The Vicious Cynicism of Installing Noguchi at the White House

On November 20, 2020, the White House published a press release describing the recent installation of a 1962 bronze sculpture by Isamu Noguchi in the newly renovated Rose Garden. Given to the collection by the White House Historical Association, “Floor Frame” (1962) is being promoted by the White House and Melania Trump as an important acquisition. With great fanfare and a ribbon cutting ceremony posted to Twitter (@FLOTUS), the First Lady announced that the sculpture would be “the first work by an Asian American artist to be represented in the White House collection.”  Moving on to interpretation of the work’s significance, she proposed the following reading of the work:

He [Noguchi] viewed Floor Frame as the intersection of a tree and the ground, taking on the qualities of both an implied root system and the canopy of a tree. In order to reconnect viewers to the planet, he envisioned the sculpture placed directly on the ground. The sculpture placement on the terrace in the Rose Garden allows visitors to happen upon it, giving it a found quality. While powerful in its own right, Floor Frame is humble in scale, and compliments [sic] the authority of the Oval Office.

There is much to consider here, not the least of which is the contrast between an apparently “humble” sculpture (by an Asian-American artist whose Japanese ancestry remains unmentioned,) and the “authority of the Oval Office.” Clichéd as it might be, this subtly racialized opposition between the humble Japanese American artist and the authoritative occupant of the Oval Office should make one think about the irony of the acquisition in this time, this place, and under this presidential administration. While the White House Historical Association works behind the scenes to transform the collection in line with a “Diversity in White House Art,” initiative, we need to remember how the US government has treated Japanese Americans historically. During World War II, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans, including Noguchi, were incarcerated in camps under Executive Order 9066 which designated anyone of Japanese descent on the west coast an enemy of the state. Noguchi himself worked hard to counteract the racist hysteria that ensued during the war with Japan, including voluntary detention at the Poston Camp in Arizona. Noguchi thought he was going to launch an art program for the prisoners held there. That program never took off, and eventually Noguchi received a “furlough” to return to his home in New York City after he applied under a “mixed blood” application for release. (Born in Los Angeles in 1904, his mother was Euro-American and his father Japanese.)

Military sentry keeping civilians away from mess hall at Poston 1 in Poston, Arizona (photograph by Fred Clark via the Bancroft Library, the University of California, Berkeley, part of the collection: War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, 1942-1945)

Noguchi’s experience at Poston marked him for life: even when he was selected to represent the US at the 1986 Venice Biennale, he wondered loudly why a person like him, from a community that had been put into camps during WWII, was now suddenly seen as “American.” His incredulous response to the biennale invitation signaled the lasting impact that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in that time had on him. Life at Poston was harsh: the desert conditions, tar paper barracks, limited funding for food, and barbed wire fences are echoed in a sculpture called “Monument to Heroes” that he created in 1943, the year after he left Poston. If “Floor Frame” heightens our sense of the contrast between roots and canopy, or between things seen and unseen, “Monument to Heroes” harnesses and expresses the reality of what it means to be a war hero: It means death.

Isamu Noguchi, “Monument to Heroes” (1943) (photo by Kevin Noble, © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society [ARS], courtesy the Noguchi Museum)

When I read about the installation of Noguchi’s work in the Rose Garden, I gasped at the vicious cynicism of the choice. While thousands of undocumented immigrants are currently detained in over 80 sites across the US, and while 545 children have been torn from their families, the celebration of this acquisition serves to “artwash” the Trump Administration’s inhumane immigration policies. While some imagine that Noguchi would be proud to have his work displayed at the White House under these circumstances, and in spitting distance from the authority of the Trump Oval Office, I would bet that he is turning in his grave.

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