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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Diversity in White House Art: Isamu Noguchi

Floor Frame by Isamu Noguchi in the White House Rose Garden. Floor Frame was the first work of art by an Asian American in the White House Collection.

White House Historical Association

Isamu Noguchi was one of the most innovative and prolific sculptors of the twentieth century. He was born on November 17, 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and a Japanese father and spent most of his childhood in Japan. When he was thirteen, his mother sent him to Indiana to receive an American education.1

After graduating from high school, Noguchi began an apprenticeship with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor behind Mount Rushmore. Borglum told Noguchi that he should not pursue a career in art, so he decided to enroll at Columbia University as a premedical student in 1922.2 In 1924, after encouragement from his mother, Noguchi began attending an evening sculpture class at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. Shortly thereafter, he dropped out of Columbia to pursue sculpture. In 1927, after receiving a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Noguchi traveled to Paris, France, where he secured a position as the assistant to sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi was inspired by Brancusi’s work, drawing him more toward modernism and abstraction. Noguchi’s work became well known in the 1940s after he completed a large sculpture for the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. The sculpture represented the freedom of the press and was one of Noguchi’s first public sculptures.3

This is a 1928 sculpture of celebrated twentieth century dancer Martha Graham. In addition to this sculpture, Noguchi also designed stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company.

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden and Museum, New York/ARS

Like many Japanese Americans, Noguchi’s life forever changed on December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, spurring the United States to enter World War II. He was living in Los Angeles, making portraits to survive and network ("busting heads" as he called it), when he learned of the attacks over the radio. He later recalled, “With a flash I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone. I was not just American but Nisei. A Japanese-American.”4

Spurred to political activism, Noguchi co-founded Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy with editor Larry Tajiri and traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for Japanese Americans’ civil rights. Noguchi later drove into the Arizona desert and voluntarily entered the Poston War Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp. Noguchi believed that he could make the internment camp more humane, drawing up plans and requests for community gardens, baseball fields, and swimming pools. After two months in the camp he realized that leadership was not going to respond to any of his requests and he spent the following four months attempting to extract himself from the camp. Although he entered voluntarily, to the camp administration, he had become a prisoner.5

As he entered Poston, he was commissioned to write a report for Reader's Digest about the state of the camps. Instead he delivered a personal essay entitled, "I Become A Nisei," that was never published:

“Because of my peculiar background, I felt this war very keenly, and wished to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me...I begin to see the peculiar tragedy of the Nisei as that of a generation of transition accepted neither by the Japanese nor by America. A middle people with no middle ground.”

Photograph of Isamu Noguchi taken by photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1955.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe and The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Museum, New York/ARS

Noguchi also recorded the abysmal conditions in letters to friends, describing the “eye-burning dust” and 120-degree temperatures.

During the 1940s, Noguchi returned to stone sculpture while exploring other mediums and materials as he continued to gain prominence in the art world. He became well known for his use of large, raw pieces of hard stone in his sculpture. Noguchi was also known for his impact on garden and park landscapes. He designed numerous gardens, which he came to consider the highest form of sculpture (the sculpture of spaces), including for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris; The John Hancock Insurance Company building in New Orleans; the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York; and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He was also known for creating more than twenty stage sets for the great American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Noguchi’s first retrospective in the United States took place at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1940, a show which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art in the summer of 1942, while he was interned. But the exhibitions that cemented his reputation were the Museum of Modern Art's "Fourteen Americans" in 1946 and a massive retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968.6

Floor Frame (1962)

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS

As his sculptures became well-known worldwide, Noguchi earned numerous awards and accolades. In 1982, he earned the Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts. He went on to receive the 1986 Kyoto Prize in Arts (Japan), the National Medal of Arts in 1987 (United States), and the Order of the Sacred Treasure posthumously from the Japanese Government in 1998.7 On May 11, 1985, he opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York, a location to display his life’s work.8 He passed away on December 30, 1988 at the age of eighty-four.

In 2020, Noguchi’s 1962 bronze sculpture, Floor Frame, was acquired for the White House Collection with the assistance of the White House Historical Association. The sculpture was unveiled in the east end of the Rose Garden on November 20th, 2020, making Isamu Noguchi the first Asian-American artist represented in the White House Collection. This sculpture was cast in black patina and bronze and represents "the intersection of a tree and the ground, taking on the qualities of both an implied root system and the canopy of the tree."9

Thank you to The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum for their contributions to this article.

The White House is more than just a home and office for the President of the United States, it is also a museum housing a large collection of art. As the nation has grown and changed, so has the White House Collection. Explore the White House Collection and its uniquely American stories from diverse and innovative artists.

The White House Historical Association