Observer: Sense & Sensuality, Isamu Noguchi’s Quest for the Perfect Ashtray


Isamu Noguchi is the beautiful youth, part Dionysus, part future of mankind: curly-headed, bare-armed, enthralling and cosmopolitan. Sidewalk cafes, cigarettes and haloes of cirrus smoke. He is the acolyte: at the altar of Constantin Brâncuși in the expatriate days of Paris; and, in prewar China and Japan, still propelled by a 1925 Guggenheim award, a student of traditional Japanese forms—brush drawing with Qi Baishi, and ceramics with Jinmatsu Uno. Then, he is the master himself, and then the fading divinity, alongside Martha Graham and John Cage and luminaries of mid-century avant-gardism, summering through The Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.

Noguchi, born in 1904, was of a generation that endured the Spanish Flu, decades of global economic depressions, and two world wars. As an American, Noguchi came of age when the nation was alit with the Red Summer race riots of 1919, and the Suffragette movement, which gained the right to vote for women in 1920. If Noguchi’s generation was necessarily constrained by the armatures and mores of the nineteenth century, they were also wildly progressive, and sexually promiscuous by even today’s standards. They were the contradictions of rapid change: the roaring twenties, prohibition, economic catastrophe, and empire in decline. 

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