When I was told that Isamu Noguchi wanted me to write his biography, I guessed it must be because he liked the section of my biography of Frida Kahlo that described his love affair with her. In an interview he told me that he had been in bed with Kahlo when her houseboy warned them that her husband, Diego Rivera, was on his way. Noguchi leapt out of bed, threw on his clothes, climbed a tree growing from the patio, and escaped over the roof. But one of Kahlo’s hairless Mexican dogs had made off with one of his socks, and Rivera soon discovered the incriminating evidence. The next time he saw Noguchi, he threatened to shoot him.
Noguchi loved this story, which he always told with a mischievous chuckle. And he played a key role in my next biography about Arshile Gorky, too. Noguchi was one of the Armenian-born painter’s closest friends. In the 1930s they went to museums together and Noguchi listened carefully to Gorky’s impassioned disquisitions. In 1941 the two drove from New York to California with Gorky’s fiancée, arguing about the meaning of clouds the whole way. After his wife and daughters abandoned him in 1948, Gorky turned up at Noguchi’s New York studio holding two dolls. “This is all I have,” he said, and he persuaded a reluctant Noguchi to drive him to his Connecticut home. Upon arrival, Noguchi urged him to telephone his wife but Gorky hung up after a brief conversation, saying simply, “No good.” Leaving Gorky in the company of neighbors, Noguchi drove back to New York, only to find out two days later that his friend had taken his own life.
Along with Kahlo and Gorky, Noguchi became one of the characters that lived in my head. I liked the idea of this triangle—Kahlo, Gorky, Noguchi—but the notion of writing Noguchi’s biography was daunting. Even though he wanted his life to be recorded, Noguchi was a man who did not seem to want to be known. He was famous for his charm, physical beauty, brilliance, and seductive powers with women, but friends always said that he was exceedingly private, even remote. And his work, however beautiful, does not give much away. I was afraid that I would not be able to attach myself to this elusive sculptor in the same way I had done with Kahlo, whose images were autobiographical, and Gorky, whose paintings, though abstract, were searing expressions of personal feeling.
Noguchi’s sculpture was a way of connecting with nature. In his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Paris, the twenty-two-year-old Noguchi wrote: “It is my desire to view nature through nature’s eyes, and to ignore man as an object for special veneration.” Noguchi wanted to be inside of nature, but it is not easy for the viewer to be inside of these sculptures. In writing about Kahlo and Gorky, I tried to go inside of their paintings and to imagine them as if they were just being made. Noguchi did not invite me in; he did not confide. His work is meditative, quiet, still. It does not come out and grab your feelings. You have to move slowly toward it.
For all my early misgivings, I found ways to approach Noguchi from the side, almost as if catching him in my peripheral vision. His close friendships with art-world luminaries such as Constantine Brancusi, Martha Graham, and Buckminster Fuller could, I hoped, provide insight. And there was an emotional hook: Noguchi’s restraint, his insistence on privacy, captivated me. This apparent coolness had much to do with his feeling of homelessness and not-belonging, an obsession he said came from his mixed blood—his father was Japanese, his mother American—and an internal conflict between East and West.
In the first paragraph of Noguchi’s own memoir, A Sculptor’s World, he wrote, “With my double nationality and double upbringing, where was my home? Where my affections? Where my identity? Japan or America, both—or the world?” This conflict drove his art. “My longing for affiliation has been the source of my creativity,” he said. This longing drove his life, too. In 1941, for example, he voluntarily entered a Japanese internment camp to connect with the internees and to make their lives less bleak. In 1952 he married a Japanese movie star, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and went to live in Kita Kamakura where he tried to maintain a traditional Japanese lifestyle—wearing Japanese clothes, sleeping on a Japanese bedroll, eating seated on the floor, and bathing in a Japanese soaking tub. When his wife tried to exchange Japanese straw sandals that made her feet bleed for a pair of plastic sandals, Noguchi threw her new sandals into a rice paddy.
In trying to resolve his conflicts and to find an identity, Noguchi sought a deep connection with the earth. In his last decade this meant fixating on stone, which he called our “fundament.” Working in stone, he said, was a dialogue between himself and the “primary matter of the universe.” Stone was permanent and trustworthy. Noguchi finally found intimacy by listening to stone, by carving basalt and granite. This intense search and the weight Noguchi gave it in his own life, made it possible to glimpse the artist who worked so hard to remain invisible. “Stone breathes with nature’s time cycle,” he wrote. “It begins before you and continues through you and goes on.”
Hayden Herrera is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, and Matisse: A Portrait.
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