Renowned Artist Born in L.A. : Sculptor Isamu Noguchi at Age 84

Times Staff Writer

Isamu Noguchi, the Los Angeles-born sculptor whose powerful statements in stone and steel command attention in museums, parks and public gardens throughout the world, died Friday at the New York University Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 84.

Among the famed artist’s major works are two in Southern California--the plaza at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, dominated by his two 10-ton sculpted basalt stones, and the “California Scenario” sculpture garden in Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza.

“It is no exaggeration to say he was the major sculptor in the United States,” Times art critic William Wilson said. “He was a major innovator, both in his free-standing sculpture and his ability to adapt to all other media--plazas, playgrounds . . . even stage sets for Martha Graham’s dances.”


Jennifer Russell, associate director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, called him “one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.”

Noguchi had remained active until shortly before his death. He had just returned from Italy and was working on several large marble sculptures as well as designs for such projects as a memorial to the Challenger astronauts in Miami’s Bayfront Park.

He received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan at the White House in June of 1987.

Noguchi worked in various materials, including wood, bronze and galvanized steel. He worked primarily, however, in basalt, granite and marble.

Among his works are the gleaming steel Dodge Memorial Fountain in Detroit and a 28-foot red cube that stands on one of its corners outside a Manhattan bank. He also designed the Sunken Garden at the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York City, the UNESCO gardens in Paris and the Peace Park bridges at Hiroshima, Japan.

“America has lost its greatest living sculptor,” said Allen Wardwell, director of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens. Wardwell pointed out that Noguchi was more than a sculptor; that he was a designer of gardens, fountains and spaces. He was, Wardwell said, “a great thinker and visionary.”

In 1981, Noguchi’s 28-ton rock sculpture “The Spirit of the Lima Bean” was unveiled at his Costa Mesa “California Scenario” sculpture garden. The area once produced limas, but some observers were not quite sure what to make of the 10-foot-tall monument. They did not think that it looked like beans.

Critics, however, considered it the first major work that Noguchi had produced for his native Southern California. The sculptor was not at the unveiling, having left for the studios he maintained on Japan’s island of Shikoku as soon as he and two Japanese master stonecutters had overseen placing of the lima bean work.

It was explained that he did not care much for dedications and ceremonies once the work was done. “At his age, and with his renown,” one of the Costa Mesa developers said, “he can do pretty much what he wants.”

Guests at the dedication luncheon, however, were able to see and hear Noguchi in a documentary film as he told why he was constructing a garden of granite boulders, eucalyptus trees, fountains and trees. “I wanted to get back at all that (landscaped) grass,” he said.

He noted in the film: “We live in a world of reality, but also of imagination, of the way things should be or might become. I see this (garden) as a place for escape.”

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 17, 1904. His father was Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet. His mother was American writer Leonie Gilmore.

When he was 2 years old, his parents took him to Japan and he lived there until he was 13, when his mother sent him to Indiana for an American education. After graduation from high school, he took a job with sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The latter, however, told him that he would never be an artist, so he entered Columbia University as a premedical student.

Two years later he dropped out, attended an art school and--at the age of 22--won a Guggenheim Award, enabling him to become an assistant to Constantin Brancusi in Paris.

He returned to the United States and exhibited his work without great success, but was able to survive with a few sales. A 1929 exhibition of 15 bronze heads drew attention and by 1931 he was earning enough to travel around the world.

Soon, his work was being exhibited in museums around the world.

When Japanese-Americans were being interned after the outbreak of World War II, Noguchi went voluntarily to the relocation center in Poston, Ariz., in order, it was said, to help improve the bleak area.

He returned to New York City when evacuees were allowed to leave the camps for areas away from the West Coast.

A brief marriage at the beginning of the war ended in divorce. There were no children. He leaves a sister, Ailes Spinden, of Santa Fe, N.M.

A memorial service will be held at the Noguchi Garden Museum in New York on Feb. 7, Wardwell said. The funeral and burial service will be private.