Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi: A Brilliant Collaboration
It's true that many artists prefer to create alone, but sometimes, some of the most interesting works can come from collaborations between two equally brilliant people. While sculptor-designer Isamu Noguchi and dancer-choreographer Martha Graham may not seem to be the most obvious choice for such a partnership, the results of their combined efforts proved to be particularly fruitful.
Noguchi and Graham developed a friendship in 1929, when Graham commissioned Noguchi for two portrait heads. Although Noguchi was primarily interested in creating abstract art during this period, portraiture not only proved to be a good way for him to make money from his art, but these commissions also resulted in some of Noguchi's most enduring friendships, including that with Graham. A central figure of the modern dance movement, Graham is best known for developing an original dance technique that involved expressing primal emotions through stylized body movements of great intensity. Graham began an independent career in New York in 1926. Noticing a need to have stage sets that were as innovative as her dances, she started collaborating with Noguchi to design these sets to compliment her performances. Noguchi describes this collaboration, which began with Graham's 1935 solo dance, Frontier:
In our work together, it is Martha who comes to me with the idea, the theme, the myth upon which the piece is to based. There are some sections of music perhaps, but usually not. She will tell me if she has any special requirements ... the form is then my projection of these ideas. I always work with a scale model of the stage space in my studio. Within it I feel at home and am in command. With Martha, there is the wonder of her magic with props. She uses them as extensions of her own anatomy.
Noguchi had a keen interest in the stage, and it's clear that he enjoyed designing these stage sets, which he saw as another step in his quest to move sculpture out from under the confines of fine art and into the realm of the useful object. A good example of this is Noguchi's design for the seat or "the woman's place" in Graham's 1944 dance Appalachian Spring. Noguchi began with the form of a Shaker rocking chair and modified it to create what he called "a seat which is also a sculpture or a sculpture which may be sat on." He explains that part of the experience of the chair had to be not only through sight, but that the tactile quality of the sculpture should be as important to the dancer as the visual of the chair is to the audience. In this way, although he was creating designs for stage sets, Noguchi incorporated the experience of the dancer's performance into that of the viewer, an idea that he would continue to utilize in all of his stage designs. Even when these designs were sparse, there was always a sense of purpose to them. As Noguchi wrote about Appalachian Spring:
New land, new home, new life; a testament to the American settler, a folk theater. I attempted through the elimination of all non-essentials, to arrive at an essence of the stark pioneer spirit, that essence which flows out to permeate the stage. It is empty but full at the same time. It is like Shaker furniture.
It is clear from this quote that Noguchi's relationship to the stage was influenced by his own artwork. When designing sets, Noguchi liked to think of the space as a volume to be dealt with sculpturally, an idea that came as a sort of turning point for him. Noguchi would go on to use this concept in different ways throughout his career, not only in his designs for the stage, but in much of his other work as well.
Noguchi ended up designing about 20 sets for Graham over the course of three decades, including those for her series based on Greek myths—Cave of the Heart (1946), Errand into the Maze (1947), Night Journey (1947), Clytemnestra (1958), Alcestis (1960), Phaedra (1962), Circe (1963), and Cartege of Eagles (1966)—as well as works revolving around biblical and religious themes, including Herodiade (1944), Judith (1950), Seraphic Dialogue (1955), and Embattled Garden (1958).
But why such an interest in the stage? Here's what Noguchi had to say about it:
We breathe in, we breathe out, inward turning, alone, or outgoing, working with others, for an experience that is cumulative through collaboration. Theater is the latter kind. My interest is the stage where it is possible to realize in a hypothetical way those projections of the imagination into environmental space which are denied us in actuality...There is joy in seeing sculpture come to life on the stage in its own world of timeless time. Then the air becomes charged with meaning and emotion, and form plays its integral part in the re-enactment of a ritual. Theater is a ceremonial; the performance is a rite. Sculpture in daily life should or could be like this. In the meantime, the theater gives me its poetic, exalted equivalent.
In addition to his collaborations with Martha Graham, Noguchi also worked with other choreographers over the course of his career, including Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, and George Balanchine. Although Noguchi's set designs for modern dance were fitting for the type of work that was being produced, people were not always so forgiving when it came to designs for new interpretations of classic theater productions, such as Noguchi's costume and sets for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1955 production of King Lear. This controversy aside, Noguchi's sculptural stage sets were a good fit for modern dance, and especially for a choreographer such as Graham. It is through such unlikely, mutually beneficial collaborations that new possibilities for an established art form are able to be explored and expanded upon, and this is especially true for the collaboration between Noguchi and Graham.
Sarah Blumberg holds an MA from the Parsons / Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum program in the history of decorative arts and design. When not looking at and reading about art and design, Sarah can be found writing her blog, it's like she's on a secret mission, contributing to the GalleryCrawl website, at her development job at a New York museum, working on various projects in her studio, or at home in Brooklyn.