In 1942, after learning about the order to intern Japanese citizens and Japanese-Americans living in the western US, Isamu Noguchi volunteered to live at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. It wasn’t just an act of solidarity; Noguchi hoped to improve the lives of the prisoners by redesigning the grounds and conducting art classes. When he realized that the camp’s authorities would not implement his plans, Noguchi decided to leave. But it took him over half a year to regain his freedom.
“Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center” is a memorial to this history, rather than a display of the material outcome of it. Noguchi did not produce any art at the camp; though some of the documents on display show his attempts to order materials for his sculptures, Poston lacked the resources needed for him to produce his big, sensuous stone monuments. A series of plinths hold several tender, curving, carved branches of ironwood that Noguchi worked on at Poston but never incorporated into sculptures. The larger pieces on view were made in the years following his release. Their titles suggest reflections on the trials of wartime. The World Is a Foxhole (1942–43) is a delicate triangular scrap of fabric stretched like a sail on a stick that bends back as it rises from a small bronze base. This Tortured Earth (1943) is a square bronze panel with grimacing indentations, fleshy folds, and wound-like punctures.
Noguchi’s failure to achieve his goals at Poston and the protracted bureaucracy of his subsequent request for release make “Self-Interned, 1942” darker and more complex than the story of art’s triumph in the face of fear and repression that some viewers might hope to find there. Instead, the exhibition is a sober reckoning with the limits of artistic idealism. —Brian Droitcour
Pictured: View of the exhibition “Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center,” 2017, at the Isamu Noguchi Museum. Photo Nicholas Knight © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY / Artists Rights Society (ARS).