I who was once Noguchi’s assistant and currently curator of his museum, have been organizing and examining a vast archive of documentary photographs and drawings that Noguchi made while traveling on a grant from the Bollingen Foundation beginning in 1949. In 2003 I had an opportunity to present a portion of these documents in an exhibition called The Bollingen Journey. This journey lasted for only a brief six years. With his Leica in hand, Noguchi was given an opportunity to discover other meanings for art. Traveling East from New York to Paris, to Italy and the Middle East, to India, Indonesia and Japan, not just once but several times around the world, Noguchi studied and searched for art in what he termed “the environments of leisure,” its meaning, its use, and its relationship to societies.
By 1949 the implications of the atom bomb were unequivocally apparent. In this seemingly doomed world, Noguchi felt urgency about the condition of art in 20th century western culture. Ironically his work was on the edge of breaking into acceptance and success but emotionally he was unprepared to deal with, what he observed to be, the marginalizing of sculpture—where art seemed to only function as decoration for architecture. Noguchi’s aspirations for sculpture went beyond the limits of what he referred to as “walk up studio art.”
For Noguchi leisure could be contemplative as well as participatory and focused on communally enjoyed spaces with special attention given to the “meditative and ritual uses of spaces, for the “re-creation” of the mind and the play world of childhood. Noguchi’s interest in this subject centered on questions of what leisure time and space might be in different cultures and what role art played in those arenas. The images he drew and the photographs he took are like notations, not only creative expressions but literal documents of the cultures, rituals, societies and spaces that he deemed representative of environments of leisure. Whether of a funeral, dance, mass rally or an uninhabited courtyard or temple, each photograph and drawing captures an essence that for some viewers might seem voyeuristic or banal but for Noguchi, they were sketches or memory tools, profoundly significant as they directly and indirectly informed his work and substantiated his beliefs in the spiritual significance of art.
Noguchi’s visual diary of hundreds of black and white contact sheets made from yards of bulk processed 35mm film were kept in a suitcase for several decades. Several hundred drawings and sketches had not seen the light of day for most of the years after they were drawn. Noguchi would revisit them every few years, always with the intention of writing a book on “the environments of leisure.” But alas, he never found his way back to the original project.
The Bollingen Journey exhibition and the work from these archives continue to intrigue and haunt me. I hope one day to revisit this project in another exhibition form but additionally as a book, definitively compiling and publishing Noguchi’s Bollingen production which he was unable to complete himself.
2009 Bonnie Rychlak, Curator Noguchi Museum