Isamu Noguchi, Peking Drawing (man sitting), 1930, horizontal hanging scroll, ink on paper.

The student doesn’t always have to become the master. Sometimes it’s enough to pick up a few tips and tricks and move on. Frye Art Museum’s latest exhibit Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Bejing 1930 showcases the artistic growth and exchange of ideas that occurred when American sculptor, designer, and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi visited China for six months and studied under master Chinese painter Qi Baishi.

The exhibit conveys the idea of subtle influence. While visiting China in 1930, Noguchi couldn’t really sculpt due to the country’s general lack of dental plaster, so he turned to painting to satiate his artistic urges after seeing the works of and being introduced to Qi Baishi. When looking at the pieces on display, there’s no confusing who created which pieces. Qi’s paintings have more of a classic East Asian calligraphic bent. His subjects are the mundane and simple: Crabs, ducks, cabbage, etc. At times, he’d employ splashes of lively color (Chicken and Gourd Vine and Wisteria). On the other hand, the paintings Noguchi created while in China are uniformly created with black ink with human subjects (one of the Frye’s rooms is devoted solely to his paintings of children and their mothers). While it may seem a disparate juxtaposition at first glance, the exhibit illustrates how an artist was able to expand his own broad artistic concepts from a master in a different field. Noguchi didn’t ape Qi, he simply picked up and reemployed minute details to better his own craft: from Qi’s soft, broad, and fluid calligraphically informed lines of Pine and Bamboo to the use of negative space in Frog. These elements are then employed in Noguchi’s paintings like Peking Drawing (man sitting) and Baby: Scroll (Kakemono), where he employs a technique of having dark, thick curved ink lines superimpose a Zen-like flow or spirit for each of the figures.

The real impact of Noguchi time in China isn’t truly felt until one exits the main galleries and views the hallway adorned with drawings he made in France shortly before his trip. In comparison to the figures his Chinese paintings, the subjects in his Parisian crayon drawings like Two Standing Nudes and Standing Nude, with Arms Raised are almost jarringly grounded in a sense of realism and detail. There’s an adherence to much stiffer lines and techniques that vanishes after encountering Qi. Even the fact Noguchi employs shading in the drawings creates clear contrast between the periods. It feels like burying the lead to have these works, ones that illustrate the exhibits thematic idea, almost hidden at the end of the show.

It's clear that Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi shared a strong artistic bond in their brief time together in 1930. The Frye exhibit even includes the soapstone seal that Qi made so that Nouchi to mark his works. It's the master quite literally giving the student a stamp of approval.

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Bejing 1930
Thru May 25, Frye Art Museum, Free

Qi Baishi, Crabs, ca. 1930, album leaf, ink on paper.

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