Poetry in Stone: Furniture as Sculpture

Deborah A. Goldberg, Ph.D.

Isamu Noguchi’s recently rediscovered pink Georgia marble dining table, circa 1948-49, for fashion photographer Milton H. Greene and his first wife, Evelyn (née Franklin), exemplifies his pivotal role in breaking the boundaries of design by conceiving of his utilitarian objects as sculpture. Its Surrealist-inspired biomorphism and egg shape correspond to both his contemporary artwork and several of his table designs. Noguchi would use its three materials: marble, wood, and aluminum in a range of sculpture and design-related objects.

Milton and Evelyn Greene, at the ages of 26 and 23 years old, respectively, were quite precocious when they commissioned the 44 year-old Noguchi in 1948 to design the table as well as a one-of-a kind “free-form” sofa and ottoman (known in recent years as the Cloud sofa and Cloud ottoman)[1] for the living area of their home in Weston, Connecticut. Greene recognized the furniture’s unique design, using the three pieces in fashion photo shoots. For example, he took one of his most iconic photographs, showing actress Marlene Dietrich sitting on the sofa in a studio setting for Life in 1952.[2] Her famous long legs (which were insured by her studio)[3] dominate the composition, with the curved edge of the sofa complementing her bent head and knee. Such photographs add a glamorous aura to the work. In fact, Greene’s close friend and business-partner, actress Marilyn Monroe (they had formed Marilyn Monroe Productions in January 1955) lived with him and his second wife Amy and their son Joshua for just over two years,[4] using these objects on a daily basis. She sat on the ottoman for a press photograph at the time of a CBS interview with the Greenes for Edward R. Murrow in April of 1955.

Marlene Dietrich seated on Noguchi's Cloud furniture for Life magazine, August 1952. Photographed by Milton H. Greene ©2018 Joshua Greene • archiveimages.com | © 2018 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Artist at Work

What makes this table by Isamu Noguchi even more exceptional is that there is photographic evidence of its creation. And even better, the images are by the incredibly talented, fashion photographer Milton Greene. 

Milton H. Greene (1922–1985)

Milton H. Greene, famous for his fashion photography and celebrity portraits from the golden age of Hollywood, met Marilyn Monroe on a photo shoot for Look magazine in 1953. The pair developed an instant rapport, quickly becoming close friends and ultimately business partners. In 1954, after helping her get out of her studio contract with 20th Century Fox, they created Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc. Milton and Marilyn were much more than business partners, Marilyn became a part of the Greene family. By the time their relationship had ended in 1957, the pair had produced two feature films, in addition to more than 5,000 photographs of the iconic beauty. There was magic in Milton and Marilyn’s working relationship. The trust and confidence they had in each other’s capabilities was on full display in each photo.

Photographed by Milton H. Greene ©2018 Joshua Greene • archiveimages.com | © 2018 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi became politically involved. He started Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the patriotism of Japanese Americans, and he volunteered to be placed in an Arizona internment camp where he resided for seven months. Following the war, he spent time in Japan exploring the issues highlighted by the conflict of war; the experiences culminating in sculptural works that were included in the exhibition Fourteen Americans hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946.

Noguchi traveled throughout his lifetime and was inspired by experiences, artists and techniques around the world. Never confined by material or a particular movement, Noguchi’s aesthetic accomplishments covered a broad range including sculpture, furniture and lighting design, parks, gardens, theater and more. His first retrospective was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968. He received multiple accolades and awards during his lifetime and in 1986 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. A testament to his commitment to public spaces, in 1985 Noguchi opened The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York (now known as The Noguchi Museum) and today his legacy lives on through the museum’s work. Noguchi died in 1988 at the age of eighty-four.

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