How a Friendship Between Isamu Noguchi and Saburo Hasegawa Helped Shape Midcentury Design
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How a Friendship Between Isamu Noguchi and Saburo Hasegawa Helped Shape Midcentury Design

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By Amy Dvorak
A new exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum tells the story of how two midcentury masters met, and how their shared obsessions produced a lasting midcentury aesthetic.

At its core, Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan is a story of friendship. The new exhibit, which opens today at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, reflects conversations between two midcentury luminaries and displays more than 100 pieces in all. Renowned designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s paper Akari lamps and stone, wood, and metal sculptures are placed in dialogue with calligrapher, painter, and philosopher Saburo Hasegawa’s prints and paintings—ultimately revealing how their interest in fusing traditional Japanese shapes and concepts with modern, European aesthetic helped shape midcentury design.

Isamu Noguchi with Saburo Hasegawa and other friends, c. 1952

Noguchi has become a household name, but Hasegawa less so, partly due to his premature death in 1957. The exhibit, organized by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, illuminates how their work intersects (though they never formally collaborated on one given piece). Noguchi first met Hasegawa in 1950, after Noguchi’s voluntary incarceration at an internment camp in Arizona drove him to Japan to find a "purposeful social end" for his work. This sparked an intimate friendship and artistic bond that would not only shape their individual work, but also solidify Eastern influences in Western design.  

To learn more about the exhibit, we caught up with Karin Oen, curator for the show at the Asian Art Museum. Here, in her words, are a few things you should know about the artists, the exhibit, and why you need to see the show.  

Untitled [C.I-V], approx. 1955, attributed to Saburo Hasegawa (Japanese, 1906–1957). Photographic prints. 

How are the two artists’ works presented, and what was the desired effect?

We were able to reconfigure it in a way that makes sense in this museum. Rather than have all of Hasegawa’s work together and all of Noguchi’s work together, we wanted to integrate it. 

The goal was to create a relationship between very disparate works, but also create natural pauses to allow people to take in a large amount of work by artists pondering destruction in the atomic age, the terror of war, and how it affects people in a home environment. The pauses allow all of the weightiness to work well with other lighter things: the beauty of materials, the joy of framing specific moments. The Daoist philosophy was lifted out of historical context and incorporated into the work in kind of a playful way, allowing for all of these different kinds of experiences. The goal was to avoid an overwhelming presentation of work after work, but rather, convey that things could be taken in any number of ways. It’s not chronological; it’s about thoughtful grouping. They have a lot to say to one another.  

Space Elements, 1958, by Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988). Greek marble. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. 

How does the show highlight Noguchi’s unconventional approach to sculpture? 

There is a bit of a surrealist game Noguchi likes to play with materials. Ceramics and cast iron are functional in Japan, but here, he’s experimenting with that. He takes his skills for working with those materials and makes them non-functional in a way that has a real connection to the design. 

For instance, there is a kettle without a handle or spout. For the design-oriented community, you’ll be able to pick up on the considered use of materials. Decorative arts are often not as sophisticated as fine art, but with one tweak, Noguchi lets you think about sculpture in a different way. Materials are interesting and beautiful, but also, it keeps in heat. Ceramic vessels play with that. 

Also, both Noguchi and Hasegawa were playing with the sound of materials, wood, and stone. They’re often looking at precious relationships in space, often trying to define what's interesting before it changed.    

Nature, 1952, by Saburo Hasegawa (Japanese, 1906–1957). Wood rubbings; ink on paper. 

How do Hasegawa and Noguchi play with forms in space, and how are their works in conversation?

In the piece Nature, Hasegawa is exploring things like stone and wood in ink on paper. Subtle and sophisticated compositions almost read as landscape, but also geometric shapes. It puts a lot in the viewer’s corner, to bring to it what they see in this beautiful composition of shapes. Nature is based on the Japanese character for "void" or "nothingness," central concepts Hasegawa and Noguchi talked about at length. 

There are cases where they spent so many conversations having "aha" moments of lightness and darkness, form and void. Here, you’re seeing that play out before your eyes. 

One of the largest and most significant works, Garden Elements, features two slabs of granite, sort of related to one another, but they can be repositioned each time. I love that Noguchi has flexibility in his work, producing an ongoing reaction. The two components are very simple geometric shapes, very punctured. In his work in the late ’50s, after he’d been to Japan and after Hasagawa’s passing, Noguchi was very interested in the overall project of hypothetical studies in space. The rock itself is quite gorgeous as an object, but also, so are the unfinished qualities in work. The two pieces in Elements—perhaps they’re part of something larger, but they are reconfigured in way that suggests a lot of possibilities. Relationship to form and space comes out in his work. 

Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi and Yoshiko Yamaguchi at Uransenke Konnichi - an estate, Kyoto, c. 1952

Why does their work still feel urgent and resonant today?

In addressing physical destruction, cultural destruction, and alienation in people and artists, the works are very much cannily current—though issues of culture and identity are sometimes difficult to preserve in a globalizing, modernizing world. We’re still in crisis today, but with different players and issues. Is art a way to answer some of that? 

Our approach to the exhibition was creating that dialogue between personal circumstances at the time, by traveling and moving and seeing how some of the larger issues they keep referring to came out. In Noguchi’s cast-iron abstract piece named after his new wife, you see this very tender inferiority negotiating a joyful new relationship at the same time he’s considering creating a memorial for Hiroshima and work entitled War or Mortality. You have hope and a life that is not on hold despite the fact that he is trying to deal with the difficulties and trauma of war. 

Similarly, with Hasegawa, you see someone who retreated from art—he wasn’t painting in his 40s. The internalization of all that translated to wonderfully composed abstracts that are perfectly imbalanced. The beauty of this friendship is that they were able to connect on all of these.  

Orpheus, 1958, by Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988). Aluminum. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.  

What can viewers expect from seeing these pieces in person?

Both artists are known for a lot of different things; they’re both articulate with things they’ve written about how their practice was not just about art, but about overlapping and intersecting interests in a lot of realms—whether it be music or the consumption of tea, or friendships and romantic relationships in their lives. But this exhibit is really a chance to focus on the artwork. 

Spend time with these absolutely gorgeous works and understand the subtle modulations of applications of ink on paper or Noguchi’s stone or cast iron or ceramic work, which can only be seen in person. Reproduction of this work gives you a sense, but each has a really live quality, so I hope that it’s the starting point for longer engagement, to really be here with the work and have insight you can only get within very close proximity. That’s a very special way of celebrating art and friendship, and it’s something hard to articulate.

"Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan" runs from September 28 through December 8 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Related Reading: 

10 Things You Need to Know About Isamu Noguchi  

5 Public Landscapes of Isamu Noguchi

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