Isamu Noguchi Studies for the Sun

Isamu Noguchi & Kenzo Okada

An exhibit celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the New York State Capitol
Exhibition Details
New York State Capitol
Governor's Reception Room, 2nd Floor
May 2, 2022 - May 27, 2022
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

The great State of New York became a central leader in the art world as a result of World War II, when artists fled their countries and settled in New York City. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller wanted to highlight New York’s role in this historic period and acquired works of art made predominantly by artists living or working in New York City throughout the 1950s to 1970s. This time capsule of art - a collection consisting of 92 works known as the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection - remains on permanent display throughout the Empire State Plaza complex.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, this exhibit celebrates two artists from the collection and highlights how their East Asian heritage helped shape postwar American art. The works of Isamu Noguchi and Kenzo Okada combine their Eastern stylistic influences, sensitivity, and motifs with Western materials and culture, resulting in what is now regarded as some of the most prolific and critically acclaimed art of the century.

Original artwork by both artists can be viewed on the Concourse level of the Empire State Plaza.

Isamu Noguchi (1904 – 1988)

During his 60-year career, Isamu Noguchi designed sculptures, playgrounds, lighting, furniture, theater sets, memorials, and gardens. Inspired by his Japanese American heritage, Noguchi’s art transcended cultural barriers and established him as one of the most prolific sculptors of the 20th century.

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to Yonejiro Noguchi, a Japanese poet, and Léonie Gilmour, an American writer and editor, but he spent most of his childhood in Japan. Noguchi moved to New York City in 1922 to study medicine at Columbia University but left shortly after to become a full-time sculptor. Throughout his career, he traveled to Europe and Japan and incorporated Western and Eastern styles inspired by his travels into his sculpture.

World War II had a significant impact on Noguchi. In solidarity with Japanese Americans facing anti-Japanese racism in the United States, Noguchi founded the Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy and went voluntarily to the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona, where he was not allowed to leave for seven months.

In 1985, Noguchi opened The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. Now known as the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, it is the first museum founded, designed, and installed by an artist of their own work in the United States.

Portrait of Isamu Noguchi. Images courtesy of The Noguchi Museum Archives, ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.
Isamu Noguchi
Studies for the Sun
Studies for the Sun by Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, Studies for the Sun, 1959-1964


Studies for the Sun are smaller scale studies made from travertine, iron, and bronze. The 3 sculptures are studies for Noguchi’s finalized Sun sculpture in the public garden he designed for Yale University.

When he worked on Studies of the Sun, Noguchi stated that he was attempting to find a type, shape, or look of the sun that was both harmonious and disharmonious in order to create a feeling of energy buzzing around the circular shape.










The Sunken Garden
Sunken Garden
Sunken Garden for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Images courtesy of The Noguchi Museum Archives,
©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.


Noguchi’s Sunken Garden design at Yale University was influenced by the ancient palazzos of Italy and Japanese contemplation gardens. Three white marble sculptures make up the garden: a sun, a pyramid, and a cube.

Inspired by Japanese concepts of Zen Buddhism, Noguchi believed the sun was both the source of life and a symbol of nothingness; he said, “the circle is zero, the decimal zero, or the zero of nothingness from which we come, to which we return.” 











Kenzo Okada (1902 – 1982)

Born in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan in 1902, Kenzo Okada developed an early interest in Western art, particularly when he studied Western painting at the Tokyo Fine Arts University. After brief schooling in Paris, Okada returned to Japan to teach. During World War II, the artist moved further into the countryside where he painted every day. The experience deepened his sensitivity to nature and influenced his use of a limited color palette and flattened organic forms. In 1948, he returned to Tokyo to exhibit his art publicly for the first time.

Continually drawn to the West and the birth of the postwar Abstract Expressionist art movement, Okada moved to New York in 1950, where he was represented by gallerist Betty Parsons. Okada’s paintings from this time continued to reveal subtle changes through the use of imagery constructed with delicate tones of color within the composition. Described as “floating detachment,” this consciously Eastern approach to his work reflects Okada’s Buddhist values.

During the 1970s, Okada created numerous works considered to be a departure from the decorative effects of traditional Japanese painting. His personal style of abstract expressionism distilled the essence of nature into a painting, making it seem elemental and, thus, sublime.

Arthur Mones, Kenzo Okada, 1981. Gelatin silver photograph. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum. © Estate of Arthur Mones
Kenzo Okada
Kenzo Okada, Hagoromo
Kenzo Okada, Hagoromo, 1964, oil on canvas


Purchased from Betty Parsons Gallery in 1970 for accession into the Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Hagoromo (1964) is an exceptional example of melding an Eastern and Western approach to art.

The painting, named after one of the most beloved traditional 13th century Japanese Noh plays (“hagoromo” meaning “the feather robe”), exemplifies what Japanese playwright Zeami called the essence of Noh: “to unite high and low, and bring joy to the hearts of the people.” Noh became a literary treasure, and a multi-art form combining architecture, drama,102120 poetry, music, masks, costumes, and dance. Each art form is in an archaic and essential form held together as a whole by energy and silence.








Noh Play Performance
Performance of Noh play, Hagoromo, 1940


The dance component of a Noh play is abstracted and one of pure forms, like the universe framing dimensions of complete possibility.

In the play, a fisherman is walking with his companions at night when he finds the hagoromo, a magical feather-mantle of a tennin (a Buddhist spiritual being) hanging on a bough. The tennin sees the fisherman taking the hagoromo and demands its return, as she cannot return to heaven without it. The fisherman argues with her, and finally promises to return it, if she will show him her dance. She accepts his offer. The play’s chorus explains that the dance is symbolic of the daily changes of the moon. In the finale, the tennin disappears like a mountain slowly hidden in mist.