previously friendly camp administrators who now saw him as simply another prisoner, and from his fellow inmates, who saw him as different and even suspected him of being an informer to the authorities.
It must be pointed out that art classes were held in other camps with great success. A young Ruth Asawa eagerly studied art under Disney animators Tom Okamoto, Chris Ishii and James Tanaka at the makeshift assembly center set up at the Santa Anita racetrack; she continued her lessons under another instructor after arriving at Rohwer camp in Arkansas. Meanwhile, the excellent art classes taught by Chiura Obata, father to Gyo, at the Topaz camp in Utah were legendary, nurturing and influencing a generation of young Nisei. These classes were begun almost immediately upon the teachers’ arrival at their respective camps, and their effects on camp life were positive and widespread.
Noguchi’s own failure to effect any change at Poston can be understood in a variety of ways. First of all, his goals went far beyond holding art classes; he wanted to establish craft guilds and re-engineer the landscape of the entire camp. Second, he expected to receive material support from the U.S. government, and he did not. Third, and perhaps this is the most important, he simply did not fit in with the other people in camp. He spoke the language of the international art world that he was a part of; they spoke the languages of the working and middle classes. He was of mixed blood while the vast majority of them were not.
In the end, we are left with a profound sense of Noguchi’s essential alienation from the community that he was spurred to join by the crises of war and unjust incarceration. In his own words, the artist had always been bothered by “a haunting sense of unreality, of not quite belonging.” His mixed identity and rootless upbringing caused him to feel a part of neither east nor west, but more a “citizen of the world.”
Noguchi lasted only two months before requesting to be released from Poston. He was finally granted it four months later, at which point he returned to New York and renewed his singular focus on his own artwork. Although many historians believe that the incarceration experience had lasting effects on his practice, those effects seem ethereal and esoteric, manifesting in highly personal, inscrutable abstract sculptures such as “My Arizona” (1943), a portrait of his experiences at Poston; “The World is a Foxhole” (1942–43), which Noguchi said symbolized both the hope and the despair of war refugees; or “This Tortured Earth” (1943), intended as a memorial to the tragedy of war. Some art historians have even claimed that Noguchi’s famously easy-to-assemble coffee table design for Herman Miller was inspired by the directive to evacuees to bring “only what they could carry.” Without accompanying interpretation, however, all of these works could be about anything in the world, which is perhaps part of their power and enduring appeal.
Top Image: Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, on view at The Noguchi Museum February 28, 2018 - April 14, 2019.
Herrera, Hayden. Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Lyford, Amy. Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013.
Maeda, Robert J. “Isamu Noguchi: 5–7–A, Poston, Arizona.” In Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans, ed. Erica Harth. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Archival exhibition materials, Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center (2017–18), The Noguchi Museum. Accessed at https://www.noguchi.org/programs/exhibitions/past?page=2.
Top Image: An installation of Akari from the exhibition Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, on view at The Noguchi Museum February 28, 2018 - April 14, 2019 | Still from "Artbound" Masters of Modern Design