Two Distinct Portraits by Isamu Noguchi

Douglas De Nicola, former Director of Design, Noguchi Museum

Artist Isamu Noguchi wrote in his autobiography, “the whole life (of a person) you see expressed in a face…” It is an uncommonly known fact that Noguchi created over one hundred portrait heads over the course of more than three decades in his career as a sculptor. Most people come to know Noguchi as a modern abstract artist rather than as a representational one. Yet, this body of work in portraiture was a long-term and important focus in his collective work. The two busts offered at auction are rare to the public market and represent fine examples of Noguchi’s work in portraiture.

The works were in the collection of the Majdrakoff family. The two Noguchi busts were created in 1924 and 1925, and Noguchi sculpted a third bronze portrait of patriarch Boris Ivan Majdrakoff at around the same time in 1926.

Many of the portrait commissions were executed in Noguchi’s younger life and served to provide a source of income for the up-and-coming artist. Following the early works were portraits of such luminaries as George Gershwin, Ginger Rogers and Martha Graham. Gershwin said that the Noguchi bust was his favorite likeness of him. Others subjects were under taken with deep personal motivations, as with the tender depiction of his single mother, Leonie Gilmore or dear friend, the visionary thinker, Buckminster Fuller.

Portrait bust sculpture is most typically related to Western and Middle Eastern art, especially that of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Classical antecedents are abundantly prevalent. The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar had idealized busts of himself produced in large quantity and disseminated throughout the empire as a means to remind his subjects of his omnipotence. Through the centuries, portraiture and bust sculpture have served the vanities of the powerful, wealthy and elite.

Noguchi’s portraits, as with the case of most of his artistic oeuvre, blend elements of east and west, finding inspiration from a multitude of sources. Isamu Noguchi was predisposed to experimentation in his work and he used a variety of mediums for the portrait heads: marble, bronze, terracotta, chrome and stainless steel. These two examples clearly represent divergent styles in portraiture in style and medium.

It is notable that Noguchi would choose the material for the portrait as a means to reflect the character of the sitter. Futuristic chrome plating was used for Buckminster Fuller’s bust and for his beloved Uncle Takagi, a Buddhist priest, Noguchi chose the simple clay of the earth. Many of
his portrait heads used terracotta, a distinctly Japanese medium. Noguchi said his use of terracotta was derived from having seen prehistoric Haniwa, which were clay ritualistic funerary figurines from the third to six centuries in Japan.

The terracotta likeness of Cecil Boulton, sister-in-law to playwright Eugene O’Neill, appears to represent Noguchi’s earliest clay portrait. It was included in an important exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. highlighting Noguchi portraiture in 1989. The sublime visage has an ethereal quality: sweet, melancholy and serene, all at once. The inherent fragility of the material gives the sculpture a precious nature, both tentative and transient. There is searching poignancy to Noguchi’s busts, some of which have the quality of death masks. It is as though Noguchi has the uncanny ability to pull the very soul out of his subjects, laying them bare while capturing a moment in time that is essential, emotive and evocative.

The bronze bust of the “Nun” is a stylized representational work by Noguchi at the height of the Art Deco Movement. The work was included in a 1992 Noguchi retrospective exhibition held in both Tokyo and Kyoto. The piece was also referred to as Magdalena (Prayer) and it has an Art Deco composition, particularly in the stepped and abstracted praying hands of the figure. This devotional archetype is something akin to a modernized depiction of the Virgin Mary. With her head bowed and eyes closed, Magdalena is lost in prayerful contemplation and she avoids the viewer’s gaze completely. There is solidity to the work in the use of bronze and the habit and frock are rendered with a hammered-like effect. Without a base, the bronze is firmly planted on the earth befitting the gravity of the subject.

Provenance Note

This early portrait sculpture completed by Isamu Noguchi comes from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Majdrakoff. Ivanka Majdrakoff (neé Hitrova) came to the United States from Bulgaria in 1922, sent by her parents following the First World War; Boris Ivan Majdrakoff followed shortly thereafter and the two were married in the United States. In 1922, both Ivanka and Noguchi were enrolled at Columbia University, the former studying English and the latter studying medicine, and it was through the university that the Majdrakoffs first met the young artist. Boris, a photographer who worked for The New York Times, Paramount Studios and also completed portraits and artworks, renowned photographed many of Noguchi’s sculptural works. He was also the subject of one of Noguchi’s bronze portrait busts, a powerful work completed in 1926-1927 that stylistically resembles a Roman portrait.

Aside from busts offered here (lots 32 and 33) and the bronze portrait of Boris, the Majdrakoff’s had acquired several other works that have since been sold or otherwise distributed among more distant relatives. It is unclear whether these works were purchased from the artist, acquired by trade or if they may have been gifts from the artist, but these two important works have retained a prominent place—along with the likeness of Boris Ivan Majdrakoff—in the collection of their son, Thomas Boris Majdrakoff, until now.

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.

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