Noguchi's Chess Set and Table

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Isamu Noguchi's Chess Set and Table is the only set from The Imagery of Chess to feature chess pieces of red and green on a black playing surface. This combination may have been influenced by the artist's facination with Indian culture and artifacts (the classic Indian chess set has red and green chess pieces and a dark board) that began in 1928 and a friendship with a young Indian woman, Tara Pandit, the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, that began in 1943 and ended in 1947. In designing his chess set, he may have researched the invention of chess and found descriptions such as this ninth-century account of the sixth-century exchange between Dewisharm, the Indian ruler, and Khusraw I (the "king of kings" therein), the Sassanian ruler of Mesopotamia and Iran: "They say that, in the reign of of Khusraw of the Immortal Soul, a chess game (16 counters of emerald and 16 counters of red ruby) was sent by Dewisharm, great ruler of the Indians, to test the intelligence and wisdom of the Iranians and see to his own profit." Tara Pandit, who at the time was studying at Wellesley College and paying weekend visits to New York City, may have brought this important citation, which existed in some variations as history and in others as myth, to Noguchi's attention. During these visits, or possibly at the homes of prominent members of the India League of America, with whom they were friends, Pandit and Noguchi may have seen actual examples of traditional Indian or Indian-inspired Asian chess sets and boards.

Taking cues from Duchamp's portable chess sets and given his own predilection for collapsible structures, which evolved from his work with dance-set designs and his familiarity with Japanese architecture, Noguchi fashioned his chess table, and his subsequent sculptures, to fit notched together without glue or nails and to come apart into small, flat, easy-to-carry pieces.

The scale relationship of the table - small and low - to a standing person offered the equivalent of an aerial view of a battlefield. The table rotates to reveal the dark, sunken pockets of cast aluminum, and is closely related to Giacomettie's earlier cratered sculpture representing either foxholes or graves for the vanquished, On ne joue plus (No More Play), which was owned by Levy. These inverted hollowed-hillock forms may be seen as a hybrid of Noguchi''s 1941 bronze proposal model Contoured Playground and the 1943 wall relief This Tortured Earth, modeled after aerial photographs of a bombed landscape in North Africa.

This description was taken from; List, Larry. The Imagery of Chess Revisited. New York: George Braziller, Publishers, 2006, Print


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