Friday, April 23, 2010

Designer of the Month: Isamu Noguchi

Week 4: public art - memorials and monuments

This week is going to be very interesting because most of Isamu Noguchi's memorials and monuments were never built. The majority of the work is conceptual, and because so many of them are proposals rather than fully-realized projects, they provide a different perspective from which to view Noguchi's work.

Isamu Noguchi, Memorial to Ben Franklin, Philadelphia, PA. Conceived in 1933, realized in 1985. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

The first of Noguchi's public artworks to be both designed and built was the Monument to Ben Franklin. He explains that "if Franklin and his kite recalled my childhood enthusiasm, it was also the sky of aspirations where the kite flies seeking its lightning."[1] Conceived of in 1933, it and was re-engineered and constructed at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia in 1985.[2] Noguchi proposed two other projects in 1933 as well, one of which was also related to Franklin, but neither of them were ever realized. Monument to the Plow was conceived of as a mile-long monument to be located at the geographical center of the United States.[3] As Noguchi explains about his attraction to this project:
The steel plow... had been devised through correspondence between Franklin and Jeffereson, which had then made possible the opening up of the western plains. My model indicated my wish to belong to America, to its vast horizons of earth.[4]
Isamu Noguchi, drawing for Monument to the Plow, 1933. Unrealized. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

I love the idea of a monument to invention, to the ideas of ingenuity and possibility. In addition to being conceived of as a work of public art, Monument to the Plow is also an excellent example of the type of sculptural landscapes that Noguchi had been attempting to create during this time, most notably with his proposal for Play Mountain (you can read more about Play Mountain here). Noguchi's other public art design from 1933 was for the Carl Mackley Memorial (United Hosiery Workers Memorial). As you can see from the image below, like the Monument to Ben Franklin, this design is very sculptural in nature, with Noguchi managing to skillfully represent both the labor leader and the concept of the union itself within one work.

Isamu Noguchi, model of Carl Mackley Memorial (United Hosiery Workers Memorial), 1933. Plaster. Unreaslized. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

I hadn't mentioned it during these past few weeks, but I think that it's now important to include some background on Noguchi and World War II. Noguchi was living in California when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and although he was an American citizen, because of his Japanese father and the fact that he'd lived and traveled in Japan, like all Japanese-Americans during the war, he was seen as a threat.[5] Noguchi turned into a bit of an activist during this time. He helped organize the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, which sought to demonstrate the patriotism of Japanese-Americans, and traveled to Washington to speak with government officials.[6] Because he was a legal resident of New York, Noguchi was exempt from the order that sent all West Coast Japanese-Americans to internment camps, but he was convinced to voluntarily enter himself into the Colorado River Relocation Camp near Poston, Arizona, with the hope of helping to improve the lives of its residents by designing improvements to the camp.[7] As Noguchi explains about his time at the camp:
There could have been some question of my position, whether on the side of the administration or of the internees, but with the harshness of camp life came a feeling of mutuality, of identity with those interned and against the Administration, in spite of personal work for the most part was to design and help develop park and recreation areas. It soon became apparent, however, that the purpose of the War Relocation Authority was hopelessly at odds with that ideal cooperative community...they wanted nothing permanent nor pleasant. My presence became pointless, but as I had voluntarily become an internee, it took me seven months to get out and then on a temporary basis. So far as I know, I am still only temporarily at large.[8]

While Noguchi makes light of the situation, it's clear from this description that he was disenchanted by bureaucracy of both the camps and the government from this experience. Another effect of the war on Noguchi was his deep pessimism about the atomic age, best represented in his design for Sculpture to be Seen from Mars, from 1947. Originally entitled Memorial to Man, the design was for an earthwork of a face that would be large enough to be both visible and recognizable from space, "informing others that an intelligent life form once had existed on our planet."[9]

Isamu Noguchi, model for Sculpture to the Seen from Mars, 1947. Unrealized. Photo by Soichi Sunami. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Other war-related public-art designs by Noguchi during this time were Bell Tower for Hiroshima, from 1950, and Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima, from 1952. While the latter was actually commissioned by the city itself, it ended up, like many of Noguchi's projects before them, never being built for various, unclear reasons.[10]

Isamu Noguchi, Model of Bell Tower for Hiroshima, 1950. Wood and ceramic. Unrealized. Photo by Kevin Noble. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Of course, these war memorials were only a small part of the public artworks that Noguchi was working on. He also designed memorials and monuments to great world leaders, such as Gandhi (1948), Buddha (1957) and a tomb for John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1964), as well as a memorial for those who had perished in the Challenger space shuttle disaster - one of his few public art designs to actually be built.[11]

[1] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 21-2.

[2] The Noguchi Museum online, "Monuments and Memorials,", (accessed April 22, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 22.

[5] The Noguchi Museum online, "1941-1942: West Coast and Relocation Camp,", (accessed April 22, 2010).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 25.

[9] The Noguchi Museum online, "Monuments and Memorials,", (accessed April 22, 2010).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.


  1. not sure anyone will ever see this comment - on the odd chance, someone might like the collection of poems I did on Noguchi's work. Monument to the Plough hasn't been done yet, but Mars Beacon, South Coast Plaza and a few other large works are. (the collection is only half-finished at this time.)

  2. I love poetry, especially when it's about some of my favorite artists and designers! I couldn't find any of the poems that you reference on your site though - maybe you could provide specific links?


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