In 1941, Isamu Noguchi was living in Los Angeles, sculpting portrait busts for Hollywood stars while getting increasingly acquainted with the rich and famous. Then the attack on Pearl Harbor happened — and five months later, the Japanese-American artist was residing in the incarceration camp of Poston, Arizona, enduring unforgiving dry heat, afternoon dust storms, and bouts of despair. His entry, unlike that of the other prisoners, was voluntary: as a resident of New York, Noguchi was not subject to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that forced those of Japanese background living on the West Coast to guarded camps further inland; but as an activist who felt he had responsibilities to fellow Nisei and Issei whose lives were torn asunder, he envisioned using his art to at least improve their living conditions.
His ideas, at the start, were limitless and detailed. Noguchi wanted to organize lectures on Japanese art as well as arts and crafts activities, figuring that such vocational training could prove helpful after the war. He designed blueprints for the camps that carved out spaces for an arts center, a market, a cemetery, a Japanese garden, a botanical garden, a zoo, and even a miniature golf course. He had also taken the time to select various species of flowering plants to beautify the area, noting which colors would appear best during different seasons.
His plans for Poston are explored at the Noguchi Museum, where the exhibition Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center pulls together sculptures and archival documents that speak to Noguchi’s experience at the camp and its enduring impact on his own art. Taken in alone, the blueprints could be the most heartening works on view, outlining an urban space built with cultural sensitivity. Yet in the context of Self-Interned, they are tragic artifacts, as none of Noguchi’s designs, of course, were ever realized.
The exhibition does feature many of Noguchi’s other creations in the form of two dozen sculptures he made prior to, during, and after he entered Poston. Dating from 1937 to 1988, they reveal clear shifts in his practice not only in subject, form, and material but also in sentiment. The earliest objects on view speak to his occupation with commissioned work, including a serene, white plaster bust of theater actress Lily Zietz and a maquette for a frieze for a medical building. Among the latest are spartan sculptures made of bronze, stainless steel, and other heavy materials that turn one gallery into a landscape of his signature voids. These are suggestive of portals, of gateways that can’t transport your body but stir your mind towards openness and possibility. For Noguchi, sculpting these holes was a way to exercise control over his state of being — a means to move his mind towards a better world.
At Poston, he was trapped, stripped of the agency he’d thought he’d have when he first entered under an arrangement with government officials. The array of documents on view at the museum — the most fascinating portion of the exhibition — most explicitly speak to his spiraling experience there, comprising letters he sent to friends, family, and bureaucrats about his impressions and goals to establish art programs; statements from Japanese-American activist groups with which he worked, such as the Nisei Writers’ and Artists’ Mobilization for Democracy; and articles he penned for publications while at Poston.
Just a few weeks after his entry, he wrote, in a letter to Man Ray: “This is the weirdest, most unreal situation — like I’m in a dream — I wish I were out. Outside, it seems from the inside, history is taking flight and forever. Here, time has stopped and nothing is of any consequence, nothing of any value, neither our time or our skill.” Noguchi added that he was trying to start pottery and woodworking shops and that he was in charge of landscaping. Other correspondence with suppliers and order forms show that he requested all sorts of tools for arts and crafts projects, a thousand pounds of clay, sacks of plaster, and a kiln. He persisted, as he wanted all his programs to help humanize the incarcerated if their work was ever to be exhibited beyond the fenced community.
As time passed, however, Noguchi’s tone quickly changed. He realized he would receive no support from the War Relocation Authority or from Poston officials, despite the encouragement of his sponsor, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs John Collier. One document from August records Noguchi’s pleas to Collier to secure his release. Not only did he feel like he had made any contribution he could, but he also felt isolated and unwanted, finding essentially no companionship in the camp.
“From his point of view, [entering Poston] was an act of patriotism,” the museum’s senior curator Dakin Hart said. “But the moment he got there, some people viewed him as a tool of the government and as the creature of the camp administration. So he put himself into this incredibly tenuous situation on many levels, and he really did it because he was an incredible idealist … he really believed he could make a difference. He really believed he could make the camps more humane.”
It took Noguchi five months longer to leave Poston than he anticipated; documents pertaining to his release reveal the bureaucratic complications involved in receiving permission to leave. A questionnaire he had to fill out was a test of his loyalty to the United States, posing questions about his ties to Japan and Japanese communities. While he waited to exit the camp, Noguchi walked the desert and sculpted with wood, the material most readily available. One document from a shipping company reveals he was sending 475 pounds of possessions gained in Poston to New York. Most of it was likely ironwood roots he picked up for future use. Two branches rest on a table in the exhibition, representing these morose souvenirs that never made it into complete works.
“It’s so indescribable, the life here, so removed from the reality of New York,” Noguchi wrote to his sister that November. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle.”
That weariness evolved into deep frustration and anger with the nation’s treatment of its immigrants, which he channeled into his works. The sculptures made immediately after his exit were explicitly political, exemplified by a pair of works on one wall. “Yellow Landscape” (1943), composed of delicately balanced wood and fishing weights on string, depicts a world filled with anti-Asian sentiment, in a constant state of precariousness. “This Tortured Earth” (1942-43) resembles punctured, disfigured skin; it’s a proposal for an earthwork, depicted from above, with the land to be scarred with deep pits and lacerations by bombardment.
Noguchi, who regarded the entire planet as an artwork, saw potential in all its landscapes. Though relatively sparse and unvarying, the Arizona desert was emblazoned in his mind and emerged in many abstracted forms in the decades after his release. A synthetic landscape in one gallery recreates an industrial desert, bringing together works made between the 1960s and ’80s. Obsidian fragments and sheets of galvanized steel remind of the low, textured ridges of the red wilderness; hanging above the severe floor works is an iconic Akari light sculpture, representing a large, hot sun.
While Noguchi’s artworks continuously reflected his experience at Poston, he didn’t talk or write about it often until his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World. This exhibition provides an important context that may be lesser-known to many, to read Noguchi’s works in a different light. It also presents, though, necessary food for thought for our world today, best summed up in an article Noguchi penned in 1942 for Reader’s Digest that was never published.
“To be hybrid anticipates the future,” he wrote. “This is America, the nation of all nationalities … For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.” 2017 marks 75 years since Roosevelt signed his racist order, but America’s new president has introduced new threats to the country’s immigrants that frighteningly echo its attitudes. Noguchi saw the xenophobia that pulled apart the country. But rather than hide or carry on as a protected citizen, he chose to engage with and speak out against injustices, even when all hope seemed lost.