How Isamu Noguchi’s Seven Months in a Japanese Internment Camp Inspired His Art
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This innocuously titled directive was a response to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor just over two months earlier, a catalyst that drove the United States into World War II. With the stroke of his pen, Roosevelt set into motion an inexorable government machine, turning the Western United States into a military zone that targeted tens of thousands of lawful Japanese-American citizens living in that part of the country. Japanese immigrants, their first-generation children, and people of mixed heritage were rounded up and deported to internment camps, where they were held without cause for the duration of the war.
Celebrated 20th-century sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, son of a Japanese father and Caucasian American mother, was among those internees. But unlike his fellow citizens, he had entered voluntarily, since he lived outside of the affected zone.
“When people ask me why I, a Eurasian sculptor from New York, have come so far into the Arizona desert to be locked up with the evacuated Japanese from the West coast, I sometimes wonder myself,” he wrote while interned. “I reply that because of my peculiar background I felt this war very keenly and wished to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me.”
In this 75th anniversary year of Executive Order 9066, and in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to immigrants, the Noguchi Museum is marking its founder and namesake’s brave act of selflessness with “Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center.” Senior curator Dakin Hart has assembled archival materials along with an array of sculptures and objects that Noguchi made before, during, and after his seven-months-long internment in Poston, located in the Arizona desert.
The works on view range from a palm-sized piece of driftwood that the artist carved into a shape resembling a teardrop while in Poston to the striking sculpture Double Red Mountain (1969), made more than 25 years after his release from the camp. Its two mountain forms rising from a sumptuous pink slab of Persian travertine encapsulate the austere vastness of the Arizona desert landscape that had burrowed so deeply into his psyche.
Noguchi entered Poston in May 1942 with an idealistic goal. He wanted to turn the bleak, heavily guarded camp into a more humane environment, where democratic ideals and patriotism could thrive. As he wrote to his friend Man Ray shortly after his arrival: “I am trying to start pottery and wood working shops. Also I am supposed to be in charge of landscaping, the department of parks, and the cemetery.”
Though Noguchi’s aims may seem quixotic in retrospect, he was initially buoyed by promises of support from the government. That support never materialized, nor did his plans. Realizing that his presence in the camp was for naught, he won what turned out to be a hard-fought release and left, frustrated and despairing, in November 1942.
For the next four years, Noguchi harnessed the language of abstraction to political and emotional expression. Back in his New York studio, he made works including the two wall sculptures, This Tortured Earth (1942–43) and Yellow Landscape (1943). The former shows a landscape marred by gashes and pocked with holes, while the latter features three differently shaped weights delicately strung together and hanging over a barren patch of ground. Its title is a not-so-subtle reference to the racist slur (yellow) directed at Asian people and the stereotyping and fear that reached fever pitch during World War II.
Such overtly political themes gradually faded from Noguchi’s art, but his internment experience stayed with him. It seems to rear up, for example, in a brushed stainless steel sculpture, Sentinel (1973). Its title tips off a reading of this work as two abstracted human forms standing side-by-side, on guard. The form on the left possesses a raised bar, which stretches out solidly and suggests a barrier or a gun. Though an open space between the two forms allows for passage, the work’s thick metal beams and its brilliant, busy surface make it feel intimidating and impenetrable.
Sentinel provides only a subtle sense of how traumatized Noguchi and his fellow internees must have felt, imprisoned under armed guard in the deserts of their own country, guilty of nothing but sharing the heritage of one of America’s wartime enemies. While in Poston, Noguchi argued strenuously against this chauvinism in an unpublished article he wrote for Reader’s Digest: “To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities…. For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.” His words are no less urgent right now.