Isamu Noguchi was an American artist whose artistic education took place in the requisite arena for the avant-garde of the first half of the century: Paris. Yet he was of Japanese origin, and as he slowly came in touch with his own cultural roots he increasingly shifted his emphasis away from a formal aesthetic vocabulary founded on the works of sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi in favor of a uniquely Japanese appreciation for the innate beauty of even the simplest materials. His art reveals both a debt to 20th-century sculptural canons and a rare understanding of the means by which geological and organic materials can be transformed. He once remarked, “Abandoned stones which I become interested in invite me to enter into their life’s purpose. It is my task to define and make visible the intent of their being.”
Carl Andre made a similar transition to a Zen-like Minimalism. Yet the works of the two artists are entirely different, perhaps because Noguchi belonged to the previous generation, for which, as he said, “sculpture comes from time-consuming difficulty, not industrial reproduction.” This existentialist emphasis on the mastery of life’s circumstances characterizes his early sets for the dances of Martha Graham and such sculptures as The Cry and Lunar.
The Lunar series came about in the 1940s, when Noguchi became fascinated by the reflection of light on form. Lunar is cut out of anodized aluminum and mounted, in contrast, on a wooden base. The aluminum is a softly reflective surface, sensitive to variations in light. The Cry, on the other hand, is malleable as a result of another natural force—wind. It was made in 1959 out of balsa wood, although it was cast in bronze a few years later. The Guggenheim Museum owns the balsa original, in which Noguchi attempted to create the lightest possible form of solid sculpture. Its elements are loosely connected so that they vibrate in response to air currents. Many of the qualities explored in The Cry and Lunar are also found in Noguchi’s akari, the ethereal lamps for which he has become best known. Patterned on the paper lanterns hanging outside of traditional homes in Japan, the akari continued Noguchi’s earlier interest in the potential luminosity and weightlessness of sculpture.