NEW YORK — One of the most politically resonant art exhibitions of 2017 largely consists of work more than 70 years old, none of it overtly ideological. “Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center” observes the 75th anniversary of the forced removal and detention during World War II of US citizens and legal residents of Japanese heritage. The show observes the anniversary indirectly, by looking at a remarkable, and little-known, intersection of art and politics: the sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s voluntarily placing himself in an internment camp.
The show runs through Jan. 7 at the Noguchi Museum, in Long Island City, N.Y.
As a New York resident, Noguchi wasn’t subject to Executive Order 9066, which ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Noguchi would later write, “I willfully became part of humanity uprooted.”
Noguchi (1904-88) went to Arizona that spring and entered the Poston War Relocation Center. The mastery of euphemism found in the facility name is at once a thing of wonder (Kafka weeps) and beneath contempt (Kafka weeps all the more). Noguchi went with the idea of setting up an arts program for fellow internees and designing parks, recreation sites, and a cemetery.
Daytime temperatures regularly reached 120 degrees, and dust constantly filled the air. Noguchi quickly realized the pointlessness of his presence as either patriotic act or contribution to improving camp conditions. After two months, he sought permission to leave. It took another seven for his release. Even then, it was granted as a temporary furlough.
The most absorbing items in the show are archival: correspondence, official documents, Noguchi’s unrealized designs for camp improvements. Reader’s Digest commissioned him to write an essay, “I Become a Nisei,” Nisei being the term for a native-born child of Japanese immigrants. The show includes a draft of the article, which never ran. “To be hybrid anticipates the future,” Noguchi wrote. What seems a commonplace view now must have appeared unimaginable then.
Noguchi, while not yet recognized as the major figure he’d become, already had a considerable reputation. His time in Poston coincided with a retrospective of his work held at what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The incongruity of that juxtaposition is rivaled by the fact that the last piece he worked on before entering the camp was a portrait bust of the actress Ginger Rogers.
That work isn’t in the show, but another bust is, of actress Lily Zietz, from 1941. It’s one of a dozen pieces that predate Noguchi’s time at Poston. Another dozen or so come from the years after, the most recent dating to 1981.
The artistic impact of those months can be seen in several ways. Two sculptures in the show are inspired by kachina dolls, though Noguchi being Noguchi he takes them to unexpected places. At Poston, he began working with found wood, specifically ironwood branches, that being the only available material for carving. Two unworked pieces of ironwood are on display. Noguchi hadn’t previously used wood, which would become an important material for him. More generally, the influence of the desert landscape can be felt throughout his later work: its spareness, its elegant severity.
The titles of several works from the immediate aftermath of Noguchi’s months in Poston suggest the emotional toll taken on him: “The World Is a Foxhole,” “This Tortured Earth” (a truly fearsome bronze). “Mother and Child,” with its evocation of nurturance and healing, goes in a happier direction.
More than two years after Noguchi left the camp, the government would acknowledge that “He went as a volunteer, and while at Poston he rendered earnest and capable, even brilliant service.” The service wasn’t in anything Noguchi created but in what he endured: not making art but in bearing witness.
SELF-INTERNED, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center
At Isamu Noguchi Museum, 32-37 Vernon Boulevard, New York, through Jan. 7. 718-204-7088, www.noguchi.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.