Qi Baishi & Isamu Noguchi, or Why “All Japanese Art Has Roots in China”

Pondering the influence of classical artists Ching-teng, Hsueh-ko, and Ta-ti-tzu, Chinese ink painter Qi Baishi once wrote, “I suppose future generations will admire our present artists just as much as we admire these men of old. What a pity that I will not be there to see it!” Luckily we are privy to a future Qi could only imagine, as new exhibition “Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930” explores the influence of Qi on his own admirer, Japanese-American sculptor Noguchi, and the lasting effects of their encounter.

This exhibition of nearly 60 drawings, gathered from the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Noguchi Museum, and public and private collections, is the first time the two artists’ scrolls can be seen together, shedding light on a pivotal point in Noguchi’s work.

In 1930, on his way to reconvene with his past in Japan, a fated stop in Beijing quickly pointed the backward-looking Noguchi forward. There, after a run-in with affluent art collector Sotokichi Katsuizumi and his collection of Baishi’s scrolls, Noguchi asked to be introduced to the painter.

Lesser known than his apprenticeship under Brancusi, Baishi’s tutelage was a radical influence on the sculptor and led him to later conclude that “all Japanese art has roots in China.” Adopting Baishi’s ink brush method and strict, Eastern influence, Noguchi’s drawings and paintings from this period like Mother and Child used Chinese calligraphic techniques to find abstraction in the human form. “Excellence in art lies between the likeness and the unlikeness,” Baishi once said. He and Noguchi painted alongside one another for six months as the young prodigy began work to get closer to that enigmatic space.

Returning to New York City, Noguchi never settled for a particular art movement, instead continuing one-on-one studies with eclectic artists—including Merce Cunningham and John Cage—in a quest to balance the real and unreal that Baishi had stressed. What a pleasure that we can see this pivotal work now.

“Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930” is on view at the Noguchi Museum from September 25th through January 26th, 2014.