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Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics
at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media preview: Wednesday, April 30, at 9 a.m. Call (202) 357-4880 ext. 218 to attend.

Best known for his abstract stone sculpture and public plazas, lamp and furniture design, Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) also produced a radically original body of ceramic art during three visits to Japan in 1931, 1950 and 1952. From May 3 to September 7, forty-three examples of these works—few of which have been exhibited in the United States since 1954—will be on view at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., S.W.), together with an almost equal number of works by leading ceramic artists with whom Noguchi worked or interacted while he was in Japan. During these brief interludes, a particularly fertile exchange of ideas took place between Noguchi and these artists, all of whom were exploring ways in which the ceramic traditions of the past could inform and inspire contemporary work.

Included in the group of works by Noguchi are two early portrait busts, as well as figural and non-figurative sculpture, sculptural vessels and tableware. Ceramics created by Japanese artists with whom Noguchi associated demonstrate how complex forces affected the development of one of the leading figures in American art and led to the emergence of a modern ceramic idiom in Japan.

The Japanese works include vessels by Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959) and Kawai Kanjiro (1890–1966); tea ceremony utensils by Kaneshige Toyo (1896–1967) and Arakawa Toyozo (1894–1985); sculpture by Tsuji Shindo (1910–1981) and Okamoto Taro (1911–1996); and abstract sculptural ceramics created by Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979), Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001) and Suzuki Osamu (1926–2001).

Isamu Noguchi was born in the United States, the son of well-known Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (1875–1947) and American writer Leonie Gilmour (1873–1933); the couple separated before the child's birth. Gilmour took her son to Japan at the age of 2, where he remained until being sent to school in the United States at the age of 13. Noguchi was estranged from his father but was drawn as an artist to Asian culture-in particular to Japanese clay.

First trained as an academic sculptor in New York, Noguchi received a Guggenheim traveling fellowship in 1927, which allowed him to work briefly in Paris with Rumanian French sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), and to travel to India, China and Japan. In China, Noguchi was intrigued by molded terra-cotta figurines from the Tang dynasty, while in Japan he became fascinated by the unglazed, prehistoric tomb figures ("haniwa") he saw in the Kyoto Imperial Museum. During five months in a Kyoto potter's studio he produced "The Queen," a monumental, abstract, mannequin-like figure, on view in the exhibition, as well as portrait heads, smaller figure studies and functional urns.

By the time Noguchi returned to Japan in 1950, he had become a sculptor and designer of international renown and was welcomed warmly by the artistic community. Asked to hold an exhibition and unable to ship existing objects from America by the deadline, Noguchi was invited by his friend and fellow artist Kitagawa Tamiji (1894–1989) to work at a ceramic facility in Seto where he spent a week of intense labor, producing more than 20 vessels and sculptures including "Journey," "My Mu" and "The Policeman," which are on view here.

In 1950 and early 1951, Noguchi also undertook public projects of design for the Hiroshima Peace, Keio University, and the Tokyo headquarters of Reader's Digest. Late in 1951 he married Japanese movie star Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi and began another extended visit to Japan, staying near the city of Kamakura as a guest of the well-known traditionalist potter, Kitaoji Rosanjin. There Noguchi spent an intensively creative, yearlong period during which he became absorbed by what he described as the "uniquely coarse Japanese earth." The works Noguchi created during this time reflected his immersion in many aspects of Japanese culture including its craft traditions, Zen Buddhism, haiku and the aesthetics of the tea ceremony as well as the Japanese art of flower arrangement called "ikebana."

"Noguchi's knowledge of Euro-American traditions of modern sculpture, and his experience working with stone, metal and wood, informed his use of various Japanese clays," says curator Louise Cort. "But his ceramic work in Japan also reflects his investigation of Japanese cultural themes. Through clay, Noguchi found a way to explore the Japanese dimension of his dual cultural identity."

Inspired by Teshigahara Sofu (1900–1979), founding director of the Sogetsu school of ikebana, Noguchi sculpted numerous clay vases as well as ceramic sculptures such as "Lonely Tower" and "War," on view here, which were exhibited in his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura in 1952.

The 1952 Japanese exhibition received poor critical reviews, but inspired a number of young Japanese potters who sought ways to go beyond classic Asian ceramic shapes and decoration in order to link their work to concerns of international art movements. Yagi Kazuo, Yamada Hikaru and Suzuki Osamu, who had formed the avant-garde group named "Sodeisha" (crawling through mud society) were already admirers of Paul Klee (1879–1940), Joan Miro (1893–1983) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). These young artists were encouraged by Noguchi's work to persist in their efforts to take their art beyond the confines of traditional utilitarian forms. "The unconventional approach to working with Japanese clay by esteemed outsider Isamu Noguchi provided a jolt of energy to help these artists move across the boundary from utensil to object. They led the way in redefining ceramics as a valid medium for abstract sculpture," says Cort.

On view are works demonstrating the evolution of the Sodeisha artists' forms from upright, symmetrical, wheel-thrown, glazed vessel-forms to abstract, nonfunctional hand sculpted works in unglazed Shigaraki clay. These range from Yagi Kazuo's 1954 work, "Mr. Samsa's Walk"-considered the primary icon of modern Japanese ceramics-which used the wheel to make cylindrical components, to Yamada Hikaru's 1958 sculpture titled "Work," and his 1964 sculpture titled "Tower B."

The exhibition includes loans from the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum and from museums and private collections in the United States and Japan. The exhibition will travel to the Japan Society Gallery, New York City (Oct. 9, 2003–Jan. 11, 2004) and the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles (Feb. 7–May 30, 2004).

BOOK: Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics, a fully illustrated 240-page book by Louise Cort and Bert Winther-Tamaki, with contributions by Bruce Altshuler and Niimi Ryu, accompanies the exhibition. The book, jointly published with the University of California Press, Berkeley, is available in hardcover for $49.95from the museum shop.

PROGRAMS The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive array of programs including:

  • "Moving Across Cultures: Lecture and Forum" on May 4, featuring a lecture, titled "Isamu Noguchi: Sculpture as a Medium of Asian American identity," by Bert Winther-Tamaki, associate professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, and a forum of dialogues with Asian-American visual artists about cultural identity and their work.
  • a retrospective showcasing Shirley Yamaguchi, the film star to whom Noguchi was married from 1952 to 1956 (Meyer Auditorium. Check website for dates)
  • "Bold Blossoms: Experimental Flower Arrangements" in the Sackler Gallery Pavilion. Tuesdays at 10a.m.. May 6, 13, 20, and 27. Fridays at 10a.m.. May 9, 16, 23, and 30. (Continues every Tuesday and Friday through September 5). Cheyenne Kim, Smithsonian Horticultural Specialist, creates uncommon displays that resonate with the unconventional vase forms featured in the exhibition, Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics. flowers are a continuing gift of Else Sackler and will remain on view between demonstrations
  • "Wild Flowers": a summer hands-on program of lecture-demonstrations with local Sogetsu ikebana teachers. Sackler Gallery, Level 1. Call 202-357-4880 ext. 364 for information
  • six "Crawling Through Mud" tours led by local ceramic artists on select weekdays
  • "Playful Clay," a program for children ages 6-12 exploring the whimsical creations in the exhibition. Children make their own sculptures to take home. ((Sackler Gallery classroom. Check website for dates).

The exhibition is made possible by generous grants from the Feinberg Foundation, Sachiko Kuno, Ryuji Ueno and the S&R Foundation, Masako and James Shinn, and H. Christopher Luce, with additional funding from Jeffrey P. Cunard, Ann and Gilbert Kinney, the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment, and the Director's Discretionary Fund established by Peggy and Richard M. Danziger. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Transportation assistance is provided through the generosity of All Nippon Airways. Gallery furniture is provided by Design Within Reach. The exhibition is endorsed by the Japan Foundation, and organizational assistance is provided by the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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