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Deft Benefits

Isamu Noguchi Played It Safe, but His Touch Was Sure

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page N01

Sometimes, our obsession with genius can get us into trouble. When you rave about the radical talents of a Leonardo or a Beethoven, it can lead you to neglect the real but modest pleasures to be had from a Boltraffio or Wilms. (Who? My point exactly.)

On Thursday, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum opened a show called "Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor." Noguchi was not one of the great innovators of the 20th century. Most of his work built on ideas that others had before him. But he had a wonderful hand and eye. "Deft" is the word that springs to mind in looking at Noguchi's art, rather than "inspired."

Isamu Noguchi's "Untitled," from 1943, is a surprising work from a genteel modern master. (Kevin Noble -- The Noguchi Museum, New York)

This Noguchi exhibition presents a pile of work that almost never fails to please, even though it rarely challenges. It suggests that maybe we could come to think of deftness as a virtue all its own, rather than as watered-down brilliance.

Deft imitation could mean an awful lot in the early history of modern art in this country. Since modernism was invented in Europe, any American who could help it take root here becomes someone to reckon with.

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904. His mother was Leonie Gilmour, a cultured American writer, who had a three-year relationship with Yone Noguchi, one of Japan's first modernist poets. (The young sculptor had virtually no contact with his father, though he eventually took his name because of the prestige that came with it.) Noguchi's childhood was spent in Japan, but his interest and training in art seem to have come mainly after he was sent back to the United States in 1918.

At first, the art he favored was conservative: He was apprenticed to Gutzon Borglum, who later sculpted Mount Rushmore, and attended an art school in New York that focused on traditional skills. His early work is a spectacularly deft -- that word again -- rendition of slightly sentimental Edwardian sculpture. Well into his mature career, Noguchi paid his bills by doing commissioned portraits vaguely in the style of Rodin. (None of the early bread-and-butter work is in the Hirshhorn show, which is a shame. You want to see both good and bad to get to know an artist properly.)

Noguchi's turn away from hackery started in around 1925, when he began to see the European modern art on show in New York. He became one of the country's most ardent converts to it. In 1927, he traveled to Paris and for several months assisted the great modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. And that's when he became the artist whom we know and . . . really rather like.

Elegant, smoothly wrought shapes; an interest in contrasting industrial finish to more "primitive" materials; abstraction with just a hint of figuration left intact -- those are some of the innovations of Brancusi that his American follower then turned into a dependable style.

Of course, Noguchi developed his own riffs on the formal innovations of Brancusi and other Europeans such as Jean Arp and Vladimir Tatlin. In the 1930s, he sometimes pushed them toward a kind of art deco sensibility. In the 1940s, he crossed them with a modest dose of surrealist weirdness, imported to New York by artists fleeing Nazi Europe. Noguchi also had a bitter war. As a resident of New York, he could have escaped the internment forced on Japanese Americans on the West Coast. In solidarity with them, however, he chose to join them in the camps for seven months in 1942. By the 1950s, he began to investigate a variety of Asian cultures, and -- alongside other modern artists without his ethnic roots -- took cues from Japanese ideas about simplicity and poise. He also began to transplant the gracious forms he perfected in his art into furniture and garden design. (This transplantation is Noguchi at his most innovative, but the Hirshhorn exhibition, dedicated only to his free-standing sculpture, doesn't show it off. That makes Noguchi look tamer than he really was.)

Through all the modest twists and turns of Noguchi's career, right up to his death in 1988, there's a single sensibility on view. It's the sensibility of an artist who prefers ease to revolution. That may not earn him lots of space in textbooks on the growth of modern art. (He doesn't even rate a mention in the massive tome just published by four of the field's superstars.) But it makes him a fine companion for a gracious afternoon down on the Mall.

'Positional Shape': Befriending His Inner Brancusi

"Positional Shape," made in Paris in 1928, represents Noguchi the young modernist, whose discoveries infuse the artist's whole career. Just two years earlier, back in the United States, Noguchi had still been working in an utterly old-fashioned realist style. In "Positional Shape," a few months of exposure to the Parisian avant-garde have already made him completely at home on its cutting edge. He's not so much copying the new ideas of Constantin Brancusi as channeling them.

It's hard to imagine a more pleasing study in space and shape and surface. The piece somehow has that magic quality that all the best abstraction has of feeling absolutely right. For all the nod it gives to sleekly modern engineering, it also seems to fulfill an ideal that goes right back to the Renaissance: It would only suffer if anything at all were added to it, or taken away.

But it also has a weakness that dogged Noguchi's art over the next 60 years. It is so discreetly gracious and genteel that it has a hard time keeping our attention. There's something just a tiny bit decorative and superficial about Noguchi's earliest abstractions. They feel almost as much like deco ornament as avant-garde art. They tend to feel pretty, rather than gorgeous.

The piece was originally polished brass and was displayed hanging by a wire. Later, Noguchi had it gilded and stuck it on a dainty marble base. When the artist returned to this early piece, that is, he didn't repudiate its status as a high-end gewgaw. He reinforced it.

'Lunar Fist': Punching Up Biomorphism

Noguchi was often at his best when he was working in new materials. He could make accepted forms his own by changing what he built them from. Noguchi's relatively staid bronze head of his good friend Buckminster Fuller, for instance, becomes an emblem of modernity once it gets plated with chrome.

"Lunar Fist" is one of seven pieces that survive from a series of illuminated works Noguchi made in 1943 and 1944. For the first time since they were made, the Hirshhorn show brings them together in one place.

The biomorphic shapes on view in "Lunar Fist" come out of earlier works by Jean Arp; the aggressive id the sculpture seems to flaunt had been a staple of surrealism for years already. But the simple gesture of making the whole work light up gives it an energy that wasn't in its static sources.

There is a sense that, for all their radicalism, the sculptures of Brancusi are sculpture-like in just the way that sculpture always was: They're lumps of stuff shaped and then set out for us to walk around. Ditto the strange paintings of Dali, which boil down to a mess of oil paint brushed onto canvas. But put a light bulb in a blob of cast cement and colored plastic hanging on the wall, as Noguchi did in "Lunar Fist," and you get somewhere distinctly new. Make a work of art recall the lamps that light the modern world, and it gets a novel kind of leverage.

Ironically, Noguchi's art sometimes feels less superficial, and less decorative, the closer that it gets to the official decorative arts. That may be why the kidney-shaped coffee table he designed in 1947 went on to become his most famous, most copied piece.

A Meltdown of Innocence

In 1943, Noguchi cast a hollow blob of plastic into a shape that seems almost obscene, like an amalgam of abandoned children's toys repurposed for an orgy. It is one of his most peculiar works, and the only object in the show that comes as a real surprise.

It feels like something just made by one of our contemporaries -- by Paul McCarthy, maybe, or one of L.A.'s other shock artists. It's hard to imagine that it was made 60 years ago by one of the most genteel of modern masters.

The work's power has something to do with its surprisingly coarse finish. For once, Noguchi left his surfaces raw, but without trying to evoke the kind of rural simplicity his rough-hewed wood or stone can have. This piece doesn't seem untouched and innocent; it's simply casually cast, in a modern medium that should allow perfection. It seems to care about vigorous effects rather than superficial niceties.

The color has a part to play as well. The translucent beige of the object's "body" has a thoroughly creepy, morbid waxiness, and its candy-colored "limbs" just make it more extreme. They give it all the appeal of a popsicle found melting in the gutter.

The sculpture clearly has its roots in surrealism. But where much of that movement's art seems wittily psychedelic, or cheerily dreamy, Noguchi's figure is about real psychic agitation.

'Sun at Noon': A Narrowed Horizon

Noguchi's sleek "Sun at Noon," from 1969, is just the kind of work that lost him favor with the next generation or two of modern radicals. It's been a long time since Noguchi has been much looked at by a younger set.

Noguchi's stone ring feels an awful lot like corporate "plop art," just waiting to be plonked down in some lobby or courtyard. Its two shades of pink marble feel "fancy," in the worst decorator sense, and its fine finish seems finicky rather than pared down, Brancusi-wise.

The prevalence of late Noguchis in this mold has helped overshadow some of his earlier, more radical ideas. An essay in the exhibition catalogue, for instance, convincingly presents Noguchi as the unacknowledged father of the Land Artists of the 1960s, who carved their work right into the American landscape.

In 1933 already, Noguchi proposed a "Monument to the Plow" that would have consisted of a three-sided pyramid of earth built in a farmer's field. Each of its 1,200-foot sides was to have been plowed into a different abstract pattern. The New Deal bureaucrats his plans were submitted to "turned their thumbs down on them so hard they almost broke their thumb nails," according to a record of their meeting.

Two years later, the artist suggested filling a vacant plot of land at Newark Airport with a work so big it could only be fully seen from planes. "They laughed their heads off at the whole idea," Noguchi recalled.

In 1947, Noguchi took the idea even further. He made a small-scale sand maquette for a "Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars." The finished work would have consisted of the features of a simple face whose nose alone would have extended for a mile.

And in the middle of World War II, Noguchi suggested that a grim memorial could be made by getting planes to bomb the earth into sculpture. (A cast-bronze relief that derives from the project, titled "This Tortured Earth," is the only hint the Hirshhorn survey gives of any of his pioneering earthwork.) None of these grand projects ever came to be. Neither did Noguchi's two different proposals for inspired modernist playgrounds. Noguchi couldn't even find a place to show his illuminated "Lunar" works, so he abandoned making them as well.

Thinking back to a moment in 1959 when he'd turned down an offer from the city of Detroit to work with 60 million cubic yards of excavated earth, the aging sculptor made a sad confession: "There are few moments of courage when we do not compromise for the more easily possible."

Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor is at the Hirshhorn Museum, on the Mall at Seventh Street SW, through May 8. Call 202-633-1000 or visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

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