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Isamu Noguchi - More Resources

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

by Martha Ullman West

Rope and wire, papier maché and metal rods, balsa wood, plywood, canvas and cloth, sheet metal, magnesite and paint: these are the raw materials for the dance designs (sets, props, masks, and costumes) created by Isamu Noguchi over a period of six decades, beginning in 1926 with the masks for Michio Ito’s At the Hawk’s Well and ending with Erick Hawkins’s 1984 God’s Angry Men.  

Though Noguchi is best known for his monumental abstract sculptures, many of them in stone; sculpture gardens; playgrounds; asymmetrical furniture and Akari paper lamps, his three dimensional sets for dance revolutionized the field, and--particularly in the case of his long collaboration with Martha Graham--became an indispensable part of the choreography. Who can imagine Frontier, Graham’s 1935 tribute to the strength of pioneer women, and Noguchi’s first collaboration with her, without the fence and ropes with which he carved space itself to indicate the vastness of the American landscape? Or her Night Journey, a distillation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex from Jocasta’s anguished point of view, without the surrealist carved bed, or Tiresias’s thumping staff, or the string, symbolizing the umbilical cord binding mother and son, props and set pieces that tell the tragic tale as vividly as Graham’s choreography?

Biographical and Artistic Roots

Noguchi’s biographers give relatively short shrift to the Japanese-American’s “spaces of the mind,” as the late Robert Tracy titled his useful book on the sculptor’s many designs for dance.  Noguchi himself could be dismissive of  the work, writing to a friend in 1945 when Ruth Page had commissioned him to design the sets and costumes for a ballet called The Bells  that he was “really only interested in doing sculpture, and sets are just another easy money pickup so far as I’m concerned” (Herrera, 203).

By 1945, the academically trained sculptor had already established himself as a visionary young artist and designer, highly skilled at sculpting portrait busts in a variety of materials, another “easy money pickup” that connected him to wealthy patrons and not incidentally to Ito, whose portrait he did in 1924, and Graham, who posed for two portrait busts in 1928. While Noguchi never felt he belonged to any movement in twentieth century art, in the forties he had for some time been associated with surrealist circles in New York and Paris, and the burgeoning abstract expressionist scene in New York.  In his work, including his designs for dance, you can see the influence of Constantin Brancusi, with whom he studied in Paris; Alexander Calder, who did one design for Graham in the twenties, before he invented mobiles; Catalan surrealist painter Joan Miro; the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky, and, arguably most important of all, the simplicity and asymmetry of the Japanese aesthetic.   

The son of an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi was neither Japanese nor American but both. When he volunteered to be interned in one of the World War II detention camps for Japanese-Americans (he lasted seven months), he felt he fit in with neither the nisei (that is, second-generation) inmates nor the Caucasian administrators; he was, after all, of mixed race, his parents unable to marry because of laws against miscegenation.

Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi was an internationally well-known poet; Leonie Gilmour, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, was a writer, editor and translator. Their off and on relationship began in New York at the turn of the last century and ended in Japan in 1908. Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, and taken to Tokyo at the age of two, where his father named him Isamu; until he decided at age 19 to become a sculptor he used the name Isamu Gilmour.  His parents separated permanently when he was four, and in 1910 Gilmour took her young son to live on the Japanese coast, where the incipient artist’s passionate relationship with nature and its forms began. In the same period, Gilmour started his education in western culture, reading aloud the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Blake, and, essential for his work with Graham, stories from Greek mythology. 

“I was the product of an American woman’s imagination,” Noguchi said years later (Tracy, 2). His contacts with his father throughout his life were sporadic and contentious; it was Gilmour who took full responsibility for his education, and her influence on him was profound. Art and making art became a part of his life at a very young age; when Noguchi was ten, she apprenticed him to a Japanese woodcarver.  A bag of woodworking tools came with him when he traveled alone to the United States in 1918 to attend a progressive boarding school in Indiana. Twenty-five years later, in 1943, having honed his wood-carving technique in Paris, he designed the Shaker-inspired house for Graham’s Appalachian Spring, knowing precisely what he was making and how to make it, approaching the task from a Japanese point of view in which he made a distinction between the Shaker insistence on unadorned simplicity for religious reasons, and the Japanese desire for pureness of form for aesthetic ones. Surrealism and asymmetry are part of the design: the house contains an off-kilter rocking chair, the “woman’s place” he made in so many variations for Graham, and outside the house there is an off-balance platform for the Preacher, which makes a statement in itself.

The Graham Noguchi Collaboration

While Noguchi had done several productions for Graham after Frontier, including the vastly different and much more elaborate El Penitente in 1940, each of them requiring quite different shapes and forms, it was not until Appalachian Spring (1944) that he felt their collaboration really began.  With a score by Aaron Copland whose primary melody was the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” the work was one of three pieces commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation for presentation in the Chamber Music Theater of the Library of Congress, a venue much more suited to musical performances than dance. The other collaborations (both in 1944) were Heriodiade, to a score by Paul Hindemith, and Imagined Wing, to music by Darius Milhaud, which, unlike the other two, did not endure. In Appalachian Spring, Noguchi began by reframing the space, creating his “own proscenium arch, with light baffles as wings and on the ceiling: the new house for the pioneer couple was stripped to the essentials, while the performance space itself recreated to be a place of the imagination” (Noguchi, 123).

Heriodiade, which Noguchi called “the most baroque and specifically sculptural” of his sets, contains some of the sexual imagery you see in later works such as Night Journey, Clytemnestra and the highly controversial Phaedra, in which the female and male representations were far more literal than symbolic, prompting speeches on the House floor in 1962, objecting to the company taking it on an international, U.S. State Department-sponsored tour. Of Heriodiade, Noguchi wrote, “Within a woman’s private world, and intimate space, I was asked to place a mirror, a chair, and a clothes rack.  Salome dances before her mirror. What does she see?  Her bones, the potential skeleton of her body. The chair is like an extension of her vertebrae; the clothes rack, the circumscribed bones on which is hung her skin.  This is the desecration of beauty, the consciousness of time” (Tracy, 37).

What the audience sees are shapes that are highly reminiscent of Miro’s paintings and Calder’s mobiles, and Graham, who in 1944 was fifty, dancing a Salome who was losing her beauty, and, as a dancer, becoming aware of the toll time can take on the body. She would, with Noguchi’s help, and others’, continue to dance until she was well over sixty.   

An example is Acrobats of God, made in 1960, when she was sixty-six, for which Noguchi designed for her a place to rest, along with playground equipment for the dancers in the form of an off-kilter barre.  Noguchi viewed “Mirthless Martha’s” lighthearted piece as a take-off on a company class; he had been watching her teach them since the thirties, which in part accounts for the success of their collaboration. He knew exactly how she moved, and how she wanted the dancers to move, and therefore how to design set pieces and props in which form definitely followed function. 

Over the years, they developed a process that could be contentious, but at the end of the day was gratifying for both of them. It would begin, as Noguchi described it, with Graham giving him “the idea, the theme, the myth upon which the piece is to be based.  There are some sections of music perhaps, but usually not.  She will tell me if she has any special requirements—whether, for example, she wants a ‘woman’s place’. The form then is my projection of these ideas.  I always work with a scale model of the stage space in my studio.  [Graham loved the scale models.] Within it I feel at home and am in command.  With Martha there is the wonder of her magic with props.  She uses them as extensions of her own anatomy” (Noguchi, 123). 

No work of theirs better illustrates Graham’s (and Noguchi’s) magic with props than Cave of the Heart, which premiered in the late forties.  The dress made out of wire, the stone “islands,” the red velvet rope coming out of her mouth—symbolizing both Medea’s entrails and, according to the sculptor, a snake—are all integral to the dance itself.  Noguchi said he treated the work like a Noh drama, approaching the design as transformation. He made a “landscape like the islands of Greece, on the horizon (center rear) lies a volcanic shape like a black aorta of the heart; to this lead stepping stone islands.  Opposite (stage left) is coiled a green serpent, on whose back rests the transformation dress of gold (metal)” (Noguchi, 126).  

Noguchi’s interest in Noh drama started in his Japanese school days; Graham’s unquestionably began when she was a member of the Denishawn Company and toured Asia.  For his last design for Graham, the 1966 Cortege of Eagles, Noguchi made Noh masks the dancers refused to wear, including one for Charon, ferryman of the River Styx, “a grotesque mask held between the teeth with one wild white eyeball and a lewd foot-long tongue” (Tracy, 188).

Working with Cunningham and Balanchine

With Cortege of Eagles the collaboration with Graham came to a bittersweet end, those masks the issue that led to their parting.  Masks, lewd and otherwise, had been part of Noguchi’s designs for dance from the beginning.  On the whole, they were Noh masks, which were kept in place by holding them with clenched teeth, making breathing no easy task for the dancers.  For both Merce Cunningham’s The Seasons and George Balanchine’s Orpheus, which Lincoln Kirstein commissioned Noguchi to design for Ballet Society in the late forties, masks were an integral part of the design.   

For The Seasons, which premiered in 1947, Noguchi designed set, costumes, masks and lights, in an uneasy collaboration with Cunningham and John Cage, who composed the music. In this instance, Noguchi’s set is uncharacteristically linear, rope strung across the stage in a pattern resembling a cat’s cradle or a spider’s web, but he and Cunningham were basically interested in the cyclical approach to time found in Native American myth and Japanese art. “Noguchi’s designs, naturally, brought to the piece an imagery that was Japanese rather than Indian, but this was not necessarily inappropriate to the original concept,” wrote Cunningham archivist David Vaughan. “Cunningham was aware of the close link between the Northwest and Japan.  On the other hand, as Cunningham soon found, Noguchi had ideas of his own” (Vaughan, 41).

While Cunningham disliked the masks, he did like “a marvelous kind of wicker shape that I used in Summer, when I had a duet for Tanny [Tanaquil Le Clercq] and myself, a pas de deux, and at some point these three boys came out with this wicker thing and looked through it, as though it were on the bank of a river, with boys spying on you—it was a very beautiful shape” (Vaughan, 42).

Seasons offered Noguchi unusual freedom to experiment, which he mostly did with the lighting, and he regarded the ballet, which only had three performances, as one of his most significant designs for dance.  Someone, probably Kirstein, called it the most successful collaboration of Ballet Society in the organization’s 1947 yearbook (Vaughan, 42).

Orpheus, which premiered the following year, with choreography by Balanchine and music by Igor Stravinsky, and costumes as well as sets by Noguchi, was arguably even more successful a collaboration of composer, choreographer, and designer than Seasons and remains in the repertory of New York City Ballet.  After visiting Noguchi’s Greenwich Village studio with the Stravinskys in December 1947, Kirstein described the designs:  “Isamu had beautiful scale models of Orpheus’ décor, which [the Stravinskys] loved.  Nothing Greek about it or the costumes; Arp or Miro like shapes for bones and flames.  Pluto no devil with horns, but more a King of Death like the Hindu Kali.  Handsome lyre for Orpheus, carved of balsa wood.  Costumes—embroidered wool, timeless, suggestive of ritual tattoos” (Kirstein, 98).

The lyre turned out to be even more timeless: it is now the symbol for City Ballet and also engraved on the headstone of Balanchine’s grave in Sag Harbor, Long Island.  “Never was I more personally involved in creation than with this piece which is the story of the artist,” Noguchi wrote. “I interpreted Orpheus as the story of the artist blinded by his vision (the mask).”  Of the end of the piece he writes, “He tears off his mask and sees Eurydice as she really is, a creature of death. Without the protection of his artistic powers, he is even weaker than ordinary mortals, and he is torn apart by the Furies.  But his art is not dead; his singing head has grown heroic as his spirit returns; and as a symbol of this resurrection, a flowering branch ascends to heaven” (Tracy, 111). The symbolism of the flowering branch is as Japanese as the mask, and in fact Noguchi “related it to the Japanese myth of Izanagi-No-Mikoto [and] Izanami-No-Mikoto, the two gods who are married and one dies and the other goes to fetch her [from the underworld]” (Tracy, 110).

Making Sets and Props part of the Dance

Noguchi’s last design for dance was a reworking of the original set for Hawkins’ John Brown piece in 1984; he died in 1988, and is buried in Japan. He remains famous for his UNESCO sculpture garden in Paris and many other pieces of public art, all over the world. His private art, if you will, small sculptures, furniture and lamps also brought him fame and money, and he has his place as one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures for his truly revolutionary sets, props and costumes for some equally revolutionary choreographers—Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham. Before Noguchi, with a few exceptions, even when made by such stellar visual artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Roualt, Salvador Dali, and Fernand Leger, and lesser American painters Jared French, who designed Billy the Kid, and Paul Cadmus, who was responsible for Filling Station, sets for dance were two dimensional painted backdrops, a background for the dancing and not a part of it.  But, as a sculptor, Noguchi thought in three dimensions and as a result what had heretofore been décor became the dance itself.  What began as “an easy money pick-up” became an integral part of the 20th century American dance aesthetic and also constituted a significant portion of Noguchi’s legacy.


 Martha Ullman West is a dance critic and historian based in Portland, Oregon.  She has been writing for Dance Magazine since 1979, where she is a senior advisory editor, and has published in Ballet Review, Dance Chronicle, the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Dance International and many other publications, and writes regularly for Oregon Arts Watch, an online journal of the arts.  She was the recipient of the Dance Critics Association Senior Critics Award in 2011, and is currently under contract to the University Press of Florida for a book titled Making Ballet American: Todd Bolender and Janet Reed.


Selected Resources for Further Research


The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, holds archives containing manuscripts, correspondence, exhibitions and project records, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and plans, as well as objects and artifacts that Noguchi collected during his travels throughout his lifetime.   


Books and Articles

Duus, Masayo. The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Herrera, Hayden. Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Kirstein, Lincoln. Thirty Years the New York City Ballet. New York, 1978

[Kirstein, Lincoln. Thirty years: Lincoln Kirstein's The New York City Ballet: expanded to include the years 1973-1978, in celebration of the company's thirtieth anniversary. New York: A&C Black, 1979.]

Noguchi, Isamu. A Sculptor’s World. Göttingen: Steidl, rev. 2004.

Tracy, Robert. Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000.

Vaughan, David. Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. New York: Aperture, 1997.

West, Martha Ullman. “Frontier of Design,” Dance Magazine. New York, May 1989, p.58-60

Web Resources

The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné : an online research tool available at  http://www.noguchi.org/research/catalogue

Isamu Noguchi page on Artsy. Includes more than 100 digitized artworks, biography, current exhibition information, and related artists and categories: https://www.artsy.net/artist/isamu-noguchi

Moving Image

American Masters : Isamu Noguchi : Stone and Paper. Dir. Hiro Narita. New York: WNET Channel Thirteen, 1997.