Noguchi: Sculptor and Set Designer

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The Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was born a hundred years ago. He died in 1988 and left behind a museum in Long Island City to showcase the breadth and scope of his work. He had an international reputation for large scale landscape design and corporate monuments. But the recently refuburished museum has just opened a special exhibition devoted to another side of his work. WNYC's Judith Kampfner reports.

Kampfner: In 1961, Isamu Noguchi made a pioneering move to Long Island City to convert an industrial building into his studio which he later made into a museum for his work. He wanted control of his destiny - not to be at the mercy of art institutions. Half Japanese, half American, Noguchi traveled the world finding rocks and marble to carve and kept many of his best pieces placing them in a Japanese garden and ten galleries. The Noguchi Museum has started presenting special exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection. Go upstairs from now till next May and you discover another side to the sculptor – his designs for the stage. In an interview before his death in 1988,Noguchi said Japanese theater had influenced him.

Noguchi ( on tape ): My stage sets are minimal; they come from the recollection of Noh play stage in Japan.

Kampfner: There are nine Noguchi stage sets on the upper floor of the museum. He made them for the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Although Noguchi worked with other choreographers, his partnership with Graham was the most consistent – it lasted over four decades from the nineteen thirties to the seventies. He liked the way she used his objects inventively and encouraged him to experiment with different materials. Some sets feature spiky webs of wire and metal, some are structures of primeval wooden bones, others are like pieces of spare modern furniture..Curator Bonnie Rychlak sees the work of the sculptor in each object.

Platform from Embattled Garden, 1958. (Kevin Noble, 2001. Courtesy the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance)

Rychlak: There's a beautiful. I shouldn’t touch.

J: Is this wood? Yes… the way he smoothes this out and you have this edge and there's care, there's a particular way he wants things to move and for the dancers to interact with them.

Kampfner: There is no music or stage lighting. It's as if you are looking at the work before it left for the theater. Visitors can see what's behind and inside the objects. Looking at a very unnaturalistic tree, walking around the back of the trunk, you get to see what was hidden to the audience - you discover crafted steps inside and a lever which pulls down metal branches with plastic leaves. Noguchi called each stage object or prop a living sculpture and each had a title.

Rychlak: "Tree with green leaves"

J: the shape is like 2 surfboards...making an obelisk?

BR: yes’s so simple but the dancers are able to stand on it and they pull this and they have step there.

Kampfner: Nearby in the loft space is an ominous maze of tall sticks which fit into a base which is sculpted and painted –to look like the inside of an apple. Robert Tracy who is the author of separate books about Noguchi and Graham,explains

Tracy: This is the Embattled Garden which is the story of Adam and Eve

J: Here you have steel poles?

RT No.. rattan rods – he said he bought them out in New Jersey. They vibrate as you move in the garden – you push them aside and they come back sort of thing.

Kampfner: The sta ge props were completed by Graham's imagination. A light woven box. from a 1944 dance called Penitente was a pillar which could be collapsed and then opened up so the dancer when she stepped into it became a skeletal figure of death encased in its rib like structure.

Bonnie Lamp: That's a very simple structure in El Penitente, you pick it up and it take its form Gravity and the weight of it holds itself in place and it becomes so many things.

Kampfner: If you say Isamu Noguchi to New Yorkers who are savvy about interior design, they may well say “lanterns ”. Noguchi designed products for everyday living and the Japanese bark paper and bamboo ribbed lamps he called his Akari Light Sculptures can stand over six feet high but collapse into a tiny box .The idea for these lanterns which he devised in the fifties came from that prop from Penitente. Much of Noguchi’s furniture design came from his work for the stage and some of the stage props were lit from inside – a warm sensuous glow to create heighten the drama of Grahams narratives.

Rychak: They both understood the sensousness of the objects and the stories... it’s very clear when you read some of Noguchi's interviews on the walls here how strongly the sexual components is in this objects.

Kampfner: Noguchi and Graham pared primal Greek myths and bible stories down to the essentials..the sets tell the stories but the style was impressionistic and suggestive. Their first collaboration was on a dance called "Frontier", Martha needed a fence. Noguchi gave her a rough wooden saw horse which was like a ballet barre. Dance historian Francis Mason calls this her Americana work.

Mason: She had Noguchi’s fence where she put her leg up and looked at the world from there and raised her hand over her eyes as if she was looking at the great American horizon and this is it for me as if it say. And it’s a wonderful thing to come here to this show and to stand at this fence and feel that.

Kampfner: He dramatized the horizon simply. With a long rope which was pulled taut into a V and gave a perspective of an endless distant landscape. Noguchi explained in an archive tape

Noguchi: I did Frontier in 35, I used a rope that bisected the atmosphere of the theater.

Kampfner: The stark design had a profound effect on Graham says Terese Capucelli,a Martha Graham dancer who now helps run the company.

Capucelli: She said no one understood the sterility of beauty as he did. J : Sterility that’s an odd word TC yes it is I think she was referring to the coolness, the simplicity, down to the bare bone, the clean look, she found that beautiful.

Mason: She knew how to hold the audience in the palm of her hand and Noguchi made that easier for her. Isamu’s settings always set her off and centered her and made her the key creature in the ensemble.

Kampfner: Her elegance Noguchi described as "poetry on the stage." He thought of dance as an extension of sculpture – he thought of the entire stage space as material to craft. Martha Graham took his work and continued to shape it. It was a partnership where each developed each others work and their work evolved together.


The special exhibition of stage sets for Martha Graham continues at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City until May 1st next year. It coincides with a Whitney Museum show celebrating the centenary of Noguchi’s birth, which runs till Jan 16th.