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Nov 22, 2023

Isamu Noguchi

Go behind the portrait of sculptor Isamu Noguchi through the lens of Arnold Newman

A black-and-white portrait of sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A man faces towards the left with a neutral facial expression. He is photographed with a curvilinear sculpture.

Arnold Newman. Isamu Noguchi, ca. 1945. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 35.6 × 27.9 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Anonymous Gift, 2012. © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images (2023). 2015/535.

American photographer Arnold Newman (1918–2006) is best known for his compelling portraits of the post-Second World War era artists, composers, actors, and political figures. He believed portraiture to be a form of biography. He methodically built and carefully staged each of his portraits with his sitters inhabiting their spaces as a window into who they were as people.

One of the many artists Newman photographed was Japanese-American artist and designer Isamu Noguchi. In this closeup portrait, Noguchi looks ahead with a neutral expression. His strong silhouette at the centre of the image appears as another stark shape among the lines of his sculpture. From a distance, it looks as though the sculpture is holding Noguchi’s head in place.

This ca.1945 photograph is a part of Newman’s Artist Portrait Series. It was featured in Newman’s major solo exhibition, Artists Look Like This: Portrait Photographs by Arnold Newman in 1945 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). The exhibition included 87 portraits of 59 artists in their studios or surrounded by their work. The series included portraits of painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, composers and well-known cultural figures. Newman’s approach to portraiture—in which he posed his sitter in their home or workplace with their personal effects— can be seen clearly in the Artist Portrait Series.

In this portrait of Noguchi, Newman incorporated the artist’s sculptural work into the composition embedding the artist’s head within it. This pictorial choice suggests to the viewer that the Noguchi and his creative output are one. In other words, he carefully constructed his composition to express the creative interests of the artist being photographed. For Noguchi, that placed him at the center of one of his abstract sculptures. Noguchi was one of the twentieth century’s most important and acclaimed sculptors, creating countless sculptures, gardens, furniture, architecture, landscapes, and much more. His works played on both modernism and abstraction.

Ultimately, this series helped cement Newman’s reputation as a gifted portrait photographer and sparked several magazine commissions. PMA eventually bought all 87 exhibited photographs and toured the works throughout the United States for about three years with overwhelming success. From 1946 to the early 1950s, Newman produced work for Fortune, Life, Seventeen, and Holiday, among others. His reputation soared throughout the 1950s and he went on to photograph notable scientists, architects, writers, actors, political figures, as well as artists.

Isamu Noguchi (ca. 1945) and many of Newman’s artist portraits are on view now as part of Building Icons: Arnold Newman’s Magazine World, 1938-2000 on Level 2 of the AGO in the Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavillion (gallery 245) through January 21, 2024. 


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