Born in America in 1904 to a Japanese father and an American mother, Isamu Noguchi spent the majority of his childhood in Japan (1906–18) before going to the United States to continue his schooling (1918–24). Between 1927 and 1937, his frequent and extended travels to Europe, China, Japan, and Mexico, where he saw modern painting and sculpture being made, studied calligraphy, and painted a mural, provided him with an eclectic range of artistic experiences upon which to draw.
Noguchi's sculptures and drawings from the mid-1940s are occupied with figurative and biomorphic imagery. "Kouros" illustrates the biomorphic vocabulary that Noguchi devised in order to abstract the human figure into fragmented, bonelike elements and may be compared to the biomorphic abstractions produced by such Surrealist artists as Jean Arp, Matta, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Yves Tanguy. Noguchi always contended that the organic quality of his work came not from Surrealist examples, however, but from his familiarity with traditional Japanese arts and crafts — bells, samurai swords, and floral arrangements.
Although Surrealism no doubt played a part in Noguchi's use of biomorphic abstraction in the 1940s, he was already predisposed to it by an earlier and more memorable experience — that of working with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris while traveling on a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. As Brancusi's part-time studio assistant for about five months in 1927, the twenty-two-year-old Noguchi learned how simple organic shapes could evoke figurative associations. He also acquired the techniques needed to carve in stone, which he first used for his own sculpture in the 1930s and which continued to dominate his aesthetic for more than fifty years. This dedication to traditional techniques and materials was in direct opposition to the more industrial welded-metal construction that was popularized in the 1940s and 1950s by such sculptors as Herbert Ferber, Theodore Roszak, and David Smith.
In all, Noguchi completed about fifteen interlocking sculptures between 1945 and 1948, including the Metropolitan Museum's famous pink marble sculpture "Kouros," which is more than nine feet high. These sculptures were assembled from individual pieces of carved stone, without benefit of adhesives or pinions, by notching and slotting the pieces together. As Noguchi explained: "You have to consider the weight of the material, the forces that conspire to hold up the figure — engineering problems, essentially. Everything I do has an element of engineering in it — particularly since I dislike gluing parts together or taking advantage of something that is not inherent in the material . . . there are no adhesives of any kind — only the stones holding themselves together."
The fragmented figures that were created, both in drawings and sculpture, reflect Noguchi's feelings about the precarious state of the world after World War II, which he characterized as "the encroaching void." Such feelings were echoed in the statements made by some of the Abstract Expressionists at the time and in the primordial and mythic imagery they chose to depict. For Noguchi, as for many Abstract Expressionists, abstraction was a way to convey the intimate relationship between contemporary man and these ancient, universal sources.