Art by Noguchi (left) and Qi (right)
Art by Noguchi (left) and Qi (right)

The exhibition at Frye Art Museum of drawings by Isamu Noguchi and paintings by Qi Baishi is masterful. For Noguchi, who has tackled media such as sculpture, stage sets, garden design, furniture, and akari (lamp), this was one of those rare occasions where his talent so naturally revealed itself. An exuberant spirit flows out of the lines, capturing the essence of each subject. It is spontaneous and warm. By this time in 1930s Beijing, where Noguchi stayed for six months, he had adopted Qi Baishi as his teacher. Qi was 66 years old and had reached the height of popularity as a modern Chinese master brush painter not only in China, but also in Japan and the West.

An East Asian brush soaks up a generous amount of ink inside. The supple hairs of a brush spreads smoothly over the surface of the paper. Yet the versatile qualities of the brush can vary with the width and textures of lines; washed, splashed, flying white, or dry and blurred. It all depends on the control of the artist. This mastery demands patient lessons and much practice. Throughout the show, you can see Noguchi’s development of dexterity and ingenuity of vision. Though the style of 17th century landscape painting with dry small strokes continued to be the norm, Qi specialized in the theme of common subjects like vegetables, fruits, and insects.

It must be stated that the theme was not solely his own as the Southern Sung master Muqi also painted similar subject matter. To contemporary eyes, Qi’s brush is immediately identifiable, and expresses a naive and humorous character, which might have opened up Noguchi’s own talent.

There is another small exhibition at Frye Art Museum featuring two artists with a local slant, that of Mark Tobey and his friend, Teng Kwei (Baiye). A foreign student, Teng first arrived from a university in Suzhou to study architecture and art at the University of Washington when he met Tobey in Seattle in the early 1920s. Teng practiced finger painting with ink on paper. Noguchi and Tobey shared the image of a lone figure with distinct, unique qualities, and were known as artists who crossed the barrier between East and West.

When their mature works are compared—e.g. a black marble sculpture “Black Sun,” which spreads out its presence into the sky in front of Seattle Asian Art Museum, and smaller intimate abstract paintings—it seems like Noguchi and Tobey had lived in a different cultural arena. Yet it is illuminating to realize that their paths crisscrossed in close approximation throughout time during their formative years in the 1920s and 1930s in New York, Paris, and Asia. They encountered the same revolutionary arts and literature movements that spread across continents at the turn of the 20th century.

The upbringing of both Noguchi and Tobey must have made them resilient in their own unending search for their own visions. In an old photo, Noguchi can be seen as the lone curly haired boy with a white shirt amidst a sea of boys and girls in traditional kimono at an elementary school in Yokohama in 1911, late Meiji Era. He was sent back alone to the United States at the age of 13, and lived in New York by 1922.

For Tobey, the happy bare-feet days in nature was over by the time the family moved from the nearby banks of the Mississippi in Wisconsin to Chicago. After his father was unable to work, Tobey barely survived doing odd jobs, and moved to New York in 1911. In New York, he became a portrait painter and had an exhibition at a bohemian hangout known as Romany Marie’s Café in 1929. In the same year, Noguchi came back to New York from Europe, and had to make commissioned portrait busts to survive. That was how he met his long-time friend, the eccentric architect, Buckminster Fuller and all sorts of other creative people at the same café.

In Paris, they also witnessed new evolving avant-garde movements in Europe. In 1925, Tobey met a writer and collector of European art, Gertrude Stein who was the center of art and culture among the expatriates in Paris. In 1927, Noguchi made himself a disciple to Constantin Brancusi, the father of modern sculpture.

Noguchi recollected his teacher’s studio: “My memory of Brancusi is always of whiteness and of his bright and smiling eyes. Pure abstract left me cold. [It was] direct contact of man and matter. There was this unity throughout.”

The two artists also shared their closeness to other arts such as literature and theater. Tobey was interested in music and poetry. Noguchi’s father was the famous poet, Yone Noguchi, who knew the circle of younger poets of the time. In 1926, Isamu made a mask for the dancer Michio Ito to perform in a Noh play originally written by William Butler Yeats. Yeats made the acquaintance of the elder Noguchi when he lectured on Noh in London. It would mark the sculptor’s first work for theatre.

During the 19th century, the West cherished the glorious past of civilizations in Asia, which they colonized. Several years after Noguchi visited China and Japan, Tobey visited his old friend, Teng, in Shanghai and continued his journey to Japan in 1934.

It is a well-known story that Tobey practiced brush movement at a Zen temple in Kyoto where he stayed for about a month. It is interesting to note that both Noguchi and Tobey did not actively try to incorporate the Asian brushstroke into their mature works though Tobey made numerous untrained splash ink drawings in the winter of 1957. For Noguchi, who at that time struggled to grow out of the phenomenal influence of Brancusi, it seems, this was one way to search for an identity while expanding that with global experiences that went beyond the narrow identity of a certain culture.

Buckminster Fuller described Noguchi as “a founding member of an omni-crossbred world society.” And for Tobey, who converted to the Bah’ai faith in 1918 to seek a universality of mankind, it was a tool to free his inner expression in order to reach out and communicate with humanity. Looking at abstract paintings by Tobey and traditional brush painting by Teng, one feels how two old friends rejoiced in finding each other again after so many years pursuing different paths. For Noguchi, the playfulness of Qi Baishi may have loosened him up enough to shed some warmer light onto the dark closet of his own past.

Admission to the Frye Art Museum is free. It is located at 704 Terry Avenue on First Hill in Seattle. For more information, call (206) 622-9250 or visit fryemuseum.org. “Leonie,” a film about Isamu Noguchi’s mother and her experience in Japan by Hisako Matsui will screen on Sunday, April 13 at 2:00 p.m. There will be “Ink and Brush Painting Classes” by Lois Yoshida offered on April 27, May 4, 11, and 18 on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Chinese poetry in translation is a reading by Red Pine offered on Thursday, May 22 with “The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse: A Celebration in Translation and Song” at 7:00 p.m. It features a musical performance by vocalist/composer Jessica Kenny with musicians Eyvind Kang and Jarrad Powell and is presented by the Museum, Copper Canyon Press and the Rose Theatre. There will be informal, discussion-based talks in the galleries during the exhibition. For exact times, go to fryemuseum.org. Both exhibitions close on Sunday, May 25 at 5:00 p.m.

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi:
Beijing 1930

Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye:
Seattle/Shanghai

Frye Art Museum
704 Terry Ave, Seattle, WA 98104
February 22 to May 25

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