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November 16 2019
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The Stone House, in Mure, Japan.

A young boy from a family of successful stonemasons grows up in Mure, Japan, surrounded by the sea and the highly prized Ajiishi granite rocks of Kagawa Prefecture, where his father, uncles, and cousins have been hammering and chiseling lanterns, monuments, and gravestones since he can remember. He’s often nervous as they load the heavy, rough stones from the quarries into the family oxcart and then onto boats, yet there has been no question about his going directly from middle school into the family business. Soon he can split and polish with the best of them, but he stands out for his ability to coax delicacy from the huge boulders and for his unconventional notions about the stones he thinks of alternately as gods—and rascals. When he sees new stonework designs in the prefecture capital, Takamatsu, from architects Kenzo Tange and Tadashi Yamamoto, he’s inspired to launch a Stone Atelier with a few other pioneers.

This is Masatoshi Izumi, 25 years old and ready to break free from the traditional path set by previous generations.

The Stones of Noguchi

A young, California-born, half-Japanese boy who has been shipped back from Japan to be educated in the U.S. by his unconventional American mother is penniless but ambitious. He works his way up to an apprenticeship in Paris under Brancusi, gets recognition as a portraitist and muralist, collaborates with friends Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham, and has many glamorous lovers—including Frida Kahlo. Nevertheless, in solidarity with his aggrieved Japanese-American countrymen, he interns himself in an Arizona relocation camp during World War II. Studios in New York and Italy with international commissions and acclaim to follow, but still he searches, a self-described lifelong “wanderer … belonging anywhere but nowhere.”

Isamu Noguchi with Energy Void, 1971.

This is Isamu Noguchi, nearing 60, who senses working in Japan with the solidity of stone will replenish him. But he knows he will require the help of an artisan with technical solutions for the increasingly complex and original forms he contemplates and a commensurate curiosity and willingness to experiment.

In solidarity with his aggrieved former countrymen, he interns himself in an Arizona relocation camp during World War II.

In 1964, Yamamoto arranges a meeting to present Izumi—who does not know of the celebrated artist—to Noguchi. “He seemed to see into people,” Izumi told biographer Hayden Herrera. Noguchi is no pushover. He takes tiny plaster maquettes from his pocket. “By the time I come back again, please enlarge these,” he says. A year later, when he returns, Izumi’s stones have passed the challenging test.

It was a meeting, 55 years ago, that would alter the course of both their lives.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

It is not new for successful artists to have entire studios producing their work, a practice dating back to medieval and Renaissance guilds. Many contemporary artists, such as Jeff Koons, contend that concept—not hand—is king. Warhol even called his studio what it unapologetically was—the Factory.

Masatoshi Izumi and Isamu Noguchi at work in Mure, Japan.

But some artists develop relationships with their assistants and realize they can be inspired collaborators bringing something of their own to the process. What then separates the artist from the artisan? Izumi taught Noguchi the secrets of working with stone. Together the two embarked on adventures—“stone fishing,” they called it—and if the cutting and chiseling revealed the heart of their joint enterprise, this shared activity was the soul. A strong swimmer, Noguchi once plunged into rough water to inspect a rockfall when a boat could not get close enough to shore. “Noguchi-sensei’s smile when he met his favorite stone came from his whole body,” says Izumi. They traveled as far as Sweden and India on expeditions looking at stones, which Izumi sometimes secretly purchased, anticipating Noguchi’s future needs.

Izumi taught Noguchi the secrets of working with stone.

Arriving by ferry today from a contemporary-art pilgrimage to the islands of Naoshima and Teshima, the transition to the workaday municipality of Takamatsu is abrupt. But the short drive to Mure leads to a parallel magical world—the complex of buildings, artworks, and land works that comprise the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. This is the site of his last spiritual and professional retreat from an increasingly complicated life, where many say he was able to do his most important work, and find a pathway back to Japan-ness under the nurturing Izumi-family umbrella.

Mihoko Masuda, Izumi’s daughter, now curator of the museum, which is affiliated with—but separate from—the Noguchi Museum in New York, tours me around the family compound, where an abandoned house was imported and retrofitted for Noguchi’s extended yearly residencies. His desk chair and book-lined study sit untouched by time, and the tatami mats and shoji screens of a traditional Japanese home meld with Noguchi-designed Akari paper lanterns and carved stone tables. Just outside is a “Stone Circle” with sculptures and, beyond, two soaring, light-filled kura, retrofitted sheds that serve as indoor working, display, and storage spaces.

Behind the Glass Door

Almost as an afterthought, Mihoko shows me the 1972 house her father built for his own family hidden behind the public spaces. When she opens the sliding glass door to her childhood home, I am enchanted. Almost every element is comprised of carefully selected stones in all shapes and sizes, watered daily like plants to refresh the spirit within them. It feels like a stone garden, warm and lush, even though stone is generally thought of as a hard, unforgiving material. Designed with the help of Yamamoto, the Stone House is not at all typical of traditional Japanese architecture. It does, however, hew to the tradition of melding indoor and outdoor spaces and showcasing natural materials. The roof is made of thin, red metal frets, so that instead of feeling heavy, the impression is one of airiness and grace.

Noguchi, in the Stone House, celebrating his 84th year.

It is from here that Izumi rose early to meet Noguchi with his disciples in the Stone Circle, a sacred, walled-off world of creativity and collaboration. Noguchi was an unlikely-looking guru dressed in his baseball cap and sneakers as he studied the stone and then drew with white chalk and red ink to indicate cuts—which often changed. But there was indeed a cultish, religious feeling surrounding the master. Noguchi spoke only basic Japanese and Izumi had no English, but their communication was of another, more intuitive kind.

Noguchi was an unlikely-looking guru dressed in his baseball cap and sneakers.

This dual approach was their methodology for many large-scale commissions, such as those at the Tokyo Supreme Court, the Metropolitan Museum, the South Coast Plaza, and the Storm King Art Center, as well as for individual sculptures. Only their first project, Black Sun, commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum, was an outlier, as stone was ordered from Brazil and sat in the port while Izumi sheathed it in a hut and worked for eight months buffeted by winter sea winds to reduce it enough to be transported inland. Noguchi arrived periodically to finish the project, and local women—including Izumi’s wife, Harumi—then polished it as Noguchi walked among them whistling and whispering, “You are polishing your soul.” But Noguchi could also be emotional—even petulant; the men feared his temper. Izumi still makes excuses for his master. “Noguchi was angry with me and my disciples sometimes, but also angry with himself … Stone is difficult.”

Izumi was the most precious kind of rock, someone Noguchi could count on, donating his land, building his home, creating perfect working conditions, even arranging meals and joining him for dinner. And like a wife who looks the other way, he is still reticent discussing the influx of younger women Noguchi found essential for stoking the eroticism of his work. (Some descriptions of the thrill that stone-splitting gave Noguchi sound much like sexual acts.) If he could not always defy the gods of stone, he could try to defy the gods of aging.

“Noguchi was angry with me and my disciples sometimes, but also angry with himself … Stone is difficult.”

Mihoko remembers playing with her brother outside Noguchi’s house in the dark while waiting for her mother and catching fireflies. That was better than when both parents were tending to Noguchi, leaving her in tears.

She has heard her father say the Stone House gives him special energy, but however magical the space is, it wasn’t “a convenient place” for a growing family.

Eventually they built a smaller house next door. The disciples moved into the Stone House, tended by Harumi until they were all married. Then Izumi moved back in—alone. “When I get up in the morning, I want to see a beautiful stone quietly,” he says.

Stone Silent

This humble man—still devoted to Noguchi’s memory—became a respected artist in his own right, working the stone in a more organic, minimalist way, preferring to listen to its “voice,” not taming it but setting it free. For Noguchi, Izumi was another limb. For Izumi, stone is another limb. Just last week, another important collaborator of Noguchi’s, architect Shoji Sadao, who worked with Izumi to help Noguchi create the Noguchi Museum in New York, died in Tokyo. Noguchi had a “genius for attracting people … who could make his life run smoothly,” wrote Herrera.

Mihoko’s brother became a stone craftsman. For her part, Mihoko says, “Noguchi-sensei took me aside at his 84th-birthday celebration. ‘Do you want to get married like a regular girl, or do you want to do your best here?’” Mihoko is a modern woman who has a university education and has managed to do both.

In the last years, Izumi helped Noguchi shape a large hill garden, where he could climb and look out over the mountains and the sea. It is here he set some of Noguchi’s ashes inside a stone that Noguchi had once pointed out as a place he might like to rest. Izumi completed the large-scale projects they had begun. But sculptures that remained in Mure—many unfinished—were moved into the Stone Circle, an elegant and haunting reminder of the special relationship these two artists had. “To Izumi Masatoshi,” Noguchi wrote in the dedication to a monograph by his half-brother Michio, which celebrates the crucial role Izumi played in his life, “My friend and collaborator who I admire above all others.”

Patricia Zohn is a culture writer and an Editor at Large for air mail

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