Isamu Noguchi: Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp

Bonnie Rychlak

Fundamentally, Isamu Noguchi was a figurative artist. In his judgment, art should express some human or memorial quality and activate recollections, or at least metaphorically reference basic elements of the figure. Notched and slotted together, Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp is composed of figurative components held upright; a marble form securely wedged on a vertical glass rectangle, which, in turn, is inserted into a groove cut into a granite base. Two other works from this period, Vertical Man from 1964 and Night Bird from 1966, are engineered in a similar manner, except that the marble elements are balanced on vertical, rectangular slabs of aluminum rather than glass, with perpendicular aluminum extensions as their base. The marble elements set aloft appear, in all three sculptures, as disembodied heads.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Isamu Noguchi was beginning to realize results from his decades long efforts to design large scale gardens and plaza projects, commissions that had eluded him for much of his professional life. These public projects, although never overshadowing his studio practice, precipitated his need to scout out new and different materials. In 1962, with schemes for new studio work, he accepted an artist-in-residence opportunity at the American Academy in Rome and it was this extended stay in Italy that facilitated his exploration of the Henraux marble quarries in Querceta, Italy. His findings at this quarry initiated a ten-year period of routinely traveling and working in Italy. Nearly all the stone Noguchi used during this time was found at this site, including the marble element in Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp.

Typical of Noguchi’s process, the verticality established in his sculptures relied on gravity, by slotting one component into another and creating what can be described as a top heavy balancing act. The weight of the material and the forces that conspire to hold the object upright, were engineering puzzles Noguchi savored to solve. Similar to traditional Japanese woodworking methods, gluing parts together or taking advantage of qualities that are not inherent in the material at hand, was objectionable to him. Noguchi’s sculptures consistently evinced his engineering skills but the possible danger of their collapse also intrigued him.

The title Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp should not be taken to illuminate anything of Noguchi’s intent other than a fleeting formal reference to Duchamp’s Coin de Chasteté or Wedge of Chastity. This wedge of plaster penetrates a slit-like opening in the second element made of dental plastic and the plastic looks to envelope the wedge. Duchamp’s object is a brashly erotic, imbued with the color and texture of flesh. Noguchi however, shared none of Duchamp’s aesthetic irony or his philosophy of the readymade. His Ceremonial Object for Marcel Duchamp reflects none of the overt sexuality of Wedge of Chastity. The glass element functions as a prop rather than a penetrating member, its effect is sexually neutral or perhaps neutered. This glass element might also be a nod to Duchamp’s Large Glass, but for Noguchi this gesture would only be in reference to its material transparency.

Isamu Noguchi 1904–1988

Isamu Noguchi was the son of Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet, and Léonie Gilmour, an American writer. He was born in Los Angeles in 1904 but lived in Japan from the age of two until 1918 when he returned to the United States to attend school in Indiana. In 1922 Noguchi moved to New York to study pre-medicine at Columbia University. He also took night courses in sculpture with Onorio Ruotolo and soon after, he left Columbia in pursuit of a career in the arts.

In 1927 Noguchi received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a trip to Paris and the Far East. For six months in Paris, he worked in the studio of Constantin Brancusi and his own work became more abstract as Noguchi explored working with stone, wood and sheet metal. Noguchi returned to New York and in 1929 he met R. Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham, colleagues and friends with whom he would later collaborate. In 1938 Noguchi was commissioned to complete a work for the Associated Press building in the Rockefeller Center in New York. Marking his first public sculpture, this work garnered attention and recognition for the artist in the United States.

Auction Results Isamu Noguchi