When Mark Dean Johnson entered Noguchi’s pied-à-terre tucked within the artist’s Queens studio, he encountered — to his surprise — a small wall hanging that he immediately recognized as the work of Saburo Hasegawa.
The petite piece, placed above Noguchi’s desk, depicts a phrase that translates to something like “serenity” — a reminder from one friend to another, Johnson conjectured during a recent press preview at the Noguchi Museum, to relax.
Extricated from its long-term spot in the studio, the artwork is now included in the museum’s new exhibition, “Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan.” The show, encompassing approximately 90 pieces, is a meditation of sorts on the friendship between Noguchi and Hasegawa, and traces how the artists’ discussions about culture, Japanese design, globalization and modernity fed into their practices and shaped their individual approaches. A selection of personal correspondence and biographical materials are included to provide a more intimate backstory of both the friendship and the artists’ lives in the 1950s.
Beyond exploring the connection between the two artists, the exhibition also serves to reintroduce New York audiences to the work of Hasegawa, who was among the most influential and well-known Japanese artists during his lifetime, but declined in popularity in the States following his death in 1957. When Noguchi met Hasegawa in Japan in 1950, both artists were established in their own careers and shared an interest in placing Western and Eastern art in conversation. At the time, they were both creating work in a world still recovering from the ravaging effects of a war that they had taken separate stances against — Hasegawa participated in self-exile and refused to make art in support of the Japanese war effort, while Noguchi chose to imprison himself in the Poston War Relocation Camp in the Arizona desert.
Many of the pieces in the exhibition reflect how this reality and the images of war (nuclear shadows, environmental devastation and industrial power) played roles in influencing the artists’ work, noted Noguchi Museum senior curated Dakin Hart during the show’s press preview.
A highlight of the show, Hasegawa’s folding multi-panel screen, titled “Rhapsody: A Fishing Village,” provides an eerie example of how the artist used the takuhon rubbing technique (created to make copies of incised calligraphy) to represent fragmentation by printing the impression of wood onto the screen. Reflecting the title of the piece, the disjointed images bring to mind debris and are a result, said Johnson, of Hasegawa “making sense of a post-apocalyptic, exploded reality.”
Placed within view of Hasegawa’s panels, a piece by Noguchi titled “Sesshu” offers an example of combining Japanese technique with materials distinctly related to American industry. Created with aluminum from the manufacturer Alcoa, which provided materials to the U.S. military during both World Wars, “Sesshu” presents an imposing tower built from thin metal creased like origami paper into a design that, as described in a press release, “recall[s] the flattened mountain landscapes of Sesshu.”
“We’re in a world in which everything has been atomized,” Hart noted, explaining the tenor of the time represented by the show. “Through the course of the exhibition, what is nice is that you see the different ways in which they are negotiating abstraction and representation and essentially trying to process trauma through the work in the search of something new. In search of something genuinely Japanese, but also sort of generalized for the world.”
And while a majority of the exhibition reflects this “atomized” aesthetic, the works included in the back half of the show depict how both Noguchi and Hasegawa were moving past the postwar moment into a more playful and representational form.
“We don’t want to sort of oversimplify and take the show from point A to point B,” said Hart, “but there’s no question that in that immediate postwar moment, you have abstraction being used as a metaphor for the fragmentation of reality, and then a kind of representation creeping back in and finding its footing and expressing itself, for both artists, across a really interesting range of styles and media, but with these little twists and finding ways again to truly develop these old traditions.”
“Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan” is on view at the Noguchi Museum through July 14.
Top Image: Tea ceremony in Nara with a group including Saburo Hasegawa (wearing glasses) and Isamu Noguchi (far right), 1950. Photo: The Noguchi Museum Archive. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS).