But the staff will return to Vernon Avenue on the East River early in 2004 from their hiatus on 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside. And so will the schoolchildren, art lovers, casual tourists and meditative city dwellers. They’ll sit on benches in the 8,000-square-foot open space, wander along the paths, among the plants, trees and Noguchi’s carved stone sculptures, where he originally placed them.
Visitors will again wander into the former photo-engraving plant, acquired by Noguchi in 1975, that houses 13 galleries. There they’ll see evidence of 84 years lived at a frenetic pace in the 20th century.
Noguchi is best known as a sculptor; perhaps his most identifiable work is the 24-foot “Red Cube,” which stands outside 140 Broadway, on the edge of Ground Zero. However, his extraordinary and multifaceted career also encompassed architecture, set design and industrial design, as well as the building of parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. He’s also known for his modernist furniture and for Akari, the mulberry paper and bamboo lamps that he developed.
Though early on a member of the New York School, or abstract expressionists, the sheer breadth of his interests made him hard to categorize. He was also dismissed in racial terms by some early critics, and, some admirers say, never fully accepted during his lifetime. One writer said that Noguchi’s greatness was only grudgingly acknowledged: “It was if there were too many Noguchis to hold in the mind.”
His family background is not easily categorized either. The label generally applied to him, “Japanese American,” isn’t the whole story; for one thing, his mother is usually described as Irish American.
Being of mixed race, he was an outsider in the East and the West through much of the 20th century. This outsider status, he believed, was reinforced by the circumstances of his life, and while it was a source of pain, it was, ultimately, for an artist, a badge of honor too.
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904. His mother was Leoni Gilmour, a 30-year-old graduate of Bryn Mawr who worked as a translator and editor. His father, 29-year-old Yonejiri (known as Yone) Noguchi, was the first Japanese poet published in English. They met in New York when the poet sought help with translation work.
Their son’s birth coincided with the Russo-Japanese war. The poet, swept up by the new Japanese nationalistic fervor, returned home after 12 years in America. In 1906, he arranged for Gilmour and their 2-year-old son to join him, but the couple lived apart and he married a local woman, starting a large family and setting out a long career as an academic.
Gilmour stayed on in Japan, bringing up her son and working as an English teacher. His father, who had little contact with him, described Isamu as “perfectly brown” but his eyes were pale, identifying him as an alien as soon as he attended school. Gilmour gave birth again some years later. All the evidence suggests that the relationship continued intermittently with Yone Noguchi and that her daughter was a full sister to Isamu.
“When you think about the kind of life she lived, it was pretty extraordinary,” said Bonnie Rychlak, the curator of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. “It must have been very difficult — for a very smart and very literate single mother of two in Japan.”
Rychlak cited a PBS documentary broadcast some years ago that profiled several women, Gilmour among them, who graduated from Bryn Mawr in the late 19th century.
“They were the most amazing women — a group of strong-minded, independent, free-thinking women who happened to be there at that time,” she said.
By the time he’d reached 13, there seemed few prospects in Japan for Gilmour’s son, who was working with a carpenter. She sent him to the experimental Interlaken School in Rolling Prairie, Ind., but by the time “Sam” Gilmour arrived in early 1918, it was closed for military use. He was placed instead in the local high school, from which he graduated four years later. Nonetheless, Interlaken’s principal, Edward Rumely, took a paternal interest in him. When the boy showed aptitude working with Italian stonecutters, he arranged a summer apprenticeship with a prominent sculptor in Connecticut. Later, Rumely raised finances for pre-med studies at Columbia University.
In 1923, Gilmour finally returned with her daughter to the United States and soon made her home in New York. There, she persuaded her son to drop out of Columbia and concentrate on a career in art.
By this stage, Noguchi said that the “extreme attachment” to his mother he’d felt in childhood was gone. He would now be forever, in the narrative of his life, the “waif,” the “stranger,” the “loner” who was abandoned at 13. Some admirers caution that this must be seen in the context of his flair for dramatizing, even mythologizing, his life. Another example of this, they say, are his references to his “love-hate” relationship with his father, someone he barely knew.
Rychlak believes that this public distance from his mother helped justify a shrewd career move: Sam Gilmour became Isamu Noguchi, at the moment he was quickly establishing himself in New York’s art world, to benefit from his father’s fame.
“Yes, she sent him off, but she sent him off for good reasons: she wanted him to have a good education,” Rychlak said of Gilmour. “I’ve read a lot of letters and her relationship with him always remained very strong. But I think that she was overbearing.”
Rychlak, a native of Los Angeles who began working for Noguchi in 1980 as a recent art school graduate, said that he never spoke about his mother, his sister, about whom he was very protective, or his former wife, the Japanese actress Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi. “Unless you asked him very specific questions about them,” she added. The important relationships in his life were a “dark place,” she said, he preferred not to go to.
More generally, though, in interviews and in his writing, Noguchi often referred to his mother in positive terms, particularly when recalling early childhood memories.
Stressed mother’s roots
In her biography of him, the critic Dore Ashton says that Noguchi stressed his mother’s roots and her love of Irish poetry and Irish literature in general. “He was one of the American artists who dipped into Joyce at frequent intervals, finding solace in his internationalism and his proud sense of artistic exile,” Ashton writes.
Irish literature was also something that indirectly tied Noguchi to his father. The Japanese poet was a fervent admirer of W.B. Yeats and visited him in Sussex, England, in 1914. Yeats, in turn, admired the influential Japanese dancer Michio Ito and had him in mind when he wrote the play “At the Hawk’s Well.” In 1926, the younger Noguchi was asked by Ito to make the masks for the New York production of the play. It marked the beginning of the sculptor’s long association with theater and dance.
While his father’s name opened doors for Noguchi, it also drew unfavorable attention to his Asian roots. A respected critic, Henry McBride, ended a 1932 review of his work in the New York Sun with the line: “Once an Oriental, always an Oriental, it seems.” Three years later, the same writer described Noguchi’s shocking sculpture of a lynched African American as “just a little Japanese mistake.”
In Japan, he also faced rejection. When he heard of his son’s planned visit to Asia, Yone Noguchi asked him not to come. Refusing to be discouraged, the younger Noguchi spent several months in turbulent China and then headed for a rendezvous with his father in Tokyo in 1931.
“From everything that has been written and said, [it seems] it was an incredibly difficult meeting,” Rychlak said. “They tried to have some conversation; they tried to have some meeting of minds, but it never worked.”
His father was embarrassed at having a half-Caucasian son, but he did ease his way in Japan with letters of introduction.
As an American, the younger Noguchi was watched closely by the police. He could see, even then, the preparations for war. He remembered later: “And all the ancient Japanese virtues and ancient Japanese art, songs and so forth, were pre-empted by the military.”
Noguchi and his father could not have been more different ideologically. The latter was becoming an increasingly shrill proponent of militaristic nationalism. In a poem entitled “Slaughter them! The Americans and English are our enemies,” written after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he argued that this wasn’t simply a conflict between nations; personal friendships, including those he’d made during his long period in America, would be casualties of war too.
In contrast, the young sculptor was not a nationalist of any stripe and his work was influenced by the left-leaning social movements of the 1930s.
He never again met his father, who died an unreconstructed nationalist in 1947. They hadn’t reconciled. “[Isamu] Noguchi made his peace with it,” Rychlak said.
Leoni Gilmour, who imported goods from Japan and ran an antique store, died of pneumonia in 1933. Noguchi remained close to his sister, Ailes, who died in recent years. “She married a pre-Columbian art scholar, who was 30 or 40 years older than her,” Rychlak said.
She was also for a time a dancer with Martha Graham. It was with the famed dancer and choreographer that her brother had his longest-lasting working partnership. Noguchi designed more than 30 sets for Graham, a life-long friend.
In marked contrast to that was his unfruitful association with Robert Moses, the all-powerful New York City parks commissioner. Over the course of two decades, Moses vetoed all of the major projects Noguchi had been commissioned to design for the city, the last of them in 1952.
By that time, however, Noguchi-designed sculptures and spaces were much in demand in other American cities and throughout the world.
In this period, he was spending more time in Japan. He even formed close bonds with members of his father’s second family. And his marriage took place there in 1951. It was over, though, by the mid-1950s.
Although he constantly traversed the world, New York City was his home base. And this posed a problem for his relationship with his wife. Yoshiko Yamaguchi, later a long-time Japanese parliamentarian, had ties to the Hollywood left. “That was part of the aggravation in their marriage, because she was never able to get a visa to come to the United States,” Rychlak said. Indeed, it was mooted that Noguchi himself might be investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The sculptor first went to live and work in Vernon Avenue in 1961. Over decades, his Queens studio was transformed into a permanent monument to his work. After he took over the old factory across the street, he bought the site of an old gas station beside it. There he built a cinder-block wing and it served as the entrance of the museum he formally opened in 1985.
Noguchi once said he had no real home and was at home everywhere. “By the time I came here, he was spending three months here, three months there,” Rychlak said. “And that’s always an indication when someone’s peripatetic that way; with that kind of nervous energy, maybe they’re trying to escape from something.”
All the cliches about great artists applied to the charming and workaholic Noguchi, she said. “He was very difficult,” she recalled. “He was 76 when I first came here, and the kind of energy he displayed, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, was inspirational.”
Martha Graham once described her friend as an “ecstatic man” and “possessed.”
Researching her book, Ashton found that people referred to him as “selfish,” but she was struck by the enormous loyalty and devotion he inspired, particularly in women.
She tends toward Noguchi’s own view that for the rest of the world he would he always be, to some extent, the “gaijin,” or “outside person,” he was when he returned to Japan.
In June 1988, six months before Noguchi’s death, Ashton writes that two Noguchi exhibitions “drew a review in the New York Times, that although slightly less blatant, echoed the earliest reviews of his career.”
Even if he was misunderstood by some critics, he did win numerous accolades, official recognition and a certain fame during his lifetime. And his reputation has grown since. Rychlak, the museum’s curator said, “I think people are readdressing American modernism and with that they’re looking at him in a new way.”