Shortly before the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, in 1904, his father, a poet, abandoned his mother and returned to Japan (Noguchi later confessed a “moral loathing” for him). Two years later, his American mother, also a writer, decided to emigrate and raise her son in Tokyo. But when he turned 13 she sent him back, alone, to an American high school. He never forgave her.

If his parents treated him badly, his adopted country wasn’t much better. Noguchi trained with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who incised the faces of the presidents into Mount Rushmore. Borglum concluded that his pupil had no talent. Noguchi also worked as the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s studio assistant in Paris in the late 1920s. Yet he wasn’t chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale until 1986. And when an American museum first honoured him with a significant show, in 1942, Noguchi was cooling his heels in an internment camp for enemy aliens, albeit voluntarily. “I find myself a wanderer in the world,” he once said, “belonging everywhere and nowhere.”

Noguchi died in 1988, and today his memory is kept alive by the museum that he founded on the site of his old studio in New York. But next week his spirit descends on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in what will be, remarkably, the first major show of his work in Europe. The venue is apt, for one associates Henry Moore’s figures with the park’s rolling landscape, and in many respects Noguchi is America’s Moore.

His early style, exemplified in works such as Leda, from 1928, and 1000 Horsepower Heart (1939), was Constructivist and Futurist in inspiration. But later, like Moore, he would transform into a more versatile sculptor of abstract form. During the war his style would take on an anguished, Surrealist mood in works such as Figure, a piece he made in marble in 1944, and then cast in bronze. Later, he would become a sculptor of polished monoliths and strange ancient stones such as Woman, from 1984.

Like Moore, Noguchi also loved public projects. Unlike Moore, however, he had no talent for practicalities, and most of his early proposals were quickly rejected. In 1933 his proposal for a vast playground in New York was snubbed. Then he proposed building a pyramidal mound a mile wide on the prairies and installing on it a giant steel sculpture of a plough. That also failed. In 1947 he came up with an idea for a Sculpture to be Seen from Mars: a vast face made from mounds of sand, with a nose a mile high, located “in some desert, some unwanted area”. Again nobody wanted it.

Amid these disappointments, Noguchi struggled, and in his early years he supported himself as a sculptor of portrait busts to America’s creative elite. But his moment would come. Finally, in 1951, he was commissioned to create his first garden, for the offices of Reader’s Digest in Tokyo. He built a sculpture garden for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He even managed to persuade authorities in Atlanta to let him build a playground (though arguments over the safety of his equipment simmered on).

He also built two bridges in a Peace Park in Hiroshima. As a schoolboy, the fashion designer Issey Miyake would cycle over them every day. Later, the two would become friends, and Noguchi would become an inspiration for Miyake, who saw in him a model of the successful Japanese creator – true to his roots, yet understood across the world. “I am living with a sense of having been passed a baton,” Miyake once said.

Noguchi also created an eerie white marble garden for the library of Yale University. It contains some of his favourite motifs: a circular sun symbol, a pyramid to represent the earth, and a cube standing on one of its corners. The latter was a symbol, for Noguchi, of chance, and if you thought that only sage institutions such as Yale would favour such things, take a stroll down Broadway on your next visit to New York and you’ll find a massive red cube balancing in front of the black tombstone edifice of the Marine Midland Bank, looking as if it had fallen off the roof.

Many of the public projects that Noguchi undertook after the war still survive, though many look dated. So it is perhaps odd that Noguchi continues to fascinate critics. Some see him as a predecessor of the land artists of the 1960s, figures such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer – creators of massive earth sculptures and enveloping environments. Others see an early example of today’s globe-trotting, culture-swapping artists.

What strikes a bigger chord about Noguchi is the sheer heedlessness with which he crossed boundaries. One important inspiration for him was the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, whom he met in the early 1930s, and for whom he created some 20 set designs. Another model was Buckminster Fuller: Noguchi met the Modernist visionary in the early 1930s, and Fuller would continue to be a great supporter, proving that even if the Modernist future looked very techno-scientific, it could also embrace ancient and mystical accents as well.

But it was undoubtedly also Noguchi’s own Japanese heritage and his own spirited inclinations that led him to be such an artistic gadabout. He tried ceramics – and his sleek cups and saucers are still made by Vitra. He even tried furniture, and had his designs taken up by Knoll and Herman Miller.

After being asked to contribute to a book called How to Make a Table, Noguchi took a form he had been working with, a loop of wood, cut it and swivelled it and crowned it with a glass top to create his 1944 coffee table (Herman Miller still produces it). And, after a trip to Japan in 1951, when he visited the town of Gifu, which was famous for its lantern makers, he designed a series of Akari lamp sculptures made from bamboo and mulberry bark. Today, their bootleg offspring adorn budget interiors the world over.

Noguchi may have been uncertain at times, but by the end of his life he was reaching for a position where a sculpture could be a play object and a feat of product design as well. For his swansong at the Venice Biennale in 1986, he created a coiled Carrera marble sculpture, Slide Mantra, that at first glance looked like pristine and precious Modernism. If you had looked again you would have seen that it functioned as a slide, too.

Morgan Falconer
Times Online