A historic moment occurred this past Friday when a bronze sculpture titled Floor Frame by renowned Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi was unveiled in the White House Rose Garden. It’s a worthy honor for an artist of profound influence, as well as a symbol of the enduring relationship between the United States and Japan. As the first work of art by an Asian American artist in the White House Collection, it is also a milestone for the Asian American community.
Noguchi’s sculpture represents the beautiful multiplicity of cultures that make up the United States of America and is an example of how the White House art collection has expanded over the years to ensure inclusion of pieces by diverse artists. It also signifies the ongoing efforts we must make to affirmatively lift up American artists of all backgrounds and experiences.
Born to Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet, and Léonie Gilmour, an American writer, Isamu Noguchi spent his life straddling cultural divides, spending a portion of his childhood in Japan while later attending school in the United States. His story of dedication and self-sacrifice in the face of obstacles is one that is familiar to many children of immigrants. Though pressured to enroll as a premedical student by his mentors, he spent nights studying art and pursuing his dream.
Noguchi’s identity was constantly questioned—both as an American in Japan and as a person of Japanese heritage living in the United States—and became a brutal reality for the young artist as the two nations entered the second World War. In spite of coming of age in a country that doubted his loyalties, he was a staunch defender of the multitudes of cultures that come together in America.
As Japanese Americans were shamefully forced into internment camps by the American government, Noguchi voluntarily sacrificed his freedom and signed up to enter an encampment so that he could use his gifts as a landscape architect to improve the squalid and degrading conditions. Like many other artists before and since, he was compelled to use his platform and abilities to draw attention to injustices. When it became clear that he would not be permitted to leave the camps, he penned an essay defending the character and integrity of those confined, writing “tell us what jobs there are, give us the training, permit us your confidence as Americans, and you will find an eager army for democracy.”
His life’s work is a testament to how the immigrant experience is part and parcel of what it means to be an American, and his work’s selection is a fitting tribute to the Asian American community and those in the United States who have been marginalized.
Many artists of diverse backgrounds have pieces that are part of the invaluable collection found in the Executive Mansion. These are showcased in the White House Historical Association’s “Diversity in White House Art” series that honors the significant contributions of women and people of color to the cultural legacy of “The People’s House.” Simmie Knox broke ground as the first Black artist to paint an official White House portrait for President Clinton, at the recommendation of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a monumental achievement for a man raised by sharecroppers. When Michelle Obama sought to update the collection, she personally selected the vibrant abstract art of Alma Thomas, making her the first Black woman artist to have her work featured in the White House. Many know Georgia O’Keeffe for her evocative paintings of the American Southwest, but she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ford in 1977 and later had paintings hung in the White House at the request of First Lady Laura Bush.
When one reads these artists’ stories and learns about their journeys to prominence, one cannot help but marvel at their perseverance and creative vision in the face of such imposing obstacles. We firmly believe that their stories are a fundamental part of our national history, which is why the WHHA has launched a new collection of educational resources for students to learn about their inspiring careers.
The official inclusion of Noguchi’s work in the White House Collection and its display in the Rose Garden—among the most prominent and famous of White House venues—is an opportunity to reflect on the many voices that make up the chorus of our national culture. As the child of a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi crafted an artistic vision that melded disparate influences to create something wholly unique. It is a story that has been told many times by the countless Americans whose ancestors are immigrants. His work joins that of other artists who have similarly grappled with systemic barriers, but who nonetheless left an indelible mark on our shared artistic heritage. During his life, Noguchi spoke on behalf of his immigrant brethren and implored the government of the United States to “permit us your confidence as Americans.”
Let Noguchi’s work and that of all the other artists featured in the White House Collection be a vote of confidence in the diverse cultures that make up the United States.