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SAN FRANCISCO — In 1948, Japanese calligrapher, painter, and teacher Saburo Hasegawa wrote an essay about how abstract and surrealist art were advancing in the United States. “Young Japanese artists such as Isamu Noguchi are gaining recognition with works that reveal extraordinary new tendencies,” Hawegawa wrote.
That was two years before Noguchi, a sculptor and designer born in the United States who spent his childhood largely in Japan, came to Tokyo and the two met and developed a strong bond. In 1950, Hasegawa enthusiastically welcomed Noguchi to Japan, which he hadn’t visited for nearly 20 years, and moderated a public lecture Noguchi gave and wrote a forward to his book on abstract art.
The two had plenty to bond over. Hasegawa had studied in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, and Noguchi went to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927 and apprenticed in Constance Brancusi’s atelier for several months. World War II affected both of them deeply — Hasegawa was in Japan during the war and Noguchi, in the United States, volunteered to be incarcerated at a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. His plan to redesign the camp and improve life for the people there didn’t happen, and when he tried to leave, it took months. In Noguchi’s words, the two artists’ experiences of the war made them want to make work “toward some purposeful social end.”
By all accounts the two had an intense, albeit short friendship (Hasegawa died of cancer in 1957), and together they created a new modern aesthetic. An exhibition at San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan, is displaying their art together: Noguchi’s paper Akari lamps and sculptures made of metal, wood, and stone, alongside Hasegawa’s paintings, calligraphy, and rubbings. The works aren’t displayed chronologically, but rather in a series of conversation about modernism, design, and abstraction.
Hasegawa died when he was just 50, and nowadays doesn’t have the name recognition of Noguchi. But, according to Asian Art Museum curator Mark Dean Johnson, during Hasegawa’s time he was the most famous Japanese artist, exhibiting at major museums including the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hasegawa spent the last years of his life in San Francisco, hanging out with the Beats and Zen practitioners Gary Snyder and Alan Watts, teaching drawing at the California College of the Arts and believing that only in the United States could he create abstract art influenced by Japanese traditions. Hasegawa called calligraphy “a great treasure house for abstract painting,” and the exhibition has several of his scrolls and screens, including “The Butterfly Dream—from Zhuangzi” (1956), which shows the black ink characters flitting on the tan background, suggesting the movements of a butterfly.
After Noguchi and Hasegawa met in Tokyo, they went on a two-week trip through Japan together, with Hasegawa acting as a tour guide, taking Noguchi to visit temples, tea gardens, and palaces. Having Hasegawa’s guidance through Japanese history and culture helped Noguchi to synthesize the Japanese and Western aesthetics. We can see Noguchi combining Japanese technique with American material in pieces such as “Sesshu” (1958), a tall aluminum sculpture with a dappled surface creased like origami. This piece is seen as a tribute to his friend a year after his death — Sesshu was Hasegawa’s favorite Japanese medieval ink painter, and the two often talked about his work.
You can see through these pieces how consequential Noguchi and Hasegawa’s friendship was, and how their mutual encouragement and inspiration pushed each artist to create. The bilingual exhibition catalogue includes a 1976 essay by Noguchi, “Remembrance of Saburo Hasegawa,” where he writes about his friend and their first trip together. “I myself must also have served as a catalyst in having all this pour forth, away finally from the misery of war, and the burned city,” he writes. “For a teacher a student is necessary.”
Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan continues at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St, San Francisco) through December 8.