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  • Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth
  • Rob Harle
Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth by Louise Allison Cort and Bert Winther-Tamaki. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A., 2003. 240 pp., illus. ISBN: 0-520-23923-7.

This is an excellent book. Just as Noguchi himself successfully crossed boundaries and cultures, this book succeeds admirably in crossing the boundaries of the lavish coffee-table presentation, the studio artist's resource book and an extremely well-researched academic critique of, mostly, post-war Japanese ceramic art.

Lavishly illustrated in both color and black and white, the book will appeal to casual art lovers as well as serious ceramic students, teachers and researchers. The illustrations are not only of the stunning works by the various represented artists, but also of the artists at work in their studios, especially Noguchi, together with some wonderful personal photos.

The main intellectual component of Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics consists of four major essays, which make exciting reading. Winther-Tamaki's essay looks at factors that shaped Noguchi's "'embrace' of Japanese earth as a medium of modern sculpture and design" (p. xi). Ryu considers the broader milieu of early post-war Japan and discusses not only ceramics, sculpture and pottery but also the associated disciplines of architecture, graphic design and landscape design. He then analyzes the positions and work of many ceramicists with whom Noguchi interacted. Cort's essay extends the investigation of the Japanese artists and the philosophy they expounded in their use of clay and "its potential for meaning." Althshuler's essay explores ways Noguchi's work with clay and its critical appraisal, especially in the U.S., was driven by his attitudes towards art-making and national identity.

The latter was never far from Noguchi's mind, as he was essentially an outsider, at the start, in the world of Japanese ceramics and pottery. Perhaps, like David Suzuki, this cross-cultural inheritance generates a unique vision that allows such individuals to excel in their chosen fields. And like Suzuki, Noguchi never quite "fitted neatly" into either the American style or the Japanese. Suzuki once said that because he looked Japanese and spoke like a North American he was not easily and naturally accepted in either culture.

Throughout the book the emphasis is on critically exploring dichotomies such as "pottery/sculpture, handicraft/industrial design, avant-gardism/ academicism, native/foreign and tradition/modernity" (p. xi), which confronted both Noguchi and his Japanese clay-working colleagues. Noguchi interestingly made pottery only in Japan. "I have only made pottery in Japan, never elsewhere. I think the earth here and the sentiment are suited to pottery" (p. 1). These works were almost entirely created in three intense periods; 5 months in Kyoto in 1931, 1 week in Seto in 1950 and a couple of months in Bizen in 1952. It is [End Page 254] worth noting that while this book focuses mainly on post-war Japanese ceramics, Noguchi's arrival in Moji from America in 1931 is also well documented.

While the art-versus-craft dichotomy generally has become boring and passé, it was an important aspect of the postwar Japanese ceramic scene and as such influenced Noguchi and the other Japanese sculptors considerably. Consequently, these issues had to be addressed in a comprehensive treatise such as this. Perhaps the revealing investigation and critique of the art/craft relationship in Japan will help lay this dichotomy to rest.

Our goal is to illuminate the overlooked zone of interaction between conceptions of art and craft by focusing on the work of ceramic artists who believed themselves centrally engaged with modernism, surrealism, and other issues of concern to the international art world (p. x).

This art/craft dichotomy was partly fueled by the notion that clay was generally considered in America to be an inferior material for final sculpture.

The title is a little misleading, in that many of Japan's leading ceramicists and their work are discussed, not only Noguchi. However, it must be said that Noguchi's work was prolific in the three periods in which he created ceramics...


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pp. 254-255
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