Isamu Noguchi

The Self


Not on display

Isamu Noguchi 1904–1988
Metal on stone base
Object: 860 × 229 × 210 mm
Purchased 1960


The Self is a long, vertically oriented, abstract iron sculpture that takes the form of a thick, oval-shaped tube that has been stretched vertically and narrowed on either side. It features a slim gap in its centre, and on each side of this are three protuberances that call to mind clasped fingers. The overall oval shape is mounted on an iron rod that is affixed to a stone plinth. The work has been exhibited lying down as well as in an upright position. In a letter sent to Tate curator Ronald Alley, the sculpture’s creator, the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, stated that his preferred orientation of the work is vertical, writing ‘It should be mounted upright with a rod going through the hole and leaning on extension out of say six inches’ (Isamu Noguchi, letter to Ronald Alley, 12 April 1969, Tate Acquisition file, Isamu Noguchi).

The sculpture was made by Noguchi in 1956. It began life as a small study in ceramic which was shown at the Kamakura Museum of Japan in 1952 and at the Stable Gallery in New York two years later. The iron version in Tate’s collection was created as an edition of four, and at the time of Tate’s acquisition of the work in 1960, two of these were owned by private collectors in Chicago and Japan. The work was cast in Gifu, Japan, where the artist had relocated following two tumultuous decades in his life. As a voluntary prisoner at the Poston War Relocation Center in the Arizona desert – an internment camp created after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour with the intention of forcibly incarcerating Japanese-Americans – the artist attempted to use sculpture and design to make less hostile spaces of the camps. Six years later, in 1948, Noguchi’s friend, the painter Arshile Gorsky, died by his own hand. Following this, the artist decided to apply for and was granted a scholarship allowing him to travel. It is during this time that he went to Japan and cast The Self.

In the 1969 letter to Alley the artist said of the original 1952 version of The Self: ‘The ceramic piece was called Genshi Jin in Japan meaning the “original” or “primitive” man. Genshi has the added modern meaning of Atom. The term could then mean The Atomic Man.’ However, when the artist recast the sculpture in iron he had decided to rename it, writing that ‘It always had for me a connotation of “selfishness”, or the man alone, the only existential identity. Hence … “The Self”.’ (Noguchi, letter to Alley, 1969.)

Noguchi is best known for his outdoor sculptures such as The Cry 1959–1961/2 (sculpture garden of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo), his work creating stage sets for dancer Martha Graham and his furniture design collaborations with Herman Miller Company. He also designed and produced the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York. His work is characterised by abstraction, simplicity and organic shapes. In this respect, the artist was influenced by his time spent as Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncu¿i’s studio assistant in Paris in 1927. Of his experience of Brâncu¿i’s atelier the artist wrote: ‘I was transfixed by his vision. The concept was not imposed, but was inherent in the relationship between the artist and his material … He showed me the truth of the materials and taught me never to decorate or paste unnatural materials onto my sculpture, to keep them undecorated like the Japanese house’ (Noguchi 1968, p.16).

Further reading
Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World, New York 1968.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.562–3, reproduced p.562.
Umberto Allemandi (ed.), Noguchi: Between East and West, exhibition catalogue, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin 2010.

Phoebe Roberts
June 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Isamu Noguchi born 1904 [-1988]

T00338 The Self 1956

Not inscribed
Iron, 33 7/8 x 9 x 8 1/4 (86 x 23 x 21) on iron and stone base; height including base 45 1/4 (115)
Purchased from the artist through the Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris (Grant-in-Aid) 1960
Lit: Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World (London 1967), pp.35, 245, repr. pl.81 as made in 1956
Repr: Kunstwerk, XIII, August-September 1959, p.52; Sam Hunter, American Art of the 20th Century (New York 1972), p.253

In his autobiography, Noguchi states that this is one of a series of iron castings made in 1956-7 in Japan (where he had gone to make a theatre curtain or Doncho). 'As an admirer of the old iron pots found in Japan, I had long hoped to tap the casting skill that must be there somewhere. This I found in Gifu, the city where my akari [lampshades] are made. I set about making objects suitable for iron casting, more simple and crude than anything one would normally associate with bronze.'

'The Self', which is being cast in an edition of four, has sometimes been dated 1957 but is listed in his autobiography as a work of 1956.

Noguchi added later (letter of 12 April 1969): 'Besides the one you have, there is one in Chicago which I mistakenly thought was owned by the Chicago Art Institute. It was instead bought by Mrs Florsheim from a show at the Art Institute where it won the Logan Medal. I believe this was with the understanding that they would get it eventually. There is another copy in Japan belonging to Mr Sofu Teshigahara. This leaves one to go, besides which I should like to have a cast made for myself.

'All the casts were made with the intention of being mounted in the way you have.

'The idea for this iron sculpture first appeared as a small study in ceramic. This was shown in a ceramic sculpture show at the Kamakura Museum of Japan in 1952 and later at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1954. I don't know who owns it.

'This ceramic piece was called GENSHI JIN in Japan meaning the "original" or "primitive" man. GENSHI has the added modern meaning of Atom. The term could then mean The Atomic Man.

'Why I shifted the name in the case of the iron casting was that it always had for me the connotation of "selfishness", or the man alone, the only existential identity. Hence ... "The Self".

'Yes, the casting you have was made in Gifu, Japan.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.562-3, reproduced p.562

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