‘Isamu Noguchi’: Portrait of the Artist as an Outsider


“Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper” is tonight’s video biography on PBS’ “American Masters” series. It traces the long career of an artist who became globally renowned making sculptures that raced ahead of their time.

In his 84 years, Noguchi achieved a body of work encompassing dance sets for Martha Graham, paper lanterns, steel fountains and gardens of granite. They predicted today’s baroque crossover between art and architecture as well as the blending of styles from East and West.

Noguchi managed all this in spite--or perhaps because--of beginnings that made him feel like the eternal outsider. He was born in Los Angeles in 1904; his mother, Leonie Gilmour, was a free-spirited teacher and writer, his father, Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet. The couple never bothered to marry. They moved to Japan, where Noguchi pere split when Isamu was 2.

Noguchi was forced to pioneer living as somebody who--no matter where he went--didn’t seem to quite fit in. Gradually it dawned on him that the upside of existential alienation is creative freedom. He finally chose to put his career before his cherished 4-year marriage to Japanese actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi. They parted childless.


Noguchi’s odyssey girdled the globe from Tokyo to Jerusalem via New York and Paris. The documentary manages to trace his path with seemingly unhurried grace. It even does a decent job of suggesting the deeper psychological layers that drove the artist.

By 1930 he’d studied at Columbia, acted as Constantin Brancusi’s assistant in Paris and returned to Japan. When that nation launched its imperialist wars, Noguchi returned to the United States. He became part of the New York avant-garde in the days when it included Graham, Jackson Pollock, Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham.

Critic Clement Greenberg decided Noguchi’s work was just too slick to fit in. When America began the internment of Japanese Americans in the West, Noguchi voluntarily joined them in a camp at Poston, Ariz. After a few months he realized he didn’t fit in there either.

By the time of his death in 1988, he was a citizen of a world marked by his large public sculptural creations. Locally they can be seen at Little Tokyo’s Japanese American Community and Cultural Center, and his “California Scenario” rock garden is at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. The work is always beautiful if not entirely welcoming. Maybe that was Noguchi’s form of mental revenge.


* “Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.