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Noguchi Chess Set

Noguchi Chess Set

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Of the many chess set designs made by major 20th century Modern artists few were both as innovative and deeply rooted in tradition as the Chess Set and Table ensemble created by Japanese – American sculptor Isamu Noguchi for the 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in New York, organized by Levy and artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.

The wartime scarcity of quality materials both limited and inspired Noguchi. In his chess set design, which became prototypes for his other sculptures of that era, Noguchi devised a simple but ingenious system of notching together thin contoured planes of material to create fully 3-D objects, but using a minimum of materials. Scarcity also led him to fashion these pieces from a new experimental wartime material developed to mass produce clear aircraft canopies and gun turrets – Plexiglas.

Being of mixed Japanese and American parentage, Noguchi combined his passion for pioneering Modernist forms with a deep respect for the history and traditions of both Eastern and Western cultures. His love of historical Indian and Persian chess forms was further fueled by his love affair (1943 – 1947) with a young Indian woman, Tara Pandit, the niece of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Instead of regular Western black and white pieces, Noguchi made his figures of translucent red and green Plexiglas to echo rubies and emeralds often found in Moghul jewelry. With the exception of the rook, all other pieces have headlike forms and arched spines. The King and Queen, to show their procreative as well as regal powers, have pronounced genitalia.

He mimicked the beauty of Indian and Persian black lacquered boards that had round, center-point inlays of mother of pearl or ivory with his black ebonized curvy-edged table featuring a grid of white circular inlays, not squares.

There is no record of what happened to the original chess pieces, but ever since the 2005 debut of a replica set of Isamu Noguchi’s lost original 1944 chess set in the Imagery of Chess Revisited exhibition, the Noguchi Museum has been inundated with requests for a new edition.

The Noguchi Museum and AMEICO have been conducting materials research for some time and are excited to produce a new edition of the 1944 Noguchi Chess Set accompanied by an attractive Perspex black folding board with red and translucent white circular inlays, modelled after the artist’s original tabletop design.


Concept and Text courtesy of Larry List, THE IMAGERY OF CHESS REVSITED, Noguchi Museum/George Braziller, Publishers