Hammer, Chisel, Drill: Noguchi’s Studio Practice

Often described as a perfectionist, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a prolific and highly experimental artist whose sixty-year career ranged in output from sculpture, furniture, lighting and ceramics to gardens, set design, architecture and interior design. One of the most critically acclaimed sculptors of the twentieth century, no material or artistic discipline seemed beyond the limits of Noguchi’s capabilities – nor his intrigue.

An exhibition of his studio practice at The Noguchi Museum in New York next month will include more than sixty of his specialist tools, along with photos and film footage of the artist at work and an array of finished and unfinished sculptures. Opening on October 3rd, 2012, ‘Hammer, Chisel, Drill: Noguchi’s Studio Practice’ will be the first exhibition to reveal the working methods of this influential sculptor.

Born in the United States to a Japanese father and American mother, Noguchi lived in Japan for 13 years before moving to Indiana. He returned to Japan throughout his life and was deeply influenced by Japanese artistic traditions; an emphasis on simplicity, sensitivity to materials and a respect for craftsmanship were central to his practice.

Having set up studios around the world, with each culture embedding its impression on his development as an artist, the exhibition is arranged in relation to Noguchi’s working methods and phases of experimentation in his most important studios: in Greenwich Village and Long Island City in New York, Pietrasanta and Querceta in Italy and Kita Kamakura and Mure in Japan. But the exhibition begins with his time in Paris during the spring of 1927, when he became an apprentice to Constantin Brancusi. The famed sculptor encouraged the 23-year-old Noguchi to carve directly into stone instead of making preliminary clay or plaster models, and his distinctive form of abstraction permeated Noguchi’s approach to sculpture. He helped to carve Brancusi’s iconic ‘Birds in Space’ with a chemin de fed, a tool displayed in the exhibition along with two of Noguchi’s early abstract sculptures.

The next section features his stone carving from three studios ranging from the 1940s through to the late 1980s. During these four decades, Noguchi moved from the use of power tools on thin sheets of stone in the US, to a return to direct stone carving from the marble quarries of Monte Altissimo in Italy, to the employment of hard, igneous stones such as granite and basalt in Mure, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Responding to the inherent inertia and heaviness of the latter materials, he allowed his sculptures to evolve slowly, their forms emerging organically from the stone in the vein of Michelangelo.

In the 1950s Noguchi collaborated with a number of young architects and later in life experimented with architectural and landscape projects, such as the Sunken Garden of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (1960-1964), which is illustrated in the exhibition by his plaster models of the commissioned project, set around his drafting table. The extent to which Noguchi’s own space and surroundings were integral to his working practice is indicated by the fact that his studio in Kita Kamakura, with its primitive earthen walls, was constructed under his close direction.

The exhibition responds with due sensitivity to Noguchi’s work, not only in regard to the sculpture itself but in its attention to the intricate tools that helped materialise his incredible vision. Director of The Noguchi Museum, Jenny Dixon states that ‘by taking visitors behind the scenes into Noguchi’s studios, Hammer, Chisel, Drill provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary technical prowess and perfectionism behind his artistic achievement.’

The exhibition lasts until April 28th, 2013.

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