The Life of Isamu Noguchi:
Journey without Borders,
translated by Peter Duus.
Princeton, 432 pages $29.95
The life of Isamu Noguchi is a story of near-operatic proportions. His mother, Leonie, a Bryn Mawr girl, finds work as a translator in turn-of-the-century California. His father, Yonejiro (Yone), styles himself a Romantic poet of the European variety and books a third-class passage from Japan to stake an artistic claim in America. In 1904, as Yone is en route to Japan, Leonie gives birth to their illegitimate sonand a sculptor is born.
Isamu Noguchis life as a mixed-race American is now the focus of Masayo Duuss new biography, and there are fascinating moments: Noguchis voluntary internment during World War II, for example, and the fame his estranged father eventually found in Imperialist Japan.
But art is not Duuss strength, and much of the narrative here is flat; one hopes something is lost in translation. Through his unorthodox materialswood, string, electric lightsand his penchant for kitsche.g., his lunar landscapesNoguchi became a bridge between the high modernism of Brancusi and the late (post?) modernism of the postminimalists. He occupied an odd position in American art for reasons beyond his Japanese heritage. But for the great biography of Noguchi the artist, we will still have to wait. Noguchis short autobiography of 1968, A Sculptors World, for now remains the primary source for unlocking this sculptors art.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 76
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