THE LIFE OF ISAMU NOGUCHI: Journey Without Borders, by Masayo Duus, translated by Peter Duus. Princeton University Press, 2004, 340 pp., 36 half-tone photos, $29.95 (cloth).
ISAMU NOGUCHI: Master Sculptor, by Valerie J. Fletcher, with contributions by Dana Miller and Bonnie Rychlak. London: Scala Publishers, 2004, 240 pp., 130 color plates, many b/w photos, $35 (cloth).

This month Japanese postal authorities issued a new stamp that commemorates the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). He is pictured in front of two of his works: the ringlike sculpture “Sun at Noon” of 1969 and one of the famous 1956 rice-paper lamps that he called “Light Sculptures.”

Aside from the pleasing symmetry of coupling one of his most austere works with one of his most popular, the stamp would, I think, have given Noguchi a deeper satisfaction in that it signalizes Japan’s acceptance of the sculptor as a Japanese.

This is something that never sufficiently occurred during Noguchi’s lifetime. Born of a Japanese father and an American mother, born illegitimately at that, he constantly felt himself to be an outsider.

“With my double nationality and double upbringing,” he wrote in his 1968 memoir, “A Sculptor’s World,” “where was my home, where was my identity? Japan or America — both?”

Or neither. Interpreting this double heritage as dilemma, Noguchi could not find himself at home in either country.

“The problem is that I don’t think I fit in. I’m not understood either way.” He was, he said, seen as Japanese in America and as American in Japan.

In 1973 Noguchi told an interviewer that Japan was a very traditional country and that within it he was like an ” ‘irregular verb.’ To be irregular threatened those who lived in a society that demanded that everyone observe the rules.”

For these reasons the new postage stamp might be seen as an answer to the problem: Japan has claimed him as one of its own. At the same time, however, it may also be seen that this oscillation between the two sides of himself contributed a definite dynamic to his life as an artist. Noguchi may have considered his birth “unfortunate,” but its circumstances were certainly in part responsible for the enormous integrity of the man as an artist.

In a 1973 interview Noguchi said that “in a sense, you’re driven to art out of desperation.” Part of this conviction was his belief that “to be completely Japanese you cannot have a world viewpoint,” but that he “had to be universal or nothing at all.” His greatest strength was, as art critic and writer Calvin Tompkins observed, “that he does not belong.”

If artists work in desperation, one of the reasons is that they seek to forge a style. Noguchi, typically, defined this otherwise. “I don’t think I have any style.” Style, he said, was a form of inhibition and “that is why I applaud change.”

Nonetheless, even for creators as protean as Pablo Picasso (or Noguchi), style is willy-nilly achieved, and the critic may break it down to reveal its varied component parts.

For Noguchi, the defining moment was when he first saw a work by Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who most influenced him. “Brancusi, like the Japanese, would take the quintessence of nature and distill it.” He taught Noguchi never to decorate his work, “to keep it undecorated, like the Japanese house.”

Equally fruitful was the encounter with another sculptor, Jean Arp, with architect Buckminster Fuller and potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, and the first glimpse of a Japanese haniwa (clay image of a person or animal).

There were other stylistic influences. As with Picasso, a new girlfriend often ushered in a new facet. Noguchi’s muses were as varied as the dancer Ruth Page, the painter Frida Kahlo, the writer Anais Nin, the actress Shirley Yamaguchi.

Throughout, Noguchi believed, as he told a Japanese reporter in 1952, “I have always desired to belong somewhere.” At the same time he also knew that “my longing for affiliation has been the source of my creativity.”

This is something that his biographer, Masayo Duus, also knows, and here she has very persuasively presented the interpretation (“Journey Without Borders”) that Noguchi himself would most have endorsed. The amount of material given is prodigious and her labors must have been enormous.

Nonetheless, some interesting information is missing. Nothing is said about the relationship between Noguchi and Masayuki Nagare, two sculptors who had adjacent plots on the island of Shikoku and yet never spoke, as they endured feelings of the greatest rivalry.

Also touched upon, but left largely unexplored, is the equally great rivalry that existed (thanks to the nature of Noguchi’s last will and testament) between the two collections of the sculptor’s work — on Long Island and on Shikoku. But that would make a book in itself.

Also missing is any substantial pictorial record of Noguchi’s work, although there are numerous pictures of Noguchi at various periods of his life. This omission is remedied in Valerie Fletcher’s “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor,” which has plenty of text but even more photos of the works themselves.

A beautifully produced publication with photos so fine that even Noguchi might be pleased, it also serves as catalog for the full Noguchi retrospective now being shown through Jan. 16 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and later (Feb. 10 to May 8) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Fletcher is also exhibition curator for the show.

With pride of place in two of America’s most prestigious museums plus a brand new postage stamp in Japan, Noguchi’s art has closed his circle.

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