Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics

In the turbulent world of early postwar Japan, the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) joined Japanese ceramic artists, both traditional and avant-garde, in exploring issues of personal and national identity through the medium of clay. Internationally recognized for his sculpture, furniture, and public installations, Noguchi created ceramics only during three short sojourns in Japan. These were creative, intense periods during which he explored his roots and interacted with a surprisingly diverse range of artists, influencing and being influenced by them. This first major museum presentation of Noguchi’s ceramics brought together thirty-eight of his works with thirty-six works by nine leading Japanese artists, including Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959) and Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979).

In 1931 Noguchi cast clay sculpture in a Kyoto potter’s studio while discovering ancient tomb sculpture and probing his relationship to Japan. Later he wrote of this experience as “my close embrace of the earth . . . a seeking after identity with some primal matter beyond personalities and possessions.” He returned to Japan in 1950 as a well-known figure in the international art world, and the ceramics that he prepared for an exhibition in Tokyo reflect the formal concerns of his modernist sculpture and furniture designs. They startled Japanese viewers by their fundamental departure from concepts of ceramics as vessel forms.

Noguchi turned to ceramics for the last time in 1952 while living in Rosanjin’s rural compound. He adopted the materials used by Rosanjin and two potters later designated Living National Treasures, Kaneshige Toyo (1896–1967) and Arakawa Toyozo (1894–1985), who breathed new life into the time-honored clays and glazes of Japan’s regional kilns. These artists were committed to transmitting styles of classic tableware and tea utensils. Noguchi’s output ranged from intimate clay sketches to large sculptures, including some designed to serve as containers for the experimental flower installations of avant-garde ikebana masters.

Like Noguchi, sculptors Okamoto Taro (1911–1996) and Tsuji Shindo (1910–1981) drew inspiration from the dynamic clay forms of Japanese prehistory. But several young Kyoto potters, led by Yagi, turned away from tradition toward the imagery of Picasso, Klee, Miro and Noguchi. Forming a group called Sodeisha (Crawling through Mud Association), they invented clay “objets” removed from function. Their daring work established a major new direction for Japanese ceramics.