Thursday, August 29, 2013

Called "Talentless" by Mt. Rushmore Sculptor/ Awarded Guggenheim to work in Paris: Late Summer Museum Visit

Before Sunday I hadn't heard of Japanese-American sculptor/landscape architect/furniture maker, Isamu Noguchi. Brief Googlage brought images like so:

in Tucherpark, Munchen, by Rufus46 wikimedia
Which honestly didn't do too much for me. While I can appreciate the clean lines, they leave me a bit cold. I imagine these initially appalled and electrified members of the art world, but decades later, elements of each have permeated design to the degree that they merely seem vaguely familiar.

from Dedalo Blog
Noguchi apprenticed under Constantin Bracusi, which to me explained his pared down, abstracted style, though Brancusi would have rejected my impression:

Brancusi sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art*
"There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things." (see Wikipedia entry )

Idiocy aside, this didn't help me understand Noguchi's inclusion in a two person painting exhibition at the University of Michigan Art Museum. I had been tempted by the banner I saw during art fair, which featured a Chinese ink painting of monochromatic crabs: they were simultaneously fluid, free, and perfectly precise. So how did he fit into this? The expiration date listed on the banner (September 1st! You still have time! But only a teeny tiny bit) spurred me to mash a visit into an already full weekend.

*Props to Philly Art Museum -- nice anecdotes accompanying photos of their collection. The above sculpture, of one Mademoiselle Pogany, was exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show stirred up attendees -- one outraged critic likened it to a hardboiled egg on a sugar lump. Check out the link, you can read about Princess X, which someone, either Picasso or Matisse (my vote is on Picasso), deemed a phallus; Brancusi said NO it's femininity idealized (wrong angle, you're looking from the wrong angle!). My vote is on: phallus. People who think museums are like mausoleums and art is dusty and irrelevant have no idea how many juicy stories abound in the art world! Passions run high, people! We've got your demanding, idiosyncratic personalities RIGHT HERE!...Ahem.

By Qi Baishi
So, anyway: Isamu Noguchi | Qi Baishi*: Beijing 1930

At the age of 23, Noguchi had already won a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris (where he worked in Brancusi's studio); in 1930, he is a measly 26 year old. He is briefly passing through China within a larger trip, when a friend of his, Sotokichi Katsuizumi, a Japanese businessman and collector of Chinese paintings, shows him some of his 30 Qi Baishi paintings. Noguchi is blown away. Qi is an elder, renowned master ( both of paintings and seals, an artist's individual signatory mark); he doesn't speak English. Noguchi doesn't speak Chinese. No matter, Katsuizumi introduces them anyway; they become friends and Noguchi extends his stay to paint with him for 6 months!

*a.k.a. Qi Huang, a.k.a. "The Chinese Picasso"

While the traditional master-apprentice role has the youth copying the work of the master as precisely as he possibly can, without deviation; this was entirely different. Noguchi observed Qi's techniques, and then adopted them for his own ends, using broad, heavy swipes of the brush to convey the energy and mass of the nudes that were his focus. The UMMA text theorized that Qi may have been okay with this, due to being largely self taught himself; he came from peasants and learned to paint from a book he came across. As well, Qi's chosen subject matter was "more humble" than those chosen by the reigning artistic community -- (i.e. new born chicks, rakes and brooms, vs. soaring mountain tops). UMMA quoted him as saying:

"To draw what you do not usually see, rather than what you usually see, is to ignore truth and create something grotesque."

Going a bit far for me, but an interesting point of view. Save it for your next cocktail party!

Elsewhere, I loved the words accompanying the images. According to Qi also, no painting is complete without a poem or a seal. And so there were lyrical blocks and ponderous words neighboring Qi's painting scenes. A painting of fish bore the following text {note: the words for "fish" and "remaining" are homonyms}:

"I once painted three fish and inscribed it: painting is what I did in the time remaining after work; poetry in the time remaining after sleep; and calligraphy in the time remaining after carving. This is what I called the three remaining."

Five Water Buffalo contained this funny aside:

"I painted buffalo for my disciples. However, my family asked me to paint another, so I painted this one. This makes me sigh, because one should paint to amuse oneself."

A painting done and mild protest registered, in one fell swoop~~

At the end of their time together, Noguchi had completed over 100 Chinese ink brush paintings (referred to as the "Peking Drawings").  Several of the exhibited nudes were of mother and child or men and boy wrestlers; most were quite large in scale (~9 feet; he laid the sheets of paper across tables or on the floor). The gestural lines were elegant and full of life; those on the livelier end reminded me of the freedom and joie de vivre of Matisse figures. Sometimes, they were imbued with a sense of calm and dignity.

The Baby Kakemono scroll above was one of the smaller ones (maybe 18"?). The handwriting reads:

This is to Sotokichi Katsuizumi my best friend in Peking for whom I have great affection. -- Isamu

At some point later in life, Katsuizumi called Noguchi "the most lonely fellow I ever had known."

Want more Noguchi? The has a fascinating overview of his life, work and influences here -- though his short-though-meaningful experience with Qi Basihi is sadly absent from the entry.

If you read further, you'll see that Isamu Noguchi's primary emphasis was on creating art and art spaces for public use. To bring him back to home ground, he created the Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain in Detroit's Hart Plaza, which will be teaming with people this Labor Day weekend, for the annual Detroit Jazz Festival.

My favorite artist quote from ArtStory:

"[The visible world] enters our consciousness as emotion as well as knowledge; trees grow in vigor, flowers hang evanescent, and mountains lie somnolent -- with meaning. The promise of sculpture is to project these inner presences into forms that can be recognized as important and meaningful in themselves."

[The visible world] enters our consciousness as emotion as well as knowledge; trees grow in vigor, flowers hang evanescent, and mountains lie somnolent -- with meaning. The promise of sculpture is to project these inner presences into forms that can be recognized as important and meaningful in themselves. - See more at:

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