As an Asian American choreographer, I am especially drawn to two works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection: a pastel drawing of Isamu Noguchi by Winold Reiss (c. 1929) and a photograph of Michio Ito by Nickolas Muray (1921). These portraits, which evoke the style of Art Deco, capture the intense gazes of their youthful sitters. Noguchi is seated before an abstract blue architectural setting whereas Ito strikes a dramatic pose, the geometry of his body harmonizing with the crisp linear backdrop.
The works also illuminate intersecting stories that reveal both the triumphs of Asian Americans as well as dark moment in American history. Both sitters were of Japanese heritage; Ito was the first Asian American choreographer while Noguchi was a renowned sculptor. Lauded for their modern East-West aesthetics, they were in fact real-life friends and artistic compatriots, who galvanized their unique artistic voices during the interwar period. Yet they would struggle to find consistent acceptance in the socio-political landscape of the United States. During World War II, they were considered “enemies of the state” under Executive Order 9066, which greenlighted the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
Ultimately, these likenesses of Michio Ito and Isamu Noguchi reside at the Portrait Gallery as testaments to the sitters’ artistry, to their resilience as Asian Americans, and to the importance of exploring U.S. history through portraiture.