Black Sun: How Capitol Hill Became Home to Isamu Noguchi’s 12-Ton Sculpture
"Meet you by the Black Sun...I want it to be a meeting place and I can see young people gathering around it," beamed Isamu Noguchi to a writer at The Seattle Times, perhaps moments after his sculpture's public reveal on September 12th, 1969. Black Sun stands proudly at nine feet tall and is impressively polished, resting its circular frame in an act that defies physics. There are fewer Seattle experiences more enchanting than staring, due west, through the asymmetrical center of Black Sun's granite.
The origins of Black Sun began in the first month of 1967. The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities provided a $45,000 grant to three separate cities to institute a public art sculpture. Seattle was one of the chosen locations, paired with the artist Isamu Noguchi. By this time, Noguchi was an internationally recognized modern sculptor, splitting his time and identity between Japan and the United States. Born to his Japanese father and his American mother in Los Angeles, Noguchi felt a long-lasting, simultaneous allegiance to and alienation from the people of his two nationalities. Like himself, Black Sun spanned both locations. The sculpture's conception took place on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and its intended resting place was Volunteer Park in Seattle. Black Sun was the artist's largest sculpture to date, and it seems closest to the geographic dualism he felt deeply in his core.
In the springtime of '67, Noguchi traveled to the Pacific Northwest from his studio in New York City. Initially, he scouted potential locations for a thirty-inch sculpture in downtown Seattle, until someone recommended he visit Volunteer Park in Capitol Hill. "[The site] was perfect," he expressed to The Seattle Times, "but I realized the sculpture would have to be much larger." Noguchi met with the Director of the Seattle Art Museum, Dr. Richard Fuller, to discuss magnifying its scale. He proposed two alternate sizes: a 7'9" version that would cost $65,000 or a slightly larger 9-foot sculpture for $80,000. Dr. Fuller and Noguchi agreed upon the 9-foot diameter, and a few days later, Noguchi began preparations for its creation. The Seattle Foundation matched the original grant, bringing the total budget for Noguchi's vision to $90,000. Additionally, Seattle-based modern architect Fred Bassetti was commissioned to design the stone platform on which Black Sun would rest.
Noguchi wrote to his Japanese intermediary, architect Tadashi Yamamoto, asking him to order a ten-by-ten-foot, 30-ton block of black granite from Brazil. The artist created a plaster mold and instructed Yamamoto to scale the sculpture to three times its size. When the stone arrived on the island in Japan, it was too cumbersome to transport to its intended work studio, a property owned by stonecutter Masatoshi Izumi. Because of this, a majority of Black Sun's beginnings forcibly took shape on the beach. Izumi and a few stonecutters carved away nearly three-fourths of the stone until it was light enough to transport by crane. Noguchi helped the men erode the block into a smaller mass as often as his schedule allowed--he was concurrently assembling a solo exhibition at The Whitney Museum in New York.
According to exchanges between the stonecutters and studio assistants, the experience of working with Noguchi, at times, did not mimic the artwork's effortlessly smooth texture. The group of assistants polarized between admiration for Noguchi's stamina and slight terror from his strictness. "Cut harder!" he barked at one stoneworker. "You are polishing your soul," he whispered gently to another. He routinely spent twelve-hour shifts alone, attentively cutting and transforming the stone with his face inches from its surface. "Noguchi's attention span was long and deep. . . .When he started to carve, his personality became different," said a visitor to the studio, a priest. Eleven people carved the rotund sculpture for eight months; polishing took an additional four. In May of 1969, Black Sun experienced its second boat ride traversing the Pacific Ocean--this time on its way to Seattle.
With much anticipation for this new landmark, the Seattle Art Museum, with Isamu Noguchi present, unveiled the 12-ton black granite artwork to the public. Noguchi's biographer, Hayden Herrera, wrote of the event, "Fuller pulled the string and the cloth fell away from the undulating wheel of black stone. Noguchi was full of smiles." Herrera quoted Noguchi in this moment: "It is appropriate that it should be put in front of the Seattle Art Museum which is a great Oriental museum. It's as if something from inside had been rolled out."
An article in The Seattle Times, published shortly after Black Sun's installation, mocked its structure. It mentioned nicknames adopted by the Seattle community: "black doughnut" and "the tire." Playful jokes of this nature continue into the present day, but Black Sun has lovingly nested itself into Capitol Hill and Seattle's visual culture. It has been photographed by tourists and locals innumerable times. During the chilling, grey-skied Seattle winters and in the idyllic summertime, the void carved from the center of Black Sun's granite acts as an appropriate lens for viewing the distanced Space Needle.
If Isamu Noguchi were still with us, one could imagine that he would still boast a Black Sun-induced smile for two significant reasons. Seattleites do say many iterations of "I'll meet you by Black Sun," because it has become an easily-described geographical landmark. And fortuitously, the Asian Art Museum now inhabits the Seattle Art Museum's previous building, directly outside of Black Sun's permanent home in the park. Isamu Noguchi couldn't have planned the sculpture's fate more perfectly.
Read more about Isamu Noguchi's prolific legacy, and Black Sun specifically, in Hayden Herrera's Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, or in archival clippings from The Seattle Times (free online access is available for Seattle Public Library card holders).
Kelsey Rose Williams is the Photography Archivist for the Eames Office, a freelance writer, and a modern architecture preservation advocate. Capitol Hill was the first neighborhood she lived in when she moved to Seattle in 2018.
1. Photograph taken by Kelsey, March 2021.
2. Noguchi in Shikoku, Japan, prior to shipping Black Sun to Seattle. Image copyright of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum.
3. Noguchi looking through Black Sun in 1969. Image copyright of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum.