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

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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 relev