The Internment Artist


Arts & Culture

Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture Elements.


The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the son of a Japanese poet and an American writer, had the gnawing wanderlust of those who feel they never belong. His world had always been spinning: a blur of steel towers in Manhattan, of arch cafés in Montparnasse, of bowed pagodas in Kyoto. He’d walked the patchwork flats of Indiana, the palm tree avenues of Honolulu, the slated plazas of Mexico City. In 1942, he waded into a sea of dust, banishing himself to Arizona’s Sonoran desert, where his life gave way to bleaker scenery: plains of silt and ironwood, megaliths of saguaro cacti, a rift of barbed wire more cutting than the cacti, if the gunners didn’t mow you down first. That year, Noguchi entered a concentration camp entirely of his own will.

He had lived in New York, a state exempt from the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The roundups that followed Executive Order 9066, signed seventy-five years ago next week, had affected mostly those in the American West. Yet Noguchi, whose first name means courage, had exiled himself anyway. He checked in to the Poston War Relocation Center, the largest of the United States’ concentration camps for those of Japanese ancestry. After talks with the U.S. government, he came to beautify the place, to make it more habitable. He also came in solidarity, to share the pain of a group he claimed as his own when he branded himself a Nisei, a first-generation Japanese American, in spite of feeling only like a gaijin, an outsider. Those efforts foundered. Rejected on both counts—by the administration, who regarded him with suspicion, and the internees, who feared he was a spy—he pleaded for months with the War Relocation Authority before he was set free. It was one of the blackest times of his career. 


Yellow Landscape.

This Tortured Earth.

Works from that period, now on view at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, are a testament not just to the agony of Japanese Americans during the war but to the suffering of immigrants through much of American history. Viewed against the rest of his work, the pieces seem vital to his growth as an artist. And the museum could not have picked a better moment to dust them off. The exhibition, “Self-Interned,” is a tonic to the hysteria now fueling anti-immigrant movements around the world. Noguchi’s sculptures give concrete form to the plight of the alien, offering a sharp rebuke of a country that would fear, vilify, deprive, and detain a people on the basis of their blood.

A sense of privation fills the galleries. This Tortured Earth, a bronze model for a memorial never to be, depicts a landscape raked by the tides of war. With its topography of gashes, the earth is a ragged slab of carrion. The bronze resembles the skin of a creature clawed to death in the dirt. Despite the busts he made in his early years, Noguchi preferred the geologic form to the human figure; he planned this piece as a war monument, but it pays homage to no soldiers. Humankind remains absent, effaced by its own savagery. Conceived as it was by an American held at a detention site, the empty memorial is a sobering reply to the nationalism of the age.

Noguchi, though seldom an agitator over his career, was not new to political art when he arrived in Poston. A few years before, he’d carved History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, an ominous mural stamped with a swastika and a hammer and sickle. In 1934, he sculpted Death, an unflinching view of the lynching of a black man. Henry McBride, a critic for the New York Sun, dismissed the work as “a little Japanese mistake.” McBride had rebuffed Noguchi before, claiming with Wagnerian echoes that his art was not genuinely of the people. “Once an Oriental, always an Oriental,” he wrote.

Discrimination against Japanese Americans reached its peak in the 1940s but had plagued them since their arrival. And Noguchi, who called himself a “half-breed,” knew animus on both sides. His fellow inmates eyed him with a wariness he’d experienced in Japan. He was rejected repeatedly by his Japanese father, the poet Yone Noguchi, who during the war wrote verse calling for the slaughter of Westerners. The spare Martian landscape of Poston, with its extreme temperatures and “eye-burning dust,” as he put it, reinforced his sense of being an alien. His isolation in the camp did not dilute his sympathy for the residents—quite the contrary. But it firmed up what he described as his “haunting sense of unreality, of not quite belonging,” an otherness that had always shadowed him and one that would shape all his work to come.


It gave rise, for instance, to the doors and gates that later obsessed him. Doorway, in the exhibition, may seem a waypoint for the artist’s wandering spirit. It is not only that. The piece offers more than an escape from unwelcoming territory. Like its sibling works, Doorway represents a rupture of borders, of barriers, of prisons less visible than Poston—like the petty ethnic distinctions that dogged him. Doorway is an exit from these confinements and also an entrance. Built with stainless steel, a material Noguchi associated with mirrors, the sculpture is a doorway to himself.

The self he sought, and wanted others to seek, dispensed with tribal banners. “To be hybrid anticipates the future,” he wrote in the camp, referring to his here-and-there heritage. “This is America, the nation of all nationalities. The racial and cultural intermixture is the antithesis of all the tenet[s] of the Axis Powers.” This motto would serve him as a compass, and to him the path forward wound a long way back. “The older it is, the more archaic and primitive, the better I like it,” he would later say of his aesthetic.

Like a shaman, Noguchi would use his art to channel the ancestors, imagining a prehistory long before the conception of race. This atavistic turn came in the 1920s, when he found a mentor in the primitivist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. But the political situation at home and abroad intensified Noguchi’s need to go digging. Though the fascists were equally enchanted with the ancient, they sought to uncover a mythic past to prove the superiority of their people. Noguchi subscribed to no such blood cult, instead seeking a past so deep that it transcended nationality.


This desire, to manifest the primordial “unity of nature,” informed the stoneworks for which Noguchi is renowned, especially the crude basalt boulders he chiseled in the 1980s. But there is more of man in his projects than many suppose. Strapped for supplies in Poston, he made use of organic matter: wood. Above all else, the carvings from this period resemble brittle, fossilized bone. They are dry and ancient looking, as if picked clean by the desert winds that rattled him. A driftwood tangle, untitled, evokes a human pelvis raised on a wire for medical display. The wooden arcs of Sculpture Elements call to mind the human rib, that symbol of Genesis—or perhaps they’re primitive boomerangs, weapons and harbingers of return. An arrowhead sits next to them. The past is power.

Noguchi fashioned many sculptures in those days from found objects, materials that emphasize the desperate conditions in which he found himself. In Yellow Landscape, he suspended pieces of bric-a-brac over a skeletal-white field. The work is a send-up of the era, with “yellow” referring not to the magnesite base but to Asian stereotyping. A sense of impending violence hangs over it all. A fishing weight dangles precariously, like a Fat Man or Little Boy about to scald the earth. The sculpture is a partial reconstruction, done in 1995, seven years after Noguchi’s death. As I studied the work, my nose barely an inch away, my shadow looming over the landscape, I noticed that the string bearing the weight had a tiny, straining knot; it may have snapped. I can’t say whether the knot was the artist’s intent or a custodian’s shoddy attempt at repair. What matters is that it is there, a sign for me of the season.


Self-Interned” is at the Noguchi Museum through January 7, 2018.

Rory Tolan is a writer in Brooklyn and an editor at The New York Times.