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Archaeology as Modern Art? March 6, 2009
by Eti Bonn-Muller

An exhibition at the Guggenheim reveals how archaeological sites, sacred temples, and ancient art served as sources of inspiration for 20th-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

[image] Isamu Noguchi, Hiroshima, Japan, 1951
(Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

Stepping inside the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan's Upper East Side is like entering a giant, hollowed-out dollop of whipped cream. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building--stark white inside and out, with its upward spiraling ramp and flanking galleries--is a treat in itself, a big part of any visit. The structure's sleek, clean lines serve as an ideal backdrop for a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, and multimedia installations.


Noguchi's wife Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi on a camel overlooking the Great Sphinx, 2520-2494 B.C.; Pyramid of Khafre (left), 2558-2532 B.C.; and Pyramid of Khufu (right), 2580-2560 B.C., Giza, Egypt, 1952 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

But a noteworthy new photography show, Noguchi: The Bollingen Journey, 1949-1956, has quietly opened along a hallway in the museum's understated ground floor, accessed by the "Annex Elevator," far from the chic, bustling rotunda. On view are 84 black-and-white images that have been blown up to 13 x 19 inches, mounted on poster board, and displayed on narrow metal ledges affixed to the wall. The intimate travel snapshots by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) offer a fresh and surprising look--through his own camera lens--at what inspired the work of the prolific Abstract Expressionist: age-old monuments, plazas, gardens, temples, and archaeological sites from Athens to Angkor, Bali to Bangkok, and Sumatra to Singapore.

Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904 in Los Angeles, son of Leonie Gilmour, an American writer, and Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi, a Japanese poet, who had abandoned them earlier that year. In 1907, Leonie moved with her son to Tokyo, where she briefly reconciled with Yone. But the two never wed--and in a few years, split for good.

Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan, returning alone to the U.S. at the age of 14 to attend high school in Indiana. Leonie came back some five years later. In 1924, she moved to New York and encouraged her son to take an evening sculpture class, which sparked the beginning his long and successful career that included studying with French sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris. In 1952, he married Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi, a Japanese film star, television reporter, and politician. (They divorced in 1957.)


Jalashayana Narayan (Sleeping Vishnu) at Bala Nilkantha, Balaju, Nepal, seventh century A.D., view from the west looking east, ca. 1950 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

Between 1949 and 1956, Noguchi took a series of trips on the dime of the Bollingen Foundation, which was funded by the Mellon family. "His trips to Asia were partly touristic, but they were deeply psychological," says Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim. "I think he harbored a very ambiguous relationship to his father. So on one level, he was searching for the person in his life who had left him--and the country that he had abandoned himself early on but was still half of who he was. But on a much larger level, the trips were a return to his cultural identity. He was in search of a cultural identity." The personal photos he shot during these years are the subject of the Guggenheim's Bollingen Journey exhibition.


Performance, possibly for the Pchum Bhen festival, Angkor Wat (late 12th century A.D.), Cambodia, April 1950 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

In the art world, Noguchi is famous for his organic, handcrafted sculptures, monuments, outdoor garden spaces, interior designs, theater sets, and drawings--but he is not well known for his photographs, which is what makes the show genius. "Noguchi was an artist, so everything he touched was art. But I don't think he considered himself a photographer, per se," says Munroe. "I think he was taking these photographs for his own aesthetic research, his own archive that would serve as a source of inspiration for his own sculptural form and architectural and outdoor garden work for years to come."

Gazing upon the crumbling walls, sculptural details, rock gardens, and religious ceremonies depicted in the photos is like looking at these sites with Noguchi. They literally capture his first impressions--and reveal what caught his eye. "He was very interested in these temple sites, where sculpture, and architecture, and ruins met, and nature--because the sites are always in nature. He was also interested in seeing these sites in festival form, when the wood and stone came alive and their magical powers were conjured through ancient tradition," says Munroe. "He could have seen them in their simple, abstract, empty form, but to his credit, he wanted them peopled--messed up with life, and noise, and sound, and music, and dance. He adapted many ideas into his own, ultimately stone sculpture from those travels."

As a lover of archaeology, I'm drawn to the photos of the mid-third-millennium B.C. pyramids at Giza, the 12th-century A.D. temple ruins of Angkor Wat, and the 17th-century A.D. stone friezes of mythical creatures from the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal--but I feel like I'm seeing them in a whole new light. "Noguchi shot archaeological sites in his photographs as modern abstract form, reduced to black-and-white cropped shots," explains Munroe. "He didn't photograph them as an archaeologist. He wasn't really interested in the sites for academic or archaeological purposes. He was interested in understanding the power of their form and how to abstract it and adapt it as modern expressive form."

[image] [image] [image]
Angkor Wat, late 12th century A.D., Cambodia, ca. January-May 1950 Impression of the Buddha's feet (chankamana), third century B.C., Bodh Gaya, Bihar,
India, December 1949
Hand of colossal Buddha calling the earth to witness, approach to a stupa, Swayambhunath, fifth century A.D., Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, ca. January-February 1956
All photos from the Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum

Munroe points out that Noguchi was particularly moved by the great Buddhist and Hindu religious sites and temples he visited, which are depicted in his photos, including Borabador in Indonesia; Madurai and Madhya Pradesh in India; and Kyoto, Kamakura, and Tofukuji in Japan. He photographed stupas (vertical shrines made up of reductive geometric forms) and large stone shivalikas (columns rounded at the top in a phallic form), both of which are easily discernable in his later sculptures.


Pilgrims at a stupa, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, ca. January-February 1956 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

Noguchi's interests extended to ceramics, and he created works that deliberately evoked ancient haniwa ("circle of clay") sculpture, which he encountered in Japan. These terracotta figurines were placed around the tumuli of Japanese emperors between the third and seventh centuries A.D. He was equally fascinated by Jomon period (ca. 8000-300 B.C.) sacred magico-religious terracotta vessels, and created a series of them by hand in the early 1950s.

On these trips, Noguchi took more than 3,000 photographs that are now in the collection of The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens. Many of them have never been printed--a tantalizing thought indeed.


Noguchi, Untitled, Vase, Skin & Bones, Haniwa, Love of Two Boards, My Mu, Untitled, and Mu (left to right); installation view: Mitsukoshi Department Store exhibition, Tokyo, August 18-27, 1950 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)


Covered form of goddess Kali in a shrine, Uttar Pradesh, India, ca.1950 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

Although it can be thoroughly enjoyed in its own right, The Bollingen Journey provides meaningful insight into the Guggenheim's substantially larger exhibition, located in the sweeping, echoey rotunda, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989. It is the first show ever to trace the history of the influence of Asian art, philosophy, religious texts, and performance on American creative culture of the late 19th century, early modern, postwar, and contemporary periods.

The Third Mind features some 250 works by 100 leading artists and literary figures, such as Mary Cassatt, Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, as well as two of Noguchi's sculptures, The Cry (1959) and Michio Ito (1925-26). "During this span [1860-1989], artists conceived of Asia as living in the past," says Munroe. "Very few of them were actively interested in contemporary, geopolitical, social conditions of modern India, China, or Japan. They were fascinated by what [Abstract Expressionist] Ad Reinhardt called 'timelessness in Asia.' And they found in ancient arts, including archaeological sites, for those who traveled, a power and an aesthetic that appealed to them as modern American artists."

Reinhardt, who is featured in The Third Mind, also traveled extensively in Asia and South Asia. "He was very interested in archaeological sites," says Munroe, "especially religious sites--Buddhist temples across Asia and archaeological sites and Hindu temples in India." But Reinhardt's journeys and interests eventually focused more on the Middle East and he became especially drawn to the repetitive geometric forms of sacred Islamic sites and prayer spaces. "It's less obvious to see that influence [of ancient sites] in Ad Reinhardt's work, but it exists," she says, "and he writes about it extensively in his notebooks, which were a direct extension of his studio practice."


Sadhu (Hindu ascetic), India, ca. 1949 (Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum)

Another Third Mind artist who developed a passion for ancient Asia was Morris Graves, an important mid-20th-century painter and sculptor who was active in Seattle. He was introduced to Chinese bronzes when the Seattle Art Museum opened in the late 1930s with a permanent collection that was made up mostly of ancient Asian art. One of his works in the show called Lotus depicts the flower in traditional Chinese bronze form.

"The Third Mind is a show that reminds us of the importance of seeing and the importance of taking time to read and comprehend the structure of another culture," says Munroe. "And it reminds us of a pre-global age when the differences between cultures were sharp and where that difference--even though it was highly imagined, and it was imperialist, and it was self-serving, and it was eclectic, and it was ignorant on many levels--nonetheless, that gaze was highly inspirational for artists in creating a new visual and conceptual language of modern art."

The Third Mind is an ambitious, important, and fascinating exhibition. But in my opinion, the humble Bollingen Journey steals the show.

The Third Mind and The Bollingen Journey are on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through April 19, 2009.

Visit The Noguchi Museum's website for more on Isamu Noguchi's life and work.

Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.