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By Bruce Weber

Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989)

Isamu Noguchi, 1955

Gelatin silver print

Alfeo Faggi (1895-1966)

Yone Noguchi, 1920



Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, California in 1904. He was the only child of the Irish-American writer Leonie Gilmour and the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. Born in 1875 in Tsushima, Yone traveled to San Francisco in 1893, where he worked as a journalist and domestic servant before deciding to pursue poetry. A few years later, he published his first poems in a small local magazine called The Lark. He went on to establish a successful career as a writer, publishing many articles and several books of poetry and prose. In 1901, Yone met Leonie Gilmour in New York when she took a job as his editor during his brief stay in the city. They never officially married, and Yone returned to Japan in 1905, three months prior to Leonie giving birth to Isamu.

Peter A. Juley and Son

Onorio Ruotolo in Studio, n.d.

Gelatin silver print

Smithsonon American Art Musuem


In 1906, Noguchi and his mother moved to Tokyo where she reconnected with Yone. During his late teens Noguchi returned to America and attended La Salle Public School in Indiana. Following a period at Columbia University he enrolled in the Leonardo da Vinci Art School where he studied with the academic sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He was then hired by the sculptor Guzton Borglum to assist in the carving of his monument to the Confederate Army for the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Isamu Noguchi with Undine, 1925


In the mid-1920s, Noguchi found himself at a crossroads. After carving his sensual, serpentine shaped full-length sculpture of the water nymph Undine he decided he needed go beyond his academic inclined work, and began to frequent exhibitions of modern art in the city. The big breakthrough was his visit to the Brummer Gallery where he saw an exhibit of the work of Constantin Brancusi. In 1926 he applied for and received a Guggenheim Fellowship which supported his trip to Paris the following year where he served a five month apprenticeship with Brancusi.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1967)

Self-Portrait in Studio, c. 1933-1934

Gelatin silver print

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1967)

Bird in Spacece, 1928


Museum of Modern Art

Noguchi spent his mornings at Brancusi’s studio, which he viewed as “a laboratory for distilling basic shapes,” and “almost [as a] sacred atmosphere.”(1) Brancusi gave him lessons in carving, and insisted that sculpture be true to its material, and not something faked up, painted or ill-treated. His teacher allowed him to carve on one of his Birds in Space, and he learned to create exact contours and poke a sculpture’s skin until it felt right. Noguchi spent most of his first year in Paris absorbing Brancusi’s methods and ideas, and how he distilled nature to discover its essence.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Foot-Tree, 1928


Noguchi Museum

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1967)

The Cock, 1924


Museum of Modern Art


During his second year Paris, Noguchi carved a series of abstract sculptures out of wood, stone, and sheet metal. The series was inspired by the work of Picasso, Hans Arp and the Russian Constructivists, and reflects the formal influence of Brancusi in its handling of volume and application of polished surfaces. Foot-Tree recalls Brancusi’s 1924 sculpture The Cock. In the piece, Noguchi sought to get a “certain plasticity of form,” and sense of “imminent motion."(2) The series was included in a solo exhibition held in April 1929 at the Eugene Schoen Gallery in New York City. Though praised by the critics, none of the works sold. As a result, Noguchi changed course. He abandoned abstraction and returned to his earlier interest in portraiture.

Andrée Ruellan (1905-2006)


Graphite on paper

Private Collection, Woodstock, N.Y.,

courtesy Conner Rosenkranz

Unknown Photographer

Marion Greenwood and Isamu Noguchi, late 1920s

Gelatin silver print

Collection of Marc Plate


During his time in Paris, Noguchi associated with the circle of American artists who were living in Paris, including Stuart Davis, Morris Kantor, Alexander Calder, Marion Greenwood and Andrée Ruellan. He met Greenwood at the afternoon drawing class of the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, and Ruellan at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Noguchi fell in love with Ruellan and Greenwood. The artist Daniel Gelfand, who is the co-executor of Ruellan’s estate, related to me that “Noguchi wanted to marry Andrée, but Andrée’s mother told her that if she married him, there would be only one artist in the family.”(3)   

Unknown Photograpnher

Marion Greenwood and Isamu Noguchi,

c. 1929

Gelatin silver print

Collection of Marc Plate

Unknown Photographer

Marion Greenwood and Isamu Noguchi,

c. 1929

Gelatin silver print

Collection of Marc Plate

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Marion Greenwood, 1929

Cast iron

The Noguchi Museum

Noguchi and Greenwood had an on and off again romance for several years. In early August of 1929 Noguchi came to visit Marion and her sister Grace in Woodstock, where he modeled Marion’s face in clay before executing the work in metal back at his studio in New York. Noguchi was fascinated by Greenwood’s face and powerfully determined demeanor. On August 8th, 1929 he related to Greenwood in a letter that he had “finished your head and now it’s perfect – looking at me – and as I worked I saw you, and even now I feel you in the room. It seems as though I had stolen some essence – calling you back – I wonder whether you feel me kiss you on your brow. . . .” He closed with his name “Isamu” and the line “who remembers only love.”(4)


During the 1920s and 1930s, Noguchi’s primary means of making money was from sculpting portrait busts. Though most were made for economic reasons he also created a number as “exercises in a fixed form as a sonnet is to poetry.”(5) In these works, portraiture was “more than a willful gouging and clanging,” as he tried to find what was in “these eyes, that brow and behind it.”(6)

Unknown Photographer

Isamu Noguchi and Grace Greenwood,

Maverick Festival, August 1929

Gelatin silver print

Center for Photography at Woodstock

Marion Greenwood (1909-1970)

Isamu Noguchi, c. 1929

Charcoal on paper

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museim

Marion Greenwood (1909-1970)

Isamu Noguchi, 1929

Pencil and crayon

Private Collection, Woodstock, N.Y.,

courtesy Conner Rosenkranz

Marion Greenwood (1909-1970)

Alexander Archipenko, 1929

Charcoal on paper

Conner Rosenkranz


Noguchi also visited Marion Greenwood in Woodstock in late August of 1929 when he appears in a photograph along with her sister Grace at the Maverick Festival. In the summer of 1929, Marion may have drawn her portrait of Noguchi in the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum. Around this time, she also drew a likeness of the sculptor Archipenko, who had a home and sculpture school in Woodstock.

Peter Juley & Son

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, n.d.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Julius T. Bloch (1888-1966)

Sketches of Jack Taylor & Andrée Ruellan, 1942

Conté crayon

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)l

History of Mexico, 1936

Colored cement and sculpted brick

Abelardo L. Rodriguez Market,

Mexico City, Mexico


Noguchi returned to Woodstock in 1934, when he spent the second half of the year working in a rented studio. Noguchi’s presence in Woodstock appears to have gone unrecorded. Greenwood spent at least part of the month of September in town, and one assumes they reconnected. He also may have spent time with Andrée Ruellan and her husband Jack Taylor at their home in nearby Shady. While in Woodstock he may have associated with Yasou Kuniyoshi or other Japanese artists working in the art colony in the early 1930s. In the fall of 1935 Noguchi met up with the Greenwood sisters in Mexico, where the women were working on murals at the Mercado Abelardo L. Rodriguez under the direction of Diego Rivera. They offered Noguchi part of their large work space, and in early 1936 he completed his mural in colored cement and sculpted brick History of Mexico which is filled with leftist symbols and influenced by the work of Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Noguchi hoped his mural in the Abelardo Market Place would inspire the dispossessed of Mexico to join in the revolutionary cause.


During his stay in Woodstock in the second half of 1934, Nogouchi worked on completing pieces for his upcoming exhibition at the Marie Harriman Gallery, and devoted major attention to creating a sculpture on the tragic subject of the lynching of African Americans for a group exhibit scheduled to open immediately following the closing of his solo showing. He later related that “My awareness of being an American, which came in the fall or winter of 1933, was followed in 1934 by the influence of social consciousness to the extent that when it became summer I decided to move to Woodstock, to do a sculpture on the lynching of blacks. The Marie Harriman Gallery offered to help me prepare for [my exhibition there early] the next year. . . . The sculpture Death was shown but Mrs. Harriman declined to show Birth, a large travertine carving I had made following an observation of a delivery at Bellevue Hospital.”(7)  

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

Death (Lynched Figure), 1935

Monel metal

The Noguchi Foundation, Inc.

Phototgraph of Installation

at Marie Harriman Gallery 

Georges Hughes Hanging from a Tree, Sherman, Texas

May 9, 1930

Isamu Noguchi’s Birth and Death, The Noguchi Museum


Noguchi’s sculpture Death features a contorted and agonized life size nude figure of a man, made of a polished nickel alloy, who hangs from a real rope that is supported by a rectangular armature, representing a gallows, with his legs drawn up to escape the heat of a bonfire. The work was based on a photograph of the African American George Hughes being lynched above a bonfire by a mob in Sherman, Texas on May 9, 1930. Hughes was taken from a vault in the courthouse after the courthouse had been burned by the same mob. Noguchi saw the image in an article dating from 1930 in the journal of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party of the United States. The ILD was formed in 1925 to counter groups like the Ku Klux Clan, defend cases like that of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys, and support the anti-lynching movement.

Death was vilified aesthetically by the art critics Henry McBride in the New York Sun and by Edward Alden Jewell in The New York Times. Jewell called Noguchi out for his “audacious portrayal of a lynching” which he felt was to “a disastrous extent realistic,” criticized his “abstract modeling” of the figure, and the fact that the “only feature presented on the man’s face” was “a stylized mouth.” He closed his review by remarking that it was “said the sculptor designed this work as a protest against lynching. As a work of art, however, it seems sensational and of extremely dubious value.”(8) Henry McBride, who laced his review with racist bigotry, was particularly disturbed by the work’s realist bent – seeing the sculpture as being too close in appearance to the image in the photograph.(9) 

An Art Commentary on Lynching

Arthur U. Newton Galleries, New York City

George Bellows (1882-1925)

The Law is Too Slow, 1923

Lithograph on paper

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999)

To the Lynching, 1935

Graphite and watercolor

Whitney Museum of American Art


Shortly after the closing of Noguchi’s solo show, Death was moved to the exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching at the Arthur U. Newton Galleries. This exhibition, sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was the one for which the piece had been created. Among other works in the show were George Bellows The Law is Too Slow, Paul Cadmus’ The Lynching, John Steuart Curry’s The Fugitive and Reginald Marsh’s This is Her First Lynching.

After just four days Noguchi pulled Death from the Newton Galleries exhibition and moved it to competing exhibition organized by the John Reed Club at ACA Galleries, The club organized the showing because they believed the NAACP show “wasn’t broad enough” in addressing racial equality issues. Both shows hoped to pressure FDR to enact legislation prohibiting vigilante violence. Only in recent years has congress passed this very long called for legislation. In August 1948, Noguchi returned to Woodstock once more to speak at the national art conference held at the Art Student League’s summer school.

(1) Quoted in Hilton Kramer, Noguchi Show at Whitney Branch: Silly Catalogue, Splendid Exhibition," New York Observer, November 20, 1989, p. 23; Dore Ashton, Noguchi East and West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 242.

(2) Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor's Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 18.

(3) Telephone Conversation with Daniel Gelfand, November 2019.

(4) Quoted in Amy Wolf, On Becoming An Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries, 1922-1960 (New Yok: Noguchi Museum, 2010), p. 42. (5) Isamu Noguchi, Notes for an Autobiography, Archives of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. New York.

(6) Quoted in Hayden Herrara, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi (New. York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), p. 101.

(8) Edward Alden Jewell, "Noguchi Sculpture in Metal Exhibited," The New York Times, February 15, 1935, Books, Radio, Arts, p. 7. (9) Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor's World, p. 23.






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