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ISAMU NOGUCHI AND MODERN JAPANESE CERAMICS: A Close Embrace of the Earth, by Louise Allison Cort and Bert Winther-Tamaki, with contributions by Bruce J. Altshuler and Niimi Ryu. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2003; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 240 pp., 81 color photographs, 78 b/w photographs, $44.95 (cloth).

Though known mainly as a sculptor, the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) also created works in clay, most of which were executed in Japan during three short but intensive sessions in 1931, 1950 and 1952. Typical of the artist, these are not nearly so well known as the major works.

Noguchi, however, would have found them of equal importance. He later spoke of his pottery-making experience as “my close embrace of the earth,” and said that in it he was searching for an identity with some “primal matter.”

At the same time he saw his identification with clay as an expression of his own dichotomy — an artist, both American and Japanese, working in stainless steel, chrome and magnesite as well as common clay.

He brought with him, however, a sensibility that was ready to work with this new material. Among his beliefs was that the artist should always be true to his materials, and that his forms should be organic. Thus, long before he threw his first pot, he had seen and been impressed by the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957).

It was these natural forms, these elegant ovids, that first inspired Noguchi and led him from the academic path into something more primal. In his search for the organic, the artist became what Niimi Ryu has called “the modern primitive.” Like Picasso discovering African art, Noguchi detected in prehistoric Japanese art something so primitive as to be elemental.

These are almost entirely the clay sculptures from the early Jomon and later Yayoi ages — in particular the burial figures, or haniwa, which influenced all postwar Japanese ceramic works. What Noguchi discovered is equally well described in his account of what he himself found in the work of Brancusi.

“[He] brought something more than learning: the memory of childhood, of things observed, not taught; of closeness to the earth, of wet stones and grass . . . this is an inheritance he was able to call upon.”

And this was the inheritance that Noguchi was to call upon as well. He later wrote that Picasso himself “created African sculpture by creating a popular climate in which it could be accepted as art.”

Noguchi was similarly a catalyst for the acceptance of haniwa as an aesthetic form of relevance to modern Japanese sculpture.

There is another Picasso connection. It has been suggested that each of that artist’s varied periods (blue, rose, cubist) coincided with and was nurtured by his relations with a new mistress or (sometimes) wife.

In the case of Noguchi, one may match the period of greatest concentration on ceramics with his short-lived marriage to the actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi.

Not only did he make works inspired by a song she sang and a film she made, he also attempted to incorporate her, alive, into his artistic milieu. In her biography, Yamaguchi remembered that in order to match the tone of the house she had to wear scratchy straw sandals — zori.

“Even when [my feet] started peeling and bleeding, he would not let me change shoes,” she wrote.

A more conventional influence on Noguchi was that of the pottery-making communities at large. Here, Louise Allison Cort and Bert Winther-Tamaki’s handsome volume gives us the context in which Noguchi worked by also examining and displaying the work of other artists in clay, from Kitaoji Rosanjin to the clowning of Okamoto Taro.

That influences were mutual is to be expected, and all of them strove for what Takiguchi Shuzo, the leading aesthete of the period, calls the search for a “universal quality.” This had long been a goal of Noguchi as well. In his biography he remembers that his “first recollection of joy” was working with clay as a small child in Japan. And when he was once asked by a journalist just what it was he found so appealing about Japan, he answered: “It’s the earth, the coarse earth which only Japanese people have. I am drawn to the skin of the pottery, the Japanese earth.”

We can sense the universal qualities found in the stone and marble sculptures, in the sets for Martha Graham and George Balanchine ballets, in the various architectural plazas Noguchi designed. But it is seen at its most intimate in these 200-some studies in clay.

Though a book in its own right, this publication is also a catalog for the exhibition of these works continuing until Sept. 7 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. It will move to the Japan Society in New York from Oct. 18 to Jan. 11, 2004, and to the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, from June 6 to Sept. 6, 2004.

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