Isamu Noguchi and Saburo Hasegawa: A Friendship Nearly Lost to Art History

Installation view of 'Changing and Unchanging Things' at the Asian Art Museum. (Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Even decades after Saburo Hasegawa’s death, the artist and designer Isamu Noguchi would describe his friendship with Hasegawa as an “everlasting conversation.”

The two first met in 1950, when Noguchi was near the end of a two-year world tour, ostensibly researching leisure environments for a book project. Hasegawa served as Noguchi’s guide and translator in Japan, and their relationship of cultural, philosophical and artistic exchange continued for the next seven years, until Hasegawa died at age 50 in 1957.

Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan arrives at the Asian Art Museum after a journey of its own. Organized by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York (a must-visit), the show premiered at the Yokohama Museum of Art earlier this year, traveling to the Noguchi Museum and now San Francisco, linking audiences who are likely much more familiar with Noguchi’s name than Hasegawa’s, even though the latter spent the last years of his career in the Bay Area.

Saburo Hasegawa and Isamu Noguchi at Shisendo Temple in Kyoto, Japan, 1950.
Saburo Hasegawa and Isamu Noguchi at Shisendo Temple in Kyoto, Japan, 1950.

Hasegawa wasn’t always a forgotten chapter in American art history. The two-gallery exhibition at the Asian Art Museum shows artists equally established in their careers. Both men were in their 40s when they met, both had traveled widely and brought to their work a cosmopolitan understanding of global art trends. In their own ways, both exported versions of Japanese culture and philosophy to Western audiences: the Japan-born Hasegawa through lectures and exhibitions in New York and San Francisco; American-born Noguchi through his translation of Japanese forms into modernist sculpture.

In the elegantly arranged exhibition, organized here by curator Dr. Karin G. Oen, the two artist’s works mingle freely. Noguchi’s stone, wood, ceramic and metal sculptures stand beside Hasegawa’s woodcuts, ink paintings and rubbings, echoing shapes and formal elements. Though neither artist’s work can be confused for the other’s, a kinship is evident, most often in the translation of two-dimensional shapes into three-dimensional objects (and vice versa).

Isamu Noguchi, 'Calligraphics,' 1957.
Isamu Noguchi, 'Calligraphics,' 1957. (© The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS; photo by Kevin Noble)

Take the two “mu”s in the exhibition. In Japanese kanji, “mu” is a character that means “nothing.” But both Noguchi and Hasegawa seem to interpret “nothing” as a possible container for “something.” Noguchi’s My Mu is a delicate sculpture of Seto stoneware on three narrow legs, one of which curls into a slight foot. With that curl, it becomes an anthropomorphized figurine—possibly a pet—and a receptacle for proprietary feelings.

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Hasegawa’s Mu renders the kanji character in the shape of a house, a rubbing of ink on paper that fills every empty space with the ribbed grains of rough wood. Both artist’s emphasis on emptiness as a possibility, not a lacking, directly links to Daoist philosophy, lines of which Hasegawa includes in the ink on paper piece From Lao-tzu. Part of the scattered calligraphy reads, “Shape clay into a vessel; / It is the space within that makes it useful.”

Calligraphy appears in a number of Hasegawa’s pieces in Changing and Unchanging Things, but it always retains its legibility—when these works were displayed in Hasegawa’s lifetime, he included translations for audiences who didn’t understand Japanese. Noguchi, however, used Japanese calligraphy without any such compunctions. To him it was just another source material: His striking 1957 sculpture Calligraphics doesn’t reference any particular letterforms, but borrows from the general shapes of them, and the cast iron wrapped in rope becomes totemic.

Attributed to Saburo Hasegawa, 'Untitled [C.I-V],' approx. 1955.
Attributed to Saburo Hasegawa, 'Untitled [C.I-V],' approx. 1955. (Courtesy of the Tia and Mark Watts Collection)

Many of the Noguchi pieces included in the exhibition will be recognizable to fans of his work, and that well-deserved star status does have the potential to overshadow Hasegawa’s lesser-known practice. But Hasegawa’s own material experiments are up to the challenge, particularly a series of photograms arranged on one wall beside a case of Noguchi’s Akari lanterns. These prints make clear Hasegawa’s interest in blurring positive and negative space, the dynamism of his high-contrast black-and-white forms and his iterative sensibility. It’s just one of many moments in the show that makes it painfully visible just how many directions Hasegawa might have pursued and how many additional artworks he would have made if not for his untimely death.

Despite its limited scope—two artists’ work spanning about a decade of time—there is much in Changing and Unchanging Things to ponder, and so much to learn. Oen’s wall text dives deep into Noguchi and Hasegawa’s approaches to artmaking, their appreciation of Japanese tradition, and their individual and shared histories. Their experiences on opposing sides of World War II, for example, were somewhat parallel: Noguchi voluntarily spent seven months of the war in an Arizona internment camp, hoping to improve the physical spaces of the internees; Hasegawa spent years in “virtual exile” as a pacifist surrounded by fervent nationalism.

Though Changing and Unchanging Things goes to lengths to demonstrate the genuine exchange and parity present in the artists’ relationship in the 1950s, the show ultimately functions to introduce (or more accurately, reintroduce) Hasegawa to audiences unfamiliar with his work. Without either artist present (Noguchi died in 1988), it’s up to presentations like this to continue the “everlasting conversation” between their practices, and for us to glean from such juxtapositions a way of approaching art that is rooted in the past, but committed to forging a more equitable, peaceful and interdependent future.

'Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan' is on view through Dec. 8, 2019. Details here.

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