Uncovering the essence of genius is a difficult enough task, but the genius of an artist as complex and as multifaceted as Isamu Noguchi borders on the impossible. Not only was Noguchi a master of many forms, creating sculpture of many scales and styles, landscape architecture, theater designs, and many kinds of objects including his ubiquitous tables and lamps, but he was also a master of materials, among them stone, bronze, clay, wood, and even paper. If that were not enough, his personality and artistic inspiration were densely layered from cultures spanning from America and Japan, to Mexico, France, India, and China.
Yet a new biography by Hayden Herrera, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, is as masterfully accomplished as one of Noguchi’s own creations. Drawing upon a variety of sources and accounts, including those of his friends, many lovers, critics, and even the master’s own words, she creates a satisfying sculpted portrait of his life and work. She succeeds by telling his story not in isolation, but in the larger context of those who knew him perhaps better than Isamu knew himself.
And the people who knew and loved Noguchi are many, and the list reads like a “who’s who” of the mid-20th Century art, including, Buckminster Fuller, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Henry Calder, and Louis I. Kahn. The author’s earlier two earlier biographies of artists Arshile Gorky and Frida Kahlo pay dividends here, as both were instrumental in Noguchi’s life—the former being a mentor, and the latter, a brief lover and lifelong friend.
Noguchi was complex beyond measure, and a seemingly contradiction in the flesh. In his relationships with people, he could be coarse, self-absorbed, and inhumane, and could strike with searing fire set off by his infamous short fuse. Yet, between those moments, there was a warm and extremely charismatic human that garnered a string of lovers, countless life-long devoted friends and supporters.
Once resolved in his artistic vision, he was unstoppable. That vision in place, a singular drive would obsess him, and no level of stone shards, dust, and pain could slow him until the resistance of a stone yielded to his will and its genius revealed. Yet at other times, he would show flexibility and certain projects, like some of his park designs, flexibly evolved though an endless variety of designs.
His personal relationships with women were no less contradictory. He could be innocently charming and warm at one moment, and then dictate personal independence like a tyrant at another. In want of the company of women, he could not be satisfied in either being single or married.
Noguchi was comfortable and passionate about many cultures and was well-traveled, but ironically no country or place was truly home. His cultural roots run deep, starting with his parents, a Japanese writer of notoriety and an American woman whose quiet strength is a story itself.
Rightly so, Hayden begins with Isamu Noguchi’s lineage. This is no perfunctory exercise, as the story of his life begins here, as his parents were as complex, colorful and unique as he was.
His single mother, American Leonie Gilmore, was a woman of substantial courage and unique perspective which clearly inspired her son. Her Japanese lover, Yone Noguchi, was equally singular. A poet of merit, he was a trail blazer of Japanese culture on the world stage, and bridged Japanese and western culture, having lived in America for a period. Though absent in his son’s childhood, Noguchi’s father’s influence was to reverberate chaotically and sympathetically throughout his lifetime.
The artist’s early life and forays into the art world and his missteps and successes are nicely included here, and not overshadowed by later and mature successes. The procession of his long career of nearly 60 years is handled skillfully.
The photographs are not only well selected, but they also do what they are supposed to do—they inform and illustrate the text, especially for those not familiar with the gamut of Noguchi’s works. There are no obvious omissions.
Some readers may quibble with the author’s to liberally interpret particular pieces of his art, and to extrapolate so much of “Noguchi’s” intent. Juxtaposed within a more objective narrative, they can be jarring at first blush, but can also be seen as merited in a calmer light. Others may see the accounts of Noguchi’s long line of lovers as tabloid fodder, but the author does have restraint and purpose in including them.
Simply, Hayden avoids the pitfalls of many a biography. She aptly manages the complexity of the subject and the spectrum and volume of source materials, deftly recording Noguchi’s legacy. There is coherence to the narrative, and chapters flow accomplished by her changing the kind of source material to each aspect and time period of Noguchi’s life. As a result, every subsequent chapter is welcomingly fresh, and each segment is a single facet to a much bigger sculpture. Together these pieces create a multi-dimensional portrait of the artist that shows Noguchi as both human and a genius that could not be contained, but only expressed in his art.