Famous artist Isamu Noguchi has Astoria roots

By Greater Astoria Historical Society

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, TimesLedger Newspapers presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.

Critically-acclaimed sculptor, designer and architect Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 17, 1904.

He was the illegitimate son of Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and American writer Leonie Gilmour. His sculptures, furniture, lighting and architecture are a subtle yet bold blend of traditional and modern design, influenced by his upbringing in America and Japan and his world travels.

His iconic Noguchi table remains in production today and visitors from around the globe come to Long Island City to visit The Noguchi Museum, located across the street from the studio where he lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1988.

Noguchi’s half-sister is famed dancer Ailes Gilmour. As a toddler, Noguchi’s father called for Gilmour and their son to come live with him in Japan. Upon arrival, however, they learned that Yone had married another woman.

The future sculptor led a relatively lonely childhood with a largely absent father. At the age of 8, however, Noguchi’s mother had a house and put her son in charge of the garden to nurture his budding artistic abilities. In 1918, Noguchi returned to America to attend high school in Indiana, going by the name of Sam Gilmour.

As a pre-med student at Columbia University, the young Isamu met other prominent members of the Japanese community in New York, including scientist Hideyo Noguchi and dancer Michio Ito, both of whom encouraged the student to pursue his artistic gifts.

Noguchi began studying sculpture and eventually left Columbia. Around this time, he held his first exhibition of plaster and terracotta sculptures and moved into his own studio. In 1926, he received a Guggenheim fellowship which enabled him to travel the world studying art and exhibiting his work.

Noguchi returned to New York in the Depression years of the 1930s and struggled to find buyers for his artwork. The globetrotting sculptor then traveled to Mexico City, where he designed his first public work, a mural titled “History as Seen from Mexico” in 1936. Around this time, he had a brief romantic affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Returning to New York the following year, Noguchi designed the original baby monitor, called the Zenith Radio Nurse. In the late 1930s, his sculptures were displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair and at Rockefeller Center.

With the outbreak of World War II, the politically conscious artist campaigned against the internment of his fellow Japanese-Americans and he became the only voluntary internee at the Poston internment camp in Arizona. Although he hoped to improve the camp by designing parks and recreational areas, he met with little success and found he had nothing in common with the other prisoners.

Back in New York City, Noguchi built a studio in Greenwich Village and made a name for himself on the art scene with his surrealist sculptures and modernist style furniture including his Noguchi table. In the ensuing years, he rose to prominence as his works in stone and other media were exhibited worldwide.

Isamu Noguchi, who as a boy was told by his first art teacher that “he’d never be a sculptor,” was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1962, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences nine years later and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1987 in recognition of a lifetime of cultural contributions.

Perhaps due to his own multicultural background, Noguchi’s work ranged from the abstract to the realistic, and used media including wood, clay, paper and stone that was cut, carved, casted, chiseled and dynamited.

“To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school,” he said. “I am always learning, always discovering.”

For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at (718) 278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.

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