Noguchi, Surrealism and the Art of Chess

Chess is a game that can showcase both intellectual precision and transcendent leaps of brilliance. In 1944 Isamu Noguchi turned his creative attention to design a chess table, and the result demonstrates those same virtuoso traits. The form has become a modern icon that reveals the depth of Noguchi’s innovative vision and captures the apex of true design originality. Heralded as the “Chessmen of Tomorrow” in the January 1945 issue of Chess Review, the artistic chess sets, including the present chess table designed by Isamu Noguchi were included in the seminal exhibition, “The Imagery of Chess” held in 1944-45 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The idea for this exhibition purportedly arose from a beach side joke between Levy and the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and it became one of the most influential presentations of the contemporary visual culture of chess. The show addressed a crucial moment in modernist art and design by engaging artists and intellectuals associated with Surrealism, Dadaism, and the conceptual avant-garde. It displayed a complex selection of chess designs and imagery that sought to rethink notions of space, strategy, and traditional images of chess—a game that spans nearly 14 centuries of history. 

Julien Levy playing chess with Noguchi’s set

The discourse and imagery surrounding this theme implied that the traditional chess set was too bound up in imagery of a courtly past that no longer held relevance for the modern era, which had seen the real effects of immense destruction wrought through military strategy and carnage, which are only symbolized by the game itself. The modernist approach to chess sought to interrogate the game’s intellectual purpose via new theories of space, form, and universalism in design.

By 1944 when Noguchi was invited to participate in the “Imagery of Chess” exhibition, he was an established figure on the New York art scene and had participated in international exhibitions in Chicago and New York. He finished one of his most significant set designs for Martha Graham that same year for productions of “Appalachian Spring” and “Hériodiade,” characterized by abstracted interlocking sculptures of balsa wood, and in the case of “Appalachian Spring” an attention to abstracted architectural forms. These early set designs show a significant visual dialogue with his chess table design.

“The Imagery of Chess” placed Noguchi’s chess table alongside the work of a significant cast of internationally renowned avant-garde, Surrealist, and Dada figures such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Alexander Calder, Frederick Kiesler, Roberto Matta, André Breton, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, among others. The formal language of abstraction, organicism, and the modern desire to recast spatial elements within surreal and inventive planes are all represented in the chess designs for this exhibition. Although Noguchi was not a chess player like the other artists represented in Levy’s exhibition, he would have been introduced to the Japanese counterpart, shogi as a child, and later to the western version of the game while a teenager living in Indiana.

Noguchi’s sculptural approach is clearly evoked in the design of the chess table. This example is rendered in lustrous ebonized birch. Comprised of ebonized lumber-ply legs and a painted cast-aluminum tray beneath the tabletop, the design is characterized by its innovative sculptural, organic form. The underside construction of the table can be read as a surrealist sculpture through its harmonious landscape evocative of sensuously rounded planes or rolling hills in miniature. Noguchi’s sculptural effect shows aesthetic affinity with the contemporary Surrealist artist Yves Tanguy, who was experimenting with form and plane in his works, Untitled of 1928 and Deux Fois du Noir of 1941. These works display compositions of amorphous, attenuated forms that could be evocative of recognizable materials like stone or textiles, but ultimately remain an indecipherable part of Tanguy’s complex aesthetic language. Tanguy’s precise smoothness of form is especially comparable to the treatment of the chess table design through its lustrous finish.

The 1944 Newsweek review of the exhibition called Noguchi’s chess table the “most beautiful” example in the Levy exhibition, and included that it could have a dual functions as a tea table or sewing table. Functionality aside, the abstract composition of the table is closely related to Noguchi’s other experimental sculptures and playscapes of the period. A series of cast bronze sculptures including This Tortured Earth from 1943 as well as Contoured Playground from 1941 essentialize the landscape through sinuous curves and indentations to evoke a smooth landscape of the imagination. Noguchi’s designs for playground landscapes and playground equipment for Ala Moana Park in the early 1940s also indicate a philosophical connection to abstract biomorphism, allowing his representation of the landscape to mingle with notions of whimsy, play, and imagination.

Noguchi’s chess table base design and red and green plastic figures for the chess pieces are related in form to his notched interlocking sculptures of organic planar motifs from 1945, the constructed aluminum and green slate versions of Strange Bird (To the Sunflower) (Unknown Bird), Trinity executed in black slate, and Figure executed in bronze. Noguchi had the flat components of the acetate figures cut from an acrylic plastic sheet and rounded the edges to make them more inviting to the player, as well as echoing the rounded form of the tables underside itself. The pieces comprised flat planes intersecting in anthropomorphic shapes, evocative of the original characterizations of king, queen, knight, etc., which had been lost in standardization of chess set design over time.

The game of chess, with ancient roots originating in strategic board games popular in seventh-century Indian court culture, was associated with the nobility of Medieval Europe by approximately 1200. The game was famously characterized by Benjamin Franklin in his 1779 treatise The Morals of Chess as a game of “circumspection, foresight, and caution…Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it.” The standardization of a universalized chess set occurred in the mid-nineteenth century with an increase in the game’s popularity and international competitions. The standard Staunton chess set still used today (with some slight design variations), was patented by Nathaniel Cook, first produced by J. Jaques & Son of London in 1849, and designed on the precepts of visual legibility. Using lathe-turned ebony and boxwood pieces weighted with lead for stability, the Staunton sets were easy to reproduce, and pieces were designed to evoke Greco-Roman architectural principles associated with Neoclassicism.

The 1944 exhibition sought to reimagine the standardized chess set for a modern world, drawing on key examples of the 1920s avant-garde community, such as Josef Hartwig’s renowned chess set of 1924 executed for the Bauhaus in Weimar, which sought to demilitarize the game and evoke its rules through the specific shape of each piece. A year later in 1925, Alexsandr Rodchenko’s Constructivist chess table was included in his Soviet pavilion of the Lenin Worker’s Club at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. While these designs attempted to rationalize the visuality of chess through renewed modern interest in stark clarity, universalism, and hygienic spaces, the subsequent exhibition at Levy’s gallery was markedly representative of impassioned intellectual expression and a celebration of unconventional form through the project of Surrealism. The exhibition raised the compelling challenge to visualize the intangible, metaphysical space of the mind within the complex historical narrative of chess.

 The prototype of Noguchi’s chess table was executed in black and natural wood, and the present model is executed in black ash, as was the model included in the 1944–45 gallery exhibition. While Noguchi’s chess table went into limited production at Herman Miller after the exhibition, it was not sustainable on the mass manufacture level due to the highly complex organic form of the painted cast aluminum base, the most visually striking element of the design. The imaginative red and green plastic chessmen did not go into production. The design was shortly discontinued after initial production, and there are approximately twelve known Noguchi chess tables produced by Herman Miller dating to approximately 1948. This example is undoubtedly a masterwork of Noguchi’s œuvre, showing the modernist overlap of sculpture with functional design to achieve a harmonious form and intellectually stimulating effect on the viewer.

The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.

—Marcel Duchamp

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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