Masters of stone and wood: Brancusi and Noguchi
It was at Café Flore on Paris' Boulevard Saint Germain that in 1927 Isamu Noguchi met the writer Robert McAlmon. The young artist was handsome and charismatic. At 23 he was possessed of that particular type of self-assurance that is born from beauty or youth or talent or the heady mixture of all three. Noguchi had yet to find his own voice as an artist and his work before this fateful trip to Paris is refined, full of promise, but owes too much to the tastes and finesse of the 19th century from which his teachers came. McAlmon was to introduce Noguchi to Brancusi. This introduction was to singularly change the young artists life and, though him, helped define the course of American mid-century sculptural practice.
A year previously Noguchi visited Brancusi's exhibition in New York. The show, which included the masterpiece Bird in Space (1923) had a profound impact on him. This first visit to the master's studio must have been daunting. Indeed so great was the magmatism and enormity of the older artist's genius the the apprentice would spend years trying to form an original stylistic language and break free from his influence, an influence which may have overwhelmed a lesser artist. It is a testament to Noguchi's own greatness and his sheer force-of-will that he was able to develop his own métier and find a place, all his own, amongst the giants of 20th century sculpture. Brancusi felt that an artist should work alone and had not, before meeting his Japanese-American apprentice in '27, had help making his work. He said "Nothing grows under big trees" What he meant was that talent can whither in the shade of genius. Brancusi himself spent time working in Rodin's studio. This trinity - Rodin, Brancusi, and Noguchi - is a wonderful illustration of art history up close and through the three of them we witness the very birth of modernism. We start with Rodin who's sinuous marbles leave open, to the next generation, the door to abstraction and all that which comes after. This was the precious inheritance Noguchi was to receive when he that fateful first visit to the studio. In it were some of the works he'd seen at the New York show. The legacy of this visit is event in Noguchi's later works.
Hanging from the walls and on stools and tables were the chisels and picks that are the tools of the sculptor. Noguchi was not to put them down again until his death in 1988. Man Ray said about his first visit to this same studio that "I was more impressed than in any cathedral. I was overwhelmed by its whiteness and lightness." Noguchi felt some of that same quasi-religious awe "I remember feeling strangely moved. Brancusi himself, everything in the studio, the pieces of wood and marble and plaster, in fact the whole studio itself felt pure white I felt the greatness of Brancusi's art the moment I stepped into the studio."
Noguchi was to spent two years working there learning, in a solitude of two, how to make great art. How to meld, from stone or wood or metal, the sublime. Through Brancusi he found abstraction. But he also found a way and pace of making things that is evident in the quiet dynamism of his later work. "Brancusi made me realise that what I had learned previously – the quick ways of doing things – was all wrong. It is a search you have to enter – into yourself." Noguchi's personality and the journeys he took are evident in all that he made. It has in it a care and love of material that he found in Paris' left bank and, a sense of scale and newness that is all-American, and a Zen-like simplicity of form and working practice that is Japanese in its accent. Our Noguchi passed from adolescence to maturity under the watchful eye of Brancusi. His pared back palate. The tactility of the work. It's Jurassic gravity. All this has its origin in this Left-bank studio. In the Goodyear table, Noguchi's masterpiece in the field of design, at once both table and sculpture we see the ghost of the old man Brancusi. The wood, it's patina, it's movement, are all Noguchi - the apex of this practice - but have in there DNA tone and pitch that derives from Brancusi.
The Goodyear Table is, apart from being an icon of Modernist design, beautifully made. Here we have an artists and artisans care applied to the field of design. In much of Noguchi's furniture - that which went into production - we have the spirit of Noguchi's forms but not of its materiality. Here we have a table and a sculpture made in with head and heart and hands that honed their craft decades before in that dusty bright white studio. The Goodyear table embodies this. Noguchi said that "The best is that which is most spontaneous or seemingly so". Both Noguchi and Brancusi make the difficult look elegantly easy.