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Isamu Noguchi at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

December 7, 2016



Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars, 1947

I was on my way with friends to somewhere else in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I saw the guy above looking at me from the wall. He’s hard to ignore. In fact, the whole “Isamu Noguchi: Archaic / Modern” was pretty spectacular. Below are my favorite pieces, images of which are compliments of the Museum’s “photography encouraged” policy. w00t!


Isamu Noguchi, Serpent, 1946, and Spider Dress, 1946, for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart Dance Production

The photographs lining the wall around this piece show how the dancer would put herself inside the wire sculpture and otherwise interact with it and the serpent. Last week, I  burned myself on a plug-in pie maker, so the idea of having a big spiky metal and wood object in the same place where people are leaping around seems like the height of insanity to me. But I recognize the coolness.

Below are a couple exhibit pieces related to the atomic age and outer space.


Isamu Noguchi, E=MC2 [squared], 1944

Not only is the art intriguing, but the museum has done a great job staging the pieces. I spent a long time underneath the piece above in that space I like to call “Will an alarm go off first, or will the security guard tell me to back away?” as I tried to figure out if I was looking at Atomic Haystack, 1984, in bronze plate or E=MC2 [squared], 1944, in papier-mache.



Isamu Noguchi, This Tortured Earth, 1942-1943

I really liked the piece above, especially from the side, where its beautiful, roiling curves reminded me of one of my greatest loves, a fountain of dark chocolate.


Isamu Noguchi, Slide Mantra Maquette, 1985

Based on my complete lack of knowledge about art history, I would describe this piece as the height of awesomeness. IT’S A SPIRAL STAIRCASE THAT ENDS IN A SLIDE! What fun! And what a complete waste of space if you are into not wasting space! But I wasn’t sure what the word “maquette” meant. Turns out the definition is “a sculptor’s small preliminary model or sketch.” That made this piece even better! Either it was intended as a scale model for a real thing that might have been built, or it was Noguchi’s joke. Either way, it’s awesome. Also, the back looked pretty cool.



Isamu Noguchi, Slide Mantra Maquette [Rear], 1985

It’s worth noting that in the time between my rush through the museum with friends (when I couldn’t stop to absorb the Noguchi exhibit) and when I could actually come back (3 weeks later), I took the edge off of the wait by learning a bit about Isamu Noguchi. It would have been more, but I ended up reading all about his mother Leonie Gilmour instead. Here’s the obligatory Wikipedia link to her page. Leonie was quite the character. She had one child in 1903 and other in 1912 while not exactly married to either of their fathers. She was fascinating in other ways, and there was a book and a movie about her recently. My favorite part of her story is how she talked Isamu out of continuing to pursue medicine and instead encouraged him to pursue art – that’s how unconventional and interesting she was!

“Isamu Noguchi: Archaic / Modern” is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum at 8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, D.C., and runs through March 19, 2017. If you get a chance, the exhibit is worth seeing.


Isamu Noguchi, The Well, 1982


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