Unpacking Isamu Noguchi’s Affinity for Ancient Greece

In a new book, Objects of Common Interest founders Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis reflect on the midcentury spell that Greece cast over Japanese genius Isamu Noguchi.

“Noguchi and Greece, Greece and Noguchi” (Atelier Éditions/D.A.P.)

Objects of Common Interest recently lit up Milan Design Week with iridescent resin furniture at Nilufar Gallery. Splitting time between Brooklyn and Athens, founders Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis’s next project looks back—to the ancient inspiration of their Greek heritage, and the midcentury spell the country cast over Japanese genius Isamu Noguchi—in the form of a two-volume archive, Noguchi and Greece, Greece and Noguchi (Atelier Éditions/D.A.P.) The collected essays, archives, and artworks broaden the context of the sculptor’s famed use of Greek marble and his interactions with mythologies and philosophies in collaborations with Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller, among many others.

Shortly after the book’s publication this May, Petaloti sat down with Surface to talk about Noguchi’s travels, his presence, and why he considered the country his “intellectual home,” in a conversation below that has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Noguchi and Greece, Greece and Noguchi” (Atelier Éditions/D.A.P.)

Greece may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Noguchi. How did you become interested in this connection?

We’ve been interested in Noguchi since we were students, and visiting the Noguchi Museum since 2007, when we first moved to New York. We didn’t know he had any contact with Greece, only that he used Greek marble. The museum had an extreme amount of information related to Greece—some 1,500 pieces from the archives.

Then the pandemic happened. We moved back to Greece to my parents’ house because my mother got cancer. We spent seven months stuck in a house on a farm in conversation with this research. It was the only thing keeping us going. It intrigued us to see what Greece meant for a designer like Noguchi. It’s a tiny country with a big history, and he approached it without a colonial lens. He loved the landscape. It was very inspiring to trace his path and see our country and culture—and then the local artistic community—through his eyes.

How did he first become interested in the country?

He read Greek mythology as a kid, so it was fascinating for him to return to childhood fantasy. When he first went, it was to get Greek marble. Little by little, it stole his heart. He carried Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi.

“Noguchi and Greece, Greece and Noguchi” (Atelier Éditions/D.A.P.)

Was he able to make work in Greece that wouldn’t have been possible at home?

Noguchi had this issue of not belonging anywhere. He wasn’t feeling American or Japanese. He was trying to find where he belonged. In this anxiety and distress, he had a much broader concept of global connection. The way he traveled was in respect and connection with locals. He became part of every small pocket of culture he visited. Maybe he felt unity in Greece’s artistic world. Everybody who visits Greece develops a strong relationship based on sentiment because everything goes wrong. Nothing works properly. You feel loose, free, and connected with the land. It flows in a very fundamental way. That’s what gave his work such simplicity.

So much Greek influence was filtered through collaborations. Did your research change your understanding of how he worked with others, e.g. Martha Graham, for whom he made sets for Cave of the Heart, her interpretation of Medea?

It was like unfolding the petals of an artichoke. We knew about Graham and his work with her body of muscle-crushing work, but it was revealing extra information of his connection with the country—and rediscovering our own country through his eyes.

“Noguchi and Greece, Greece and Noguchi” (Atelier Éditions/D.A.P.)

What about Greece today did that reveal to you?

We never cut ties with Greece, even in the financial collapse. We had a rule of either making the work in Greece or not making it at all. It was sentimental to us. Noguchi’s trips were special because of the human connections he made, and in doing this work, you develop relationships that begin with admiration and become deep friendships. It’s now a good time to proceed with kindness, especially in design, and with the dignity of people. Noguchi was present as an established artist in a much smaller country, and that’s what I highlight.

Is there a story in the book that illustrates this presence?

What I’ll always remember is in a chapter by Katerina Koskina [the art historian who organized the First International Meeting of Fine Arts in Delphi, in 1988]. She invited really important artists. Noguchi arrived first, and she sent him to visit [Greek painter] Yannis Tsarouchis at his beautiful house. Tsarouchis only spoke Greek and French, and Noguchi only spoke Japanese and English, but they spent the day drawing together—discussing things through art. I found it mind-blowing, especially in an era where we don’t have time to spare for anyone.

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