Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

Isamu Noguchi's Modernism Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950

Read Chapter 1


Earthworks, the Depression Economy, and Monument to the Plow

After trips to Paris, and then China, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Noguchi returned to his home in New York. It was not easy to return in the midst of the Great Depression, when, like many other artists, he had little hope of making a living. Even though he'd enjoyed some success with two exhibitions in 1932, Noguchi, unable to pay the rent, lost his studio. He ended up living in a storefront on East Seventy-Sixth Street. Perhaps because of his own finances and tenuous living arrangements, he grew increasingly sensitive to "contrasts of poverty and relative luxury" in the world around him, and more "conscious of social injustice." He cultivated "friends on the left," many of whom were artists, in an effort to create both community and a new kind of socially conscious art. "I wanted other means of communication," he remembered; "to find a way of sculpture that was humanly meaningful without being realistic, at once abstract and socially relevant.... Such wishful thinking produced a Monument to the Plow."

Noguchi later recalled: "In the winter of 1933-1934, I had a vision. I saw the earth as a sculpture; I got the feeling that the sculpture of the future might be on the earth. This moved me to make a very big thing called 'Monument to the Plow,' actually a monument to Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, who invented the American plow-a plow which digs the earth, a plow with which they were able to 'break the plains.' ... It was to be a monument to the American beginning." In December 1933 he applied to the federal Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), a project employing artists who were out of work during the Depression, and he was admitted in February 1934. Soon after, he submitted his drawing for Monument to the Plow (Figure 4), completed in late 1933 or early 1934, to the New York PWAP office. Artists admitted to the PWAP collected a weekly stipend for artwork that would embellish public buildings; painters usually produced murals for public institutions such as post offices, schools, and hospitals. Sculptors created work that could be displayed in front of public buildings and in other public spaces, such as parks and plazas. All PWAP artists were charged with producing work that would represent the "American scene," a concept loose enough to encourage a wide range of artists to participate in the program and to ensure a positive response from the public to the government's sponsorship of public art.

The PWAP review board found Noguchi's design for Monument to the Plow inappropriate to the project. According to Forbes Watson, the technical director of the PWAP, "The technical committee in the central office turned their thumbs down on them [Noguchi's designs] so hard they almost broke their thumb nails." Apparently, the review board did not see Noguchi's designs for three monuments, including Monument to the Plow, as sculpture. Juliana Force, the head of the New York PWAP, wrote to Noguchi, indicating that he could continue working for the project, but only if he were "willing to undertake work of a more purely sculptural character." Even though the New York PWAP office rejected his designs, it refused to return the artist's architectural renderings of the designs, because they were the "property of the Public Works of Art Project." Unfortunately, after several weeks of discussions about his rejected designs and other works for which he had made models, Noguchi and Force failed to agree on the suitability of his sculpture for the PWAP. Noguchi was cut from the payroll on April 14, 1934, just two months after he'd joined.

Why did Noguchi's design, particularly for Monument to the Plow, meet with such stiff resistance? Probably the huge scale and unconventional formal organization of the work had driven the panel to reject it. Noguchi's plan was to create a huge pyramid of earth, with sides twelve hundred feet long to be planted with wheat in patterns that would focus viewers' attention on New Deal agricultural practices and policies. His proposal must have struck the PWAP committee as radically divergent from the typically figurative work the committee expected to see. The evaluators may not have considered it to be "art." If so, they would not have been alone. As I have noted, critics of Noguchi's work often had trouble distinguishing between a critical view and a stereotypical view: between the work itself and the work as indicative of Noguchi's Japanese American identity. The radically abstract monumentality of Monument to the Plow could have been perceived as a "natural" outgrowth of his "outsider" status as a member of a minority culture within white America. Or the work might have owed its rejection to its unconventional aesthetic program. For Henry McBride, the critic who would soon savage Noguchi's sculpture Death, the designs for public monuments that Noguchi exhibited at the Harriman Gallery in 1935 alongside Death-including those he submitted to the PWAP-were disconcerting:

Monument to the Plow ... proposed location in the Middle West, preferably at the geographical center of the United States. Triangular pyramid, 12,000 feet wide at base, made of earth on one side tilled in furrows, one side planted to wheat, and topped with a huge block of concrete and a large stainless steel plow.

Play Mountain ... proposed location anywhere in Manhattan. A communal playground mounting in curved steps, with possibilities of a water chute in summer and sledding in winter.

Carl Mackley Memorial ... location in community housing development of the Philadelphia Hosiery Workers Union. The emblem represents the tools of their industry and is enlarged four times.

Monument to Benjamin Franklin ... a triangular plot in front of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia might receive this model. If lightning hits the key held aloft by a kite, as it probably will, safety is afforded by high tension insulators.

How can we resist such alluring suggestions? We cannot, and the inference is, therefore, that Mr. Noguchi, all the time he has been over here, has been studying our weakness with a view of becoming irresistible to us. Cowards that we are, however, we notice with a certain degree of comfort, that Mr. Noguchi's most likely designs are planned for Philadelphia.

McBride's insinuation that Noguchi was not native-born emerges as if a natural part of his aesthetic judgment, underpinning the critic's assessment of the artist's designs for public monuments. The review greatly exaggerated the scale of Monument to the Plow, as if to emphasize the outlandishness of Noguchi's proposal-with sides of twelve thousand feet, not the twelve hundred feet described on the drawing. Noguchi's design for the proposed monument called for, instead, a location, conception, and scale as follows:

Location: In the middle West Prairie on land affected by wheat crop curtailment program.

Characteristics: A triangular pyramid-1200{pr} sides at base-slopes between 12{dpr} and 74{dpr} to horizontal-made of earth-one side tilled soil in great furroughs radiating from base corner-one side planted to wheat and 3rd side half tilled soil with furroughs radiating from apex and half barren uncultivated soil. Large apex block of concrete and huge model of steel plough (in Stainless Steel) at peak.

By giving false information about the work and implying that the artist was not really American, McBride invited his readers to see the radical sculptural concept as a product of the artist's alien origins.

Noguchi did not give up on reimagining what sculpture could be in contemporary America; he devoted himself to making works that would transcend "the accepted purposes and dimensions" of art. In this vein, he proposed a "ground sculpture covering the entire triangle in front of Newark airport, to be seen from the air," but he was ignored. Soon after McBride published his hostile 1935 review, Noguchi left New York for Los Angeles, with the goal of eventually traveling to Mexico City. He made portrait busts in Los Angeles (and designed a swimming pool for the director Josef von Sternberg) to support his journey south. Once he settled in Mexico City, he participated in a community-based public mural project under the aegis of a group of artists associated with the painter Diego Rivera, creating a monumental public sculpted wall that exemplified the very ideas that had been ignored when he lived in New York. This work, a large-scale cement mural titled History Mexico (Figure 5), exemplified Noguchi's ambition to make significant public work with a socially relevant message, in this case, an antifascist take on twentieth-century social and political culture.

When, much later, Noguchi looked back on this moment in his career, he recognized that he had been "discriminated against"; that critics had viewed him as an artist either "too successful" (he could make money doing portrait busts) or too unconventional. And he recalled how responses to his Harriman exhibition had driven him to "have no further truck with either galleries or critics." He did not want to make portraits of wealthy patrons or the figurative sculptures he felt he was expected to produce. He wanted to make creative public work that would be socially relevant. Although he failed to complete his Monument to the Plow, his design for this massive public sculpture exemplified his new way of thinking about public art and how it could actively combine the heroic tradition of American landscape representation with a contemporary understanding of American rural life and agricultural practices under the New Deal.

Representing the American Landscape

Noguchi had conceived the large-scale monuments that he had designed for the PWAP and exhibited in 1935 as projects that would make sculpture relevant to contemporary American life. His designs for Monument to the Plow and Monument to Benjamin Franklin linked public sculpture to American cultural and economic history in a modernist sculptural language. The subjects of these works were themes and individuals from American history that he must have thought could help him explore the "American scene" that was so much a focus of the American artistic community in the 1930s. Basing his designs "upon a fundamental American attitude of ... making do in an inimical world by a new and better way of making a mousetrap or finding a new way of living," Noguchi revealed his own ambition to be a quintessentially American artist, an identity that in his account has less to do with race or ethnic ancestry than with a way of thinking about the world. He identified himself with the visionary American thinkers and inventors who'd reimagined the idea of the nation, or who had shaped a new understanding of man's relation to modern technological advancement: men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the Wright Brothers, or his good friend R. Buckminster Fuller. Remembering his monumental designs for the PWAP, Noguchi wrote: "One of the things I did in 1933 ... was Monument to Ben Franklin which had lightning with a kite up above and a key below. Well, you say you could call it an abstraction, but to me it's a very practical demonstration of the story of Benjamin Franklin and electricity. So in a sense I'm very American."

Noguchi's words convey his internalization of a particular national cultural essence. In his account, being "American" meant tying oneself to a tradition-perhaps mythic-of the great American inventor whose designs combined practicality and innovation. In the early 1930s, as Noguchi turned his attention to Ben Franklin's invention of electricity, he was also considering his own new understanding of another element of the American cultural identity-agrarian democracy. In his design for Monument to the Plow, Noguchi envisioned the tools of modern agrarian society-plow, soil, and human labor-as the material for constructing his sculpture. The work would follow the long tradition in American cultural history of forging national identity by representing the American landscape.

In a radical gesture that surprised the PWAP review panel and underscored his commitment to using unconventional materials, Noguchi used the earth as a traditionally trained artist would use clay or marble. But the creation and maintenance of the work, as well as its viewing, would leave traditional landscape representation behind. The work would not be made in an artist's studio, nor would it be viewed in a gallery or a museum. Instead, the artist would work with his materials outside these confines. And the content of the work, although connected to the representation of landscape that dominated American art, would have a socially conscious edge: farm labor, crop production, and commodity consumption were to be its manifest content. Although we do not think of Noguchi as an artist who embraced the earth and its agricultural traditions, his life story suggests that attending high school in rural Indiana may have given him an understanding of how to make sense of the "American scene" in contemporary art that would speak to the realities of agricultural dislocation and transformation during the Great Depression.

In 1918 Noguchi's mother arranged to send him to the Interlaken School for Boys, in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, whose director was Dr. Edward Rumely (of the Rumely farm equipment company). When the United States entered World War I, soon after Noguchi's arrival, the school closed. Its grounds were taken over by the U.S. military to train and house military recruits. Noguchi moved in with Dr. Rumely and his family and attended the local public high school in La Porte, Indiana. Although Noguchi was not educated at the Interlaken School, his relationship with Rumely deeply affected his intellectual development. Rumely had applied his educational philosophy to the Interlaken curriculum, designed to prepare promising young men-many of them the sons of wealthy Chicago farm industry businessmen-for lives in agriculture and industry. The curriculum integrated traditional, academic book learning with hands-on, labor-intensive activity; field trips to local farms and factories (including the Rumely Oil Pull Tractor Factory in La Porte, the Oliver Chilled Plow Works in South Bend, the United States Steel Mill in Gary, and the Ford Motor Company in Detroit); and frequent lectures by local businessmen and industrialists.

Although Noguchi spent only part of his youth on the Rumely farm in Indiana, his close relationship with Dr. Rumely in the 1920s and 1930s taught him the significance of agricultural and industrial labor and technology for U.S. cultural and economic development. During his years as a student in Indiana, Noguchi remembered later, he fashioned a self-image as a "typical American." And he also recalled the landscape, its geography, and the spaces he inhabited then as affecting him throughout his life. Monument to the Plow may thus have been nurtured by his time in rural Indiana. Rumely taught him about the origins of the plow and its role in the economic and social development of the United States. And Rumely explained to him that "the steel plow ... had been devised through correspondence between Franklin and Jefferson, which had then made possible the opening up of the western plains." The plow as a catalyst for American prosperity and development was integral to Noguchi's design for Monument to the Plow: "My model indicated my wish to belong to America, to its vast horizons of earth."

Recognizing the need to design a distinctively "American" work for the PWAP program, Noguchi took up the plow as a subject with a good practical knowledge of agricultural technology and a subtle grasp of the social and cultural elements of the history of agriculture in the United States. In designing the sculpture, he emphasized the farmer's crucial role in the national economy and in the nation's pastoral identity, at the same time critiquing some fundamental myths about the relation between nature and nation in the United States that had lingered since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

His critical stance is evident in the monumentality of his design's abstract form (see Figure 4). Instead of showing the farmer working the soil with his plow, or the earth ready for harvest, in order to convey social and economic progress, Noguchi called for the literal and conceptual cultivation of the earth itself. His proposal required the use of actual farm machinery to sculpt the land; and according to the drawing, this sculpting would take a form related visually to the techniques of terracing or contour farming normally used to reduce the erosion of soil by wind and water. For Noguchi, Monument to the Plow expressed the powerful link between earth, farmer, and the nation's agricultural past and future:

To the awakened people of our country, we "Time Design Associates" anonymously wish to present a proposition for the erection of this Monument to the Plough, the Plough as symbol of all the poetry and labor of agriculture, to the future mechanized farmer as well as to the dirt farmer of the past.

A plough of huge proportions constructed of stainless steel is mounted at the apex of a gently inclined triangular pyramid, the cap of which is concrete. This mound, a form so common to North America, is to surpass all former mounds in size and will require the work of many men. A natural elevation in the Western prairie will be taken advantage of, the earth to be graded into a strictly geometrical shape.

One side of the pyramid will be left barren, one side will be tilled, and the other sown to wheat each year so that it will be a living monument to the seasons and the farmers' timely labors.

This description of the project was part of Noguchi's proposal to the PWAP on behalf of his newly formed design company, called Time Design, in 1934. Probably only after this company failed to gain either financial support or political patronage did Noguchi present the proposal on his own behalf to the New York branch of the PWAP, which rejected it a second time. After the second rejection, Rumely wrote to several plow manufacturers, asking them to consider funding the project privately:

[Noguchi] would have C.W.A. [Civil Works Administration] workers create a pyramid or mound using earth-the material of the Indian Mound Builders. He would place on top a stainless steel plowshare, a symbol of the conquest of man in our Middlewest over the soil. There may be in this idea the basis for a monument that would symbolize the work of the pioneer plowman. Young Noguchi has the power to elaborate his idea and work it out.

The men who designed the American plow, who evolved methods of inexpensive production, who carried the American plowshare around the earth, are deserving of their monument. How can we have it built? Incidentally, you may know that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin contributed to the formula for the shaping of our plowshare.

The letter Rumely sent to Oliver Chilled Plow Works and Deere and Company emphasizes the project's connection to the history of American agricultural innovation, and his language seems to anticipate that of Noguchi, whether in the latter's recollection of the monument's genesis, or his letter to his first clients emphasizing the symbolism of the work as a symbolic commemoration of the plow's central role in nation's history. Indeed, as early as the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson envisioned the United States in mythic pastoral terms, nurturing the cultural ideal of "a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size." This image was unencumbered by the realities of industrialization and manufacturing that played out subsequently in the nation's westward expansion. American nineteenth-century visual art represented agricultural practice, landscape cultivation, and the labor of the farmer-settler as important symbols of national progress and collective growth. In his own way, Noguchi framed his design for Monument to the Plow with these ideals in mind, although it was tempered by the realities and practices of the depression economy. And by envisioning the labor required for the work's construction as emanating from the ranks of the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which hired unemployed farm and urban workers, Noguchi not only reclaimed unused land but also mobilized unused labor to ensure agricultural and human productivity.

Reinventing the American Scene

Noguchi designed Monument to the Plow at a time when American artistic communities were debating what would define "American" modern art, the American artist, and an "authentic" representation of the American scene (if such a thing were possible). When the PWAP was set up in December 1933 with a mission to hire artists to produce images or objects depicting "America," artists such as Noguchi had to consider how to negotiate the diversity of an American cultural landscape that included rural and urban sites, themes, and sensibilities.

During the early 1930s the debates took place in the pages of art journals, newspapers, and magazines. They were also honed within the context of the PWAP program, whose mission was to foster the creation of art representing the "American Scene." Implicit in this programmatic emphasis, therefore, was a need for artists to define their work's Americanness, whether in order to garner a federal commission or to enjoy contemporary critical acclaim in the art press. Whether or not artists worked for the federal art programs, critics and collectors increasingly seemed bent on clarifying what an essentially American art might look like or depict. The American Scene imagery of Grant Wood is exemplary. Scholars discussing American Scene or regionalist art of the early 1930s commonly cite his well-known painting American Gothic of 1930 (Figure 6) and his painting Fall Plowing of 1931 (Plate 1). A portrayal of the American farmer, American Gothic encouraged a traditional view of agricultural identity by depicting figures who looked like a father and his daughter, represented in the language of a Northern Renaissance portrait. As rigid as the implements they hold, this dour pair-plain, hardworking, and humble-have an air of rural authenticity.

Wood's painting Fall Plowing, in contrast, recalibrates the imagery of the sparsely populated American landscape painting-for example, The Oxbow of 1836, by Thomas Cole (Figure 7). Whereas Cole saw an opposition between "nature" and "civilization," Wood found a nostalgia-inducing harmony between man and his now tamed environment. He revised the dichotomy in Cole's painting between the golden farmlands at right and the dark wilderness of the American landscape, showing instead a well-tended farm, the farmer present, implicitly, in the foreground of the picture and the furrowed land extending deep into the background.

In Wood's imaginary agricultural landscape, the abundant earth rises to meet the viewer in taut yet softened hillocks and trees; crops are being harvested even as the soil is being worked by the plow in the foreground to prepare the land to produce once again. Wood's image of an abundant harvest and the promise of future crops does more than proclaim the health of American agriculture. It also celebrates the individual farmer's labor in ways that Cole's Oxbow painting only hints at in its distant view of the well-tilled fields in the valley below the viewer-painter. If Cole's picture implicitly contrasts the wildness of the high ground with the order of the land below, which has been transformed by the farmer's work, Wood's Fall Plowing situates viewers in the field the farmer plows, giving them a sense of having just worked the plow and of stepping back now to survey the productive landscape. The painting also makes viewers aware of the labor involved in the production of the land's bounty: the plow digs into the earth, its blades creating sensuous curls of plant-covered soil to be turned under when the farmer goes back to his work.

The cultural circumstances that link Cole and Wood across time point to some key references of American landscape painting. Although one speaks from the nineteenth century and the other from the twentieth, their images both depend on an American landscape that bears traces of the farmer's agricultural activity. Although Cole's painting, unlike Wood's, does not show the individual farmer's point of view, Wood's painting nonetheless could be taken for a magnification of the farmland Cole's Oxbow represents off in the distance. Wood's perspective on farming and the work of the farmer reflects a traditional individualistic notion of the farmer's social role. We see one plow in the foreground and one small red barn in the background, with several tilled fields in between. Wood's farmer works his own land in ways that, even in 1931, could conjure Jefferson's ideal of the early American agrarian republic. The owner of the land works it to produce food for a growing, healthy nation. In Jefferson's ideal-which Manfredo Tafuri describes as an American "agrarian utopia"-American democracy depends on an agricultural economy in which local and regional autonomy are maintained in the face of a post-Revolutionary industrial society that could threaten the old agrarian order with a new economic and political order. For Jefferson, the interweaving of the old (classicism) and the new (technological advancements) in architectural projects such as the campus of the University of Virginia expressed both utopian democracy and modern cultural transformation. Likewise Noguchi, in Monument to the Plow, made the reality of agricultural labor, land, and production during the New Deal concrete, so that these three elements became a fitting base for a monumental representation of the tool that makes the land productive. A new kind of sculptural labor would be required to create this monument, as would a rethinking of the role of the artist as a worker-here a worker of the land-rather than a designer and modeler of materials associated with elite urban culture.

In choosing his site, materials, and production process for Monument to the Plow, Noguchi imagined a new approach to representing the American Scene. Rather than create a nostalgic image of the past for the present, Noguchi proposed a living, breathing sculptural monument whose form, scale, and relationship to time would echo the concrete realities of farm labor and the temporal rhythms of the farmer's year. Monument to the Plow was to be a living sculpture that would grow and change over the seasons as farmworkers and perhaps even visitors came to the site to plow, plant, and harvest a wheat crop from the monument itself.

The Cultural Origins of Monument to the Plow

Dr. Rumely had told me that the steel plow was an American invention brought about through correspondence between Franklin and Jefferson, you know, how to weld steel and iron together so that it won't break but would still be hard. Since Dr. Rumely was a manufacturer of tractors, at one time, he knew John Deere people. I thought maybe I could get them interested in doing a monument to the plow. I never did, but I did a model of the Monument to the Plow. I still think it's a good idea to make.

Isamu Noguchi, quoted in Paul Cummings, "Oral History," 1973

Even today, in a world accustomed to large-scale earthworks, green architecture, and the rhetoric of eco-friendly socioeconomic development, Noguchi's Monument to the Plow is an astonishingly forward-looking concept for public sculpture. In its monumentality, site-specificity, and agricultural references, Noguchi's design lends itself to productive comparison with the complex, if often mythic, tradition of American landscape representation from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it also moves away from any nostalgia associated with that pictorial tradition. Rather, it evokes the complex social, economic, and environmental realities that marked the Great Depression. And Monument to the Plow does so in ways that move beyond the traditional visual languages of the American landscape tradition. Although American writers and artists in the earliest years of the Republic viewed the nation's land as its most precious natural resource, Noguchi's Monument to the Plow turned the viewer's eye to the realities of every life in the 1930s: economic contraction, agricultural surplus, poor land use planning, drought, and the role of the federal government in stabilizing agricultural production in order to regain control over an unstable national economy that was based in part on the agricultural sector.

Although Noguchi's proposal for the work did not address the sociopolitical roots of agricultural overproduction in the 1930s, it echoed the Jeffersonian idea of a society based on a deep and productive relationship between land and citizen. Jefferson conceived of a society of independent, self-sufficient family farms that were "not so large that they could not be worked by family members alone, stable, neither increasing nor decreasing in size or wealth, contented and independent," so that collectively they would create a stable social structure based on the forty-acre family farm-a unit that became "one of the first and most enduring images of democratic social space." Jefferson imagined a nation-a country spreading from east to west-built from small agricultural modules that would be repeated across the land: unity through individuality. Thus the continent would eventually be settled by a pioneering farming population that worked hard and acted responsibly to ensure the development of the nation by providing a stable supply of food and by creating strong communities that would exemplify self-reliance and individual industry.

Whereas Thomas Jefferson used the forty-acre farm as the primary unit of measure when he mapped out his agrarian democracy, linking national identity to small pieces of earth on which citizens would live and work, Noguchi, in designing Monument to the Plow, imagined the earth as material for a sculpture, to be created by farm labor that would produce varying amounts of wheat. Land itself would be the artist's primary material, and his carving, furrowing, seeding, and casting would transform earth into food. But because part of the site would not be plowed and planted but would lie fallow, the work would also show how the earth might or might not be used. Noguchi's design mixed artistic and agricultural labor and production, inventing a new role for the artist in American society and redefining agricultural work. By intertwining different forms of labor in a single monument, Noguchi creatively reconceived artistic practice and agricultural labor as more integrated and less hierarchical and presented a more inclusive vision of labor in Depression-era American society.

In Monument to the Plow Noguchi proposed a work that would engage extra-artistic forms of labor directly. It would take the earth as its primary material and would reinvent the agricultural landscape to link his labor as an American artist to the labor of the American farmer. The plow would be his sculptural tool, and agriculture would become environmental sculpture. And the artist, stepping into the role of farmer, made the land itself the material of his art, and his labor the means to redevelop the earth for modern life. Perhaps most tellingly, the location he chose for the work, and its formal structure, expressed a clear understanding of how agricultural work and land management operated under the New Deal-particularly how rural and urban workers struggled on their own, and with one another, in the midst of the Depression.

Although art historians who analyze Noguchi's work often comment briefly on Monument to the Plow, few have related this work to the New Deal's transformation of the American landscape, with its implementation of a new farm policy, its regulation of agricultural practices, and its efforts to stem environmental degradation. That Noguchi's design was never built surely helps to explain the paucity of writing about it. Those scholars who discuss the design describe the work as "archaic" or "timeless," ignoring Noguchi's relation to its moment.

Some critics, evaluating the design metaphorically, claim that it visualizes "agrarian time," or the seasons of farm life in the United States-an approach that draws on the echo, in the work's plan for plowing and planting, of the ordinary work done on a farm each year. Dana Miller, in the first essay to connect Noguchi's monument directly to the Great Depression, noticed that the artist had intended to erect the monument on farmland affected by the Wheat Crop Curtailment Program that was part of the of Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. She considered Noguchi's design an early example of "reclamation work" because it envisioned a use for farmland and the plows that would no longer be used to prepare the soil for a yearly wheat crop. But her analysis of the monument does not address Noguchi's complex reframing of American agricultural history. For the monument represents both the promise and the perils of New Deal planning and practices for agricultural workers and the land they worked. Noguchi designed it as a response to the crop adjustment programs, which many believed widened the gulf between haves and have-nots in America as farmers found themselves on the front line in a new battle for global economic security.

A Pan-American Monument

Although both Noguchi and Rumely emphasized the essential Americanness of the monument-particularly its allusion to the Jeffersonian ideal of America as a "rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size"-their descriptions of the project also reveal why Monument to the Plow was subsequently said to have "multicultural" or Native American roots. To writers who made that claim, the work seemed to address the experience of all Americans. Deborah Goldberg, for example, emphasizes that Monument to the Plow pays "homage" to America, the sculptor's early years in Indiana, and the plow-the "ultimate American symbol of technology and progress"-but also describes its design as "composite and multicultural." Rumely linked Noguchi's design to Native American building practices. It is uncertain whether Noguchi himself did so, however. Such a link, after all, would have been ironic, because agriculturalists and government officials at the time viewed Native American farming practices as inefficient and unsuitable. European American settlers had justified their expulsion of Native American communities and their own appropriation of native lands in the nineteenth century by claiming the superiority of European models of farming. Even though some scholars have argued that Noguchi's monument connects Native American history and the reality of European colonization because its form alludes to a "native burial mound," it is unclear how Noguchi's design might have articulated such cultural roots.

Noguchi's plan for Monument to the Plow called for it to be made of soil shaped into a large pyramid, whose sides would be treated like agricultural land and farmed using European tools and techniques. In the shaping of the work, however, it is possible to see a more inclusive notion of Americanness. The pyramidal form of the monument's design echoes the structure of pre-Columbian Mayan architecture, recognized in the early 1930s as American art. In the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition American Sources of Modern Art, of 1933, the curator Holger Cahill explained the importance of "ancient American art" to contemporary culture. Although this art owed its growing popularity in the 1930s to a "general interest in primitive peoples," the work itself was not "primitive." It evidenced instead "an esthetic and scientific culture of a high order, a well developed agriculture which has given to the world several of its most important economic plants, and highly integrated and stable social and governmental organizations capable of carrying out immense programs of public works, all within the range of primitive technology."

Cahill pointed out that ancient American art functioned as part of a sophisticated culture. Noguchi's own experience as an artist working in New York in the early 1930s and his familiarity with the work of Mexican muralists such as Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who were working in the United States during those years, seem to call for an evaluation of Monument to the Plow that goes beyond the embodiment of the American Scene in new, vivid ways. Critics, dealers, patrons, and artists in the United States in the early 1930s considered the Mayans exemplars of ancient American cultural practice.

From 1930 to 1933, Mexican art and cultural production were exhibited at two important shows: Mexican Arts, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1930 and traveled to other American museums until 1932, and American Sources of Modern Art, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933. Mexican Arts included pre-Columbian, colonial, folk, and modern art, distilling "five hundred years of Mexican art history into a single trajectory that privileged a collective 'Mexican unconscious'" yet also included the contemporary political art of the Mexican muralists in ways that linked it to a "nativist," "nationalist" past. The connection the exhibition drew between the past and present in Mexican culture fed into broader discussions at the time of "pan-Americanism, nativism, and a decorative tradition in the United States" whose source was Mexican art.

Cahill's American Sources of Modern Art exhibition further solidified the argument for a more expansive, inclusive, pan-American understanding of the North American artistic tradition by noting that "modern Art, like everything else in modern culture, has a complex heritage. Among the diverse sources upon which it has drawn is the art of the ancient civilizations of America." To create an American past for modern American art, curators such as Cahill and collectors such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller "invoked the American past as a viable framework on which to build a new modernist idiom" that would overturn belief in received ideas about the purely European origin of American modernism. "Cultural pan-Americanism," in both the United States and Mexico, arose from a desire to break with Europe, focus on "Indian cultures of the American continent," and "challenge ... the primacy of early European civilizations within a Western historical narrative." The exhibitions Mexican Arts and American Sources of Modern Art codified a hemispheric rather than a strictly U.S. definition of American art that was confirmed by the contemporaneous border crossings of Mexican and U.S. artists during the late 1920s and 1930s. No artists reflect the new modernist aesthetic of Mexican Arts better than los tres grandes: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

Although Noguchi never discussed Monument to the Plow as a form with a Mayan precedent, his interactions with the Mexican mural painter Orozco, whom he first met in 1931, may have encouraged his pyramidal design for the project. Noguchi surely knew of Orozco's murals at the New School for Social Research, and probably saw them in New York before he designed Monument to the Plow in the winter of 1933-34. Noguchi met Orozco when he sculpted a portrait bust of the painter (Figure 8). In that same year Orozco completed his New School mural cycle, including the panel titled Struggle in the Occident, which included a dramatic representation of a Mayan pyramid (Plate 2). To the right of the pyramid appeared a portrait of the agrarian socialist Felipe Carrillo Puerto, an icon of the liberation of indigenous Mexican peasants after the revolution, who was depicted above a large crowd of them. He was their charismatic leader, bent on social and economic justice.

Carrillo Puerto, who served as governor of the Yucatán state from 1922 to 1924, was a radical whose agenda, which centered on land reform, appealed to the Yucatán peasants because he spoke Mayan, had worked for years at hard manual labor, and had joined the agrarian revolutionary movement led by Emiliano Zapata. By the time he was assassinated in 1924, Carrillo Puerto was well known for taking the side of the indigenous peasants who worked the land, committing the state of Yucatán to radical land reform and redistribution to help them achieve economic and political justice. While he governed Yucatán, Carrillo Puerto met and become the lover of the New York journalist Alma Reed, who later helped Orozco secure his New School mural commission.

The success of Carrillo Puerto's reform and redistribution project may have struck a chord in New York's progressive circles as concern about agricultural policy, rural aid, and federal intervention in farm policy grew during the years of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. So it is plausible to think that Noguchi modeled Monument to the Plow after a Mayan, or "Mexican," pyramid because that form evoked for him the iconic Mexican agrarian reformer, and that he presented in the work a critique of the New Deal's changes in U.S. agricultural policy. Contemporary Mexican artists such as Siqueiros and Frida Kahlo had made Mayan pyramid imagery more familiar in the United States during the early 1930s. Kahlo painted a self-portrait (Plate 3) that includes a Mayan pyramid in a natural landscape and a smoke-belching factory in an industrial landscape-a symbol of Mexicanness, on the one hand, and a symbol of the United States, on the other. In this work the artist also expressed her own confused embodiment of a mixed identity, Mexican and Indian. Siqueiros, in contrast, included a fragmented image of a Mayan pyramid as a fixed Mayan backdrop for a crucified indigenous American in his America Tropical, a mural painted in downtown Los Angeles (at Olvera Street) in 1932 (Figure 9). Described in the Los Angeles Times, before its unveiling, as a "colossal fresco portraying the past of the Americans," it also included the image of a Mayan temple set in a tropical American forest. Soon after its unveiling, parts of the radical mural were whitewashed, and the brutal censoring made it a cause célèbre for activist artists (including the members of the Artists' Union). As Siqueiros suggested in his own description of the mural, it represented a trenchant critique of U.S. imperialism and racism:

It is a violent symbol of the Indian peon of feudal America doubly crucified by the oppressors, in turn, native exploitive classes and imperialism.

It is the living symbol of the destruction of past national American cultures by the invaders of yesterday and today.

It is the preparatory action of the revolution that enters the scene and readies its cartridges to effectively launch the life-restoring battle for a new social order.

Noguchi's design for Monument to the Plow, viewed in relation to the work of these Mexican painters and the expanding discourse on pan-Americanism in the United States, reflects an Americanness tied to pre-Columbian Mayan and Indian Mexico as much as to the shape of North American Indian burial mounds. Linking his work to the traditions of North America, Mexico, and Central America, Noguchi created a monument to the centrality, power, and symbolic meaning of agriculture as a source of social and cultural transformation.

Might we think of the form of Monument to the Plow as integrating Euro-American agricultural techniques and ancient forms of monumental, indigenous American architecture? Noguchi's design blends several "American" concepts and traditions and explores how to read the postrevolutionary transformation of Mexican society by agrarian socialism as parallel with New Deal programs of crop reduction, land use reform, and farm subsidies. The visual language of the monument addressed pan-American references that might relate to U.S. agricultural practices and policies meant to alleviate the effects of the Depression. Noguchi's decision to design a large-scale public monument to be sculpted from the earth itself suggests his interest in welding radical symbolism (Mayan architecture and its revolutionary connotations for the New York artistic world in which he lived) to U.S. farming practices, with the metal plow at the center.

Along with its radical associations, the monument also expresses a Jeffersonian idea about land use, enclosure, and economic development. In allocating land in the western territories after the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson devised the American farm system, basing it on a system of square forty-acre plots, each side 1,320 feet long (Figure 10). Noguchi's monument was based on a three-sided pyramid that would cover an area of about 16.5 acres (approximately the size of a plot of land cultivated by American colonial farmers). His work would be a three-dimensional, spatially expressive monument to agricultural development, unlike the two-dimensional map Jefferson drew in planning the ideal American farm in the newly annexed western lands. The three-dimensionality of the Noguchi's pyramid underscored the earth as an object that could be used as material for a work of art. By relating the monument to the cultural, agricultural, and political traditions of both the United States and Mexico, Noguchi's design proposed a more inclusive definition of Americanness. American comprehends both the Jeffersonian and the Mayan in Monument to the Plow-a mixture of indigenous and European traditions to dramatize social and agricultural change in an America that would include Mexico, a nation that had once controlled a huge swath of territory in the southwestern United States. Noguchi's design was prescient in embodying a multicultural America that celebrated the continent's history of racial and ethnic migration, fluid national boundaries, and colonial transformation. This monument to agriculture, in other words, was created in the image of an ancient American, rather than a Euro-American, scene.

Monument to the Plow reinvents the American landscape to reconfigure American national identity-an identity that in Noguchi's mind conjoined Jeffersonian agricultural democracy and a pan-American idea of social change through agricultural production and organized rural labor. Although Noguchi's design echoes the nineteenth-century idealization of agriculture as a symbol of American progress, it also expresses greater ambivalence than Orozco's Carrillo Puerto mural. Nor did Noguchi's monument endorse the progressive rhetoric of nineteenth-century landscape painters and photographers, for whom a cultivated landscape represented the ideal of American national development, or celebrate the individual farmer as embodying quintessentially American national character, as Thomas Jefferson had. Instead, the form of Noguchi's design and the labor that would be required to construct it together expressed the reality of a faltering agricultural economy and the activation of collective agricultural labor (by calling for CWA labor to shape and plant the soil) under the sign of the farmer's most important tool, the plow. Noguchi's plan for the three sides of the monument linked the artist's sculpture-making to the farmer's cultivation of agricultural land.

Beyond its merger of traditions, Noguchi's monument was to be a living sculpture, representing some of the lived effects of New Deal farm policies in the early 1930s. The Commodity Benefits section of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was passed to stabilize agricultural commodity prices once they had again reached pre-World War I levels, gave the secretary of agriculture the power to "provide for reduction in the acreage or reduction in the production for market, or both, of any basic agricultural commodity, through agreements with producers or by other voluntary methods." Noguchi responded directly to the federal program, envisioning his monument as one located "on land affected by [the government's] wheat crop curtailment program ... and made of earth ... one side tilled ... in great furrows radiating from [the] base corner [and] one side planted [with] wheat and [a] third side half-tilled ... and half barren uncultivated soil, [with a] large ... block of concrete and [a] huge model of [a] steel plough at [its] peak." In locating his monument on land no longer worked or plowed by a farmer, Noguchi celebrated on former farmland the method of agriculture the land could no longer support. Noguchi's project would reclaim fallow land for new, artistic ends inflected by a social consciousness.

Using dirt for the monument, and farm labor and tools to carve it, Noguchi's project would reanimate unproductive farmland and renew its cultural promise by establishing a visible symbiotic relationship between farm labor and commodity production. Although the land was officially fallow, his monument would produce a yearly wheat crop, albeit one much smaller (that would perhaps be left to rot in the field) than a farmer could have produced on it. In addition to mimicking farm labor and harvesting practices, Noguchi's design was meant to convey to viewers the sacrifices the government's crop reduction program exacted: the three possible uses of the land were part of a complex whole. Noguchi demonstrated his recognition of the challenges to contemporary agriculture in the winter of 1933-34: to reduce crop output and thereby increase prices on the world market and to put millions of unemployed workers back to work. In November 1933 the federal government had announced that the new CWA program would hire the unemployed to work on projects such as parks and playground construction, sanitation, pest control, and the reclamation of land for road construction. Noguchi's plan to hire CWA workers to construct his monument, and his selection of a site reclaimed from cultivation under the Agricultural Adjustment Act's crop reduction program, ensured that his Monument to the Plow would engage farmers and workers collaboratively in making it. His monument would testify to the centrality of the plow as an icon of American national history, serve as a contemporary model for cooperation between workers, and link traditional labor to the labor of making art.

CWA workers would plow, plant, grow, and harvest the wheat to maintain the monument over the course of the growing season. Because part of the pyramid would remain fallow, visitors would be encouraged to view the land as simultaneously productive and dormant. But to be able to interpret the work, which Noguchi had divided into different sections, viewers would need to have some understanding of agricultural labor and production and, perhaps, of the ecological conditions of the prairie where the work was built.

Noguchi's design began with land reclamation, presaging the practice of land art several decades later. The abstract stainless steel sculpture of a plow affixed to a concrete cap at the apex of the monument (the cap would serve as a base for the sculpture and protect the monument from erosion by water or wind) would go beyond simply venerating the plow as a symbol of American agriculture (Figure 11). For the three sides of the pyramid, planted and plowed, referred to the complexities of contemporary farm policy and to new scientific approaches to controlling erosion and rotating crops championed by the administrator of the Agricultural Adjustment Act to ensure fertile, and thus more productive, farmland.

The slopes of the pyramid would have to be plowed by a horse-drawn plow, with a human guiding both, to create the patterned furrows Noguchi wanted for the monument. Mechanical tractors could not have done the exacting work. The iconic plow set into the monument's concrete cap was thus integral to a structure that emphasized the need to mitigate the erosion caused by cultivating the earth. The cap to which the plow was affixed would prevent erosion of the monument from above, and the planted and furrowed sides of the work would sustain the monument's form, the plants holding the work together and their roots preventing erosion of the soil.

Erosion was recognized as a major impediment to agricultural production as the effects of overplanting and droughts, which had begun in the midwestern prairies in the early 1930s, started to spread eastward by 1934. In the spring of 1934, the Soil Erosion Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior was established to protect agricultural lands from erosion. Writing of the need for more thoughtful land use policies, the director of the agency implied the need for the kind of land reclamation Noguchi's design provocatively envisioned. Long-term planning was the only way to avoid destroying a once-productive American land. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, having required that some farmland be taken out of wheat production, also planned to withdraw some land from cultivation entirely. The Soil Erosion Service began by selecting plots of cultivated land throughout the United States as "demonstration" areas as it initiated plans for a national program of soil conservation that would employ different approaches to control erosion, depending on the character of the land. "Steep, erosive slopes will be taken out of cultivation and planted to trees or grass or other thick-growing crops ... known to be highly resistant to soil washing," while other cultivated land would be worked with new systems of "strip-cropping," where certain crops would be grown between parallel bands of native grasses" (Figure 12). While Noguchi's monument in no way illustrates such "strip cropping," his design recognizes the need to rotate crops to preserve agricultural soil. The monument also reveals an awareness of the tensions arising from the shifting role of the farmer and his labor and the scientific practices of land management that were driving forces behind New Deal agricultural programs of the early 1930s.

As Norman Thomas, the socialist candidate for president in the late 1920s and early 1930s believed, it was dead wrong to reduce production in a time of breadlines. "It remained for this generation," Thomas wrote in 1934 "... to invent a new and most bitter type of poverty.... It remained for us to invent 'bread lines knee-deep in wheat.' Other generations have been poor because they could not produce enough. We are told that we are poor because we have produced too much." Although Noguchi was not affiliated directly with Thomas's candidacy or the Socialist Party in the early 1930s, such arguments about the ironies of a poverty based in overproduction were not Thomas's alone; and it seems that Noguchi's design for the project explored the contrast between want and plenty in the structured planting envisioned for the sides of his monumental pyramid.

A New York Times reporter wrote in the summer of 1933: "To the average farmer, crop 'control' seems sinful.... To him this is a crime against fertility, for he is schooled to think in terms of famine and plenty, not in terms of supply and demand. In fat pigs he takes an artist's pride, and it irks him to be told to send them away fifty pounds light." A few months later, reporter Bernhard Ostrolenk, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, looked at the increasing tension between farmers and industrial workers, noting that "discontent again hangs over the tall-grass country" because "the hope of the farmer that the prices of things he sells would overtake the prices of things he buys from the cities has been disappointed." Recognizing an essential contrast between the mentality of the farmer and that of the urbanite, Ostrolenk analyzed the psychological gulf between farmer and "city-man" and located its origins in the sense of "permanence" on the farm and one of restless experimentation and change in the city.

The farmer's mind is not geared to change. Because land is an indestructible natural resource, there is a quality of permanence about farming and a changeless relationship between the farmer and his soil. Labor-saving devices may lighten the farmer's burden, chemistry may increase the fertility of his land, science may teach him to resist plant pests and disease, but these innovations do not alter the essential pattern of his life.... Basically his life and labor have a quality of continuity; they remain static, follow an ancient form, provide for a permanent and fundamental human need. In the cities, however, the essence of life is change. Industrialism is constantly shifting and experimenting. The urbanite casually changes jobs, friends and living quarters. Each season he adopts and discards new fads and enthusiasms. Even the physical structure of the cities changes.... Consequently, it is difficult for an urbanite to appreciate the farmer's stubborn resistance to a new order of things, and to understand his conviction that change, especially as expressed in our industrial life, does not necessarily mean progress.

Stasis rather than change animates the farmer, but at the almost glacial pace of changes in nature itself. New Deal bureaucrats-even those with a background in agriculture-faced enormous resistance in their efforts to convince farmers to change their practices merely because a federal bureaucracy in Washington demanded that they plant less when many were going hungry.

The farmer has always feared want. Now that he is asked by the government to face about and to look upon his surplus as a curse, he regards the crop reduction schemes as an infringement upon his natural right to make as bountiful a living as he can.... To him there is something downright sinful, something contrary to the laws of God and nature, in plowing under cotton, or leaving land idle, or killing off hogs. His faith is in his harvest-and he believes that in it alone lies his opportunity for prosperity.

Although Ostrolenk surmised that farmers' unrest was caused by an age-old misunderstanding between farmers and city dwellers, he saw how an idealized image of the individual farmer producing a bounty for himself and his community made cooperation between rural and urban workers more difficult. The farmer considered his position that of a heroic individual facing down the change brought about by urban industrial technology, the shift in labor relations during the Depression, and an increasingly nationalized, planned economy.

Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, writing a long piece for the New York Times in late 1933, underscored the need to move away from individual greed and haphazard planning to create a more stable, equitable relationship between rural and industrial labor. "For the long pull we cannot starve agriculture and save industry, or fatten our agriculture at undue cost to our townspeople." Struggling farmers might well have seen the notion of hiring CWA employees to create a monument to the plow as a usurpation of the province of agricultural workers. If the farmer took it personally, that was probably because farming was largely individual labor.

Noguchi envisioned a work with an elegant conceptual and material symmetry that engaged such anxieties. His design transforms the tools and labor of the farmer-which in years past would have made productive farmland out of fallow land-into the domain of the worker-artist. Farmworkers whose opportunities for work had shrunk because of mechanization, drought, and crop reduction could reinvent the land removed from production so that its sculptural transformation, rather than its production of a commodity for sale on the open market, became their work. The plow would be the sculptor's major tool, and wheat-its production suppressed for the betterment of the agricultural economy-would increase in value, thereby demonstrating that land reclamation has a social value, not just an exchange value based on the commodities it yields.

Thus the farmer who volunteered to curtail wheat production would not lose, according to Noguchi's scheme for Monument to the Plow. Noguchi's design, while acknowledging the contraction of agricultural production and the effects of crop reduction on farm labor and land use, also portrayed ways to reclaim such "excess" labor and land for new artistically productive ends. A result of creative thought about the consequences of farmers' economic and ecological distress, Noguchi's Monument to the Plow represented a new American Scene in the cultural and economic context of New Deal public policy. The historical moment in which Noguchi designed the project was one of rapid, radical change, when assumptions about land use, agricultural productivity, and the ideals of American social progress strained under the burden of economic depression. And it is essential to sketch out that history here, in connection with Noguchi's design, to grasp his project's scope and social ambition.

An Ecological Unconscious

Beyond the reach of industrially realizable design or architecturally applied sculpture was, I felt, a larger, more fundamentally sculptural purpose for sculpture, a more direct expression of Man's relation to the earth and his environment.

Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, 1968

As a design for large-scale sculpture, Monument to the Plow seemed to be in sympathy with new agricultural policies and practices as drivers of social change during the stressful conditions of the 1930s. As an object, even if it remained unmade, the monument also suggests an ecological approach to the physical and the social impact of farm policy and practices on the American landscape-as the basis of the nation's economic, political, and cultural power.

Although the myth of an American agrarian ideal persisted well into the early twentieth century, American agriculture had grown increasingly mechanized during World War I. American farmers were encouraged to produce wheat as a patriotic duty, to feed the Allies during the war and then so that the nation could expand its trade to the markets of a battered postwar Europe. Farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains mechanized crop production using tractor-pulled plows, harvesters, and other efficient equipment that increased crop yields and reduced labor costs, because using the new machines meant hiring fewer farmworkers to plant and sow crops. Crops were produced more quickly and fields were replanted more frequently with the new farm equipment, and as a result the speculative real estate market and the U.S. government pressed for an increase in acreage planted in wheat and corn across the United States to feed the hungry in Europe, which was still recovering from the war.

Besides replacing manpower with industrial technology, the mechanization of farmwork ended the traditional land management practices of individual or family farmers, with catastrophic results. Many farms in the 1920s came under the management of agribusinesses that used the new equipment to increase their harvest. In the 1930s the methods of cultivation-mechanized plowing and reliance on large plantings of single crops-exacerbated the dire effects of drought (especially the erosion of topsoil by the wind) and economic collapse following the worldwide market crash in late 1929. Falling commodity prices, poor land management, and unemployment among farmworkers multiplied the number of unproductive, desolate farms across the Great Plains. Noguchi was not alone in his desire to engage contemporary agricultural and social concerns; a number of other artists, writers, and filmmakers also meditated on the causes of America's agricultural catastrophe. A work by the Texas painter Alexandre Hogue, Erosion No. 2-Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936; Plate 4)), and Pare Lorentz's film The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), among others, analyzed the impact of technology and the unchecked expansion of cultivation to land better suited to grazing than to intensive crop production. Hogue and Lorentz make it plain in their works that the land cannot sustain itself against industrialization, land speculation, and the lack of respect for the ecology of the nation's farmland. Although Noguchi's design for his Monument to the Plow predates these works by a few years, it too engages realities of rural unemployment and ecological damage that were increasingly recognized as results of the progress many had heralded in the 1920s as wheat and corn cultivation spread west across the Great Plains. If Noguchi's monument relates to rural labor, land reclamation, and crop reduction, it also seems to embody an "ecological unconscious," which has become more visible in the years since Noguchi designed it.

Granted, Noguchi did not literally intend his monument as an overt critique of contemporary agricultural policies and practices, unlike Lorentz and Hogue in their projects. Because his monument was never completed, the specific political thrust of its engagement with ecological or labor issues remains speculative. Noguchi, moreover, was silent on the monument as a commentary on the Agricultural Adjustment Act's crop reduction program-which Lorentz and Hogue would blame directly on greedy agribusinessmen and shortsighted land management practices at both local and national levels.

Lorentz's film explores the reasons that American agriculture expanded onto the Great Plains-and the results of that expansion. Although the film begins with positive images of the industrialized farming that enabled the westward progress of agriculture, midway through the film the tone turns darker as Lorentz illustrates the consequences of vastly increased wheat farming on land never meant to be planted with wheat, land that lacked water and was exposed to intense sun and high winds. "Progress came to the plains," Lorentz's narrator tells us, as the railroad opened up new markets for grain. Settlers on the plains fenced the land and plowed it to transform grassland into cultivated fields of wheat, enacting the American myth of progress. Yet as Lorentz shows the plow's progress as it bites into the grassland, the soundtrack counters the optimism of the scene with a refrain: "Settler, plow at your peril ... two hundred miles from water, two hundred miles from town, but the land is new." Throughout the film, however, Lorentz's narrator repeats the phrase "Progress came to the plains," underscoring in myriad ways how the plow represents the human labor required to turn a grassy frontier into productive acreage. The film ties this progress to national identity during World War I, when American farmers grew wheat as a patriotic duty: "Wheat will win the war! Plant wheat! Wheat for the boys over there. Wheat for the Allies." Technology thus transformed the world-tractors in the fields, tanks on the battlefield, images of which were interspersed in Lorentz's film, connecting agricultural production to military success and national gain.

The film follows images of horse-drawn plows and threshing machines with views of mounds of grain and wheatfields (Figure 13). But when the rains fail to come, the farmer is left with an idle plow-a toy for the baby who reaches out for it in one sequence-or a plow whose bit cannot dig more than an inch or so into the hard, dry, dusty earth at another moment in the film. Lorentz's imagery of an initially productive land followed by drought and devastation signals a profound nostalgia for the progress and prosperity the new farms had seemed destined to produce, but which the barren dusty soil will inhibit.

In his cautionary tale about the myth of American progress through agriculture-a myth promoted even where the environment could not sustain that myth-Lorentz's film dramatizes the results of unquestioning belief that the progress of agriculture meant the sure progress of civilization. Noguchi's design for the pyramid-shaped Monument to the Plow hints in its own ways at the tensions between progress and productivity, environmental health and degradation, and the individual's and the nation's destiny. Although his design requires a large plot of land, its scale is that of the individual family farm, not the bigger farm typical of the recently opened plains. A single farmer working with a single plow could make Noguchi's monument. Thus in its form and its function, the design expressed a preindustrial, human-centered relation of farmer to land, of cultivation to production. This approach conveyed nostalgia for a time before the automated oil-pull tractor and the multiple-bit plow, before the Great Depression threw millions of urban and rural workers out of their jobs. And Noguchi, like many other artists working in the years after the Great Depression, consciously associated himself with these men and women, whom he called "the laboring class," those whose fortunes had been shattered by economic contraction.

Although scholars usually downplay the intensity of Noguchi's commitment to progressive causes, the archival record on his work suggests that we ought to reconsider the origins of his commitment to a new definition of art and the artist's role in society. During the early 1930s, when American workers struggled for economic stability, Noguchi, in his Monument to the Plow, showed how a socially committed artist might connect his work to that of other American workers as a means of generating social change. The work linked the artist to the farmworker at a time when the laboring classes in America were under duress, and when public debates on how to balance urban and rural labor interests grew polarized. By monumentalizing agricultural practice in his design, Noguchi proposed large-scale public sculpture as a vehicle for creating innovative images of America in a time of great anxiety about a crumbling economy and in a time of great tension between urban and rural workers as public assistance programs addressed the needs of one or the other.

Unfortunately, only one of Noguchi's designs of the 1930s for land-based sculpture was ever completed-the Monument to Benjamin Franklin, which was constructed only in the 1980s-so we cannot examine any concrete manifestation of his concept for bringing together an agricultural site and the workers who would first form the monument out of earth and then turn the resulting pyramid of land into crop-bearing soil. Even so, Noguchi's design for Monument to the Plow was a harbinger of a radically new public sculpture that incorporated the earth itself into the process of artistic production. It was not until the 1960s that artists such as Robert Smithson made earthworks, and that shaping the land itself became part of a sculptor's conceptual toolbox. Smithson's investment in that decade in environmental history, the postindustrial landscape, and the production of site-based monuments (some of them ephemeral) revealed a new sculptural ethos.

Because Noguchi's Monument to the Plow was never completed, few histories of later-twentieth-century earthworks include it. Some forty years before artists such as Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, or Walter De Maria created earthworks, Noguchi imagined sculpture as a monumental public form of art that engaged both nature and culture. His design for Monument to the Plow described sculpture as a living catalyst for social and political discourse. In the work itself he planned to integrate sculptural labor and artistic labor into a concrete whole in a visual language that would encourage viewers to consider the tensions and possibilities of an agrarian method of construction that emphasized the centrality of the plow and of farm labor in the historical narrative of American identity.

At the outset of this chapter, I remarked on Dana Miller's interpretation of Noguchi's Monument to the Plow as a celebration of American ingenuity and progress and as an early example of "reclamation" art, which entered the cultural lexicon when artists of the 1960s began to work with earth as their medium. But there are other ways to think about the significance of this unrealized work that Noguchi developed so many years before the environmentally oriented practices of the land artists. The history of Noguchi's design for Monument to the Plow addresses the important issues of its moment, speaking both to his time and to our own. The monumentmade visible the relation of labor to production by adopting the Jeffersonian image of the iconic American farmer through whom the nation imagined itself a progressive, civilizing force against the primitive nature of an unruly continent. Noguchi also aimed to identify and commemorate the changing role of the farmer in New Deal society.

Farmers, like urban workers, had to reimagine their position in society because the world they had once known had disappeared. As they were leaving their farms behind because of drought, or volunteering to reduce their crops by 15 percent, Noguchi's Monument to the Plow hinted at how farmers might reorient themselves toward a collaborative model of agriculture based on the interaction between rural (farm) and urban (artist) workers. By facing the need to change the social and economic order to alleviate the effects of the Depression, urban and rural workers might form new partnerships, just as a sculptor in the PWAP and workers under the CWA might in order to ensure future prosperity and a more communitarian culture. The farmer, like the factory worker or even a New York artist such as Noguchi, was going to have to redefine his role in society. But maybe this time, Noguchi seems to have hoped, the farmer and the artist could claim new roles within an American scene conceived as a broader and more inclusive place that would collectively value the land and the contributions of all those who depended on it.