Noguchi Museum Digitizes Isamu Noguchi’s Body of Work

Merging traditional artistic scholarship with contemporary publishing technology, the museum now brings the art and life of Noguchi to your glowing screens.

Isamu Noguchi
Photo: Anzai

“Sculpture to be Seen From Mars”
Model (left)1947 (destroyed)
Photo: Soichi Sunami

Isamu Noguchi’s prodigious and expansive artworks spanned the world of sculpture in stone, metal, paper, wood, and ceramics. His striking vision conquered territory in architecture, landscape design, playground and park design, furniture and lighting design, and theater set design in collaborations with Martha Graham.

Born of an errant Japanese poet father and American mother whose mission in life was to have her son become an artist, Noguchi struggled with the duality and ambiguity of his origins all his life. He bridged both cultures with a restless, modern, and exquisitely crafted oeuvre rooted in Japanese aesthetics. He lived and had studios in both countries. Though he always felt he was searching for home, his friend R. Buckminster Fuller once observed that Noguchi was “always at home – everywhere.”

M2_Isamu Noguchi Portrait Contoured Garden

Noguchi with “Contoured Playground” 1941

Noguchi’s birthday on November 17th marks the second annual “updated chapter” launch of a mammoth, collaborative work by The Noguchi Museum – the art of Isamu Noguchi rendered as a digital catalogue raisonné. Merging traditional artistic scholarship with contemporary publishing technology, the museum now brings the art and life of Noguchi to your glowing screens.

M3_ IN with Childhood, ca 1970

Isamu Noguchi carving “Childhood” in stone
Photo: Michio Noguchi c. 1970

In the past you may have had to wait decades, literally, for such revisions to be issued in a cost prohibitive, inflexible catalog. Now, in our digital age, you will have access to both confirmed and “pending” research. In fact, you can engage directly with the process of discovery and documentation.

The Noguchi Museum’s new pixelated tome builds on a 30-year foundation of research. Updatable on the fly, it’s as if digital was invented for the purpose of this catalogue raisonné. It brims with the potential dynamic visualization of Noguchi’s work in the round, embedded bibliographic audio and video files, the ability to trace the provenance of a single art object, immediate and free access for an international audience, personalized search and presentation tools and the organizational power of collection management software (“Collective Access”) underpinning it all.

“Artists don’t tend to be archivists,” says Shaina Larrivee, project manager of the Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné; though Noguchi may have been inspired by his mentor, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi who took superb photographs of his own work. As Larrivee says, “Noguchi excelled at keeping photographs.” Not only did he take his own pictures but friendships with important photographers of the day such as Eliot Elisofon of Life Magazine and Berenice Abbott also contributed to the wealth of imagery on Noguchi’s work.

M4_Noguchi fountain


Noguchi at his Expo ’70 fountain
Photo: Michio Noguchi

A recent New York Times article revealed a surprising motivation behind the current museum trend toward digital catalogue raisonnés – fear of lawsuits. The Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association Guidelines warn, “Bear in mind that a negative opinion may provoke an angry reaction, and even a signed agreement does not guarantee protection from a frivolous lawsuit.”

Larrivee contends that for The Noguchi Museum, such lawsuits were never a factor in publishing digitally. “It’s a concern but not a looming concern. Our primary motivation was accessibility.” Nonetheless, she clearly states, “We don’t offer direct opinions. We don’t offer promises of inclusion.”

New information on Noguchi now arrives on the doorstep only incrementally as this collection of over 4,000 artworks marches towards complete documentation by 2018. Larrivee points out that there are times, as part of the ongoing research, when she has to travel and take a tape measure to a Noguchi sculpture, examining the stone closely for marks and inscriptions.

The speed of technological change easily surpasses that of scholarship, but Larrivee divides her time equally between assessing research for publication and reviewing the website for performance. “The Catalogue Raisonné is a record of research and documentation that can change to adjust to scholarship and respond to changes in the world,” she adds.

Isamu Noguchi with Black Sun in Seattle

Noguchi with “Black Sun”
Photo: F. Denman

Who knows how knowledge will be stored and conveyed in 2018? As one educator said recently, the Internet is no longer something we dip into and out of. “We wear it.”




Isamu Noguchi
Photo: Michio Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi’s rich archive may reside in a digital cloud but his triumphs in stone are forever rooted to the earth.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA

All photos courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

Note: “Sculpture to be Seen From Mars” – nose is scaled to be one mile long

Catalogue Raisonne: cat-a-lohg  ray-zon -ay [Fr., = carefully studied or methodical catalogue.] (OED)

The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders

“Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations”

Categories: Arts + Culture