Barbican Art Gallery's exhibition charts Noguchi's evolving relationship with abstract sculpture, his collaborations and his exploration of the impact of his dual heritage
Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) is most readily associated with his distinctive and much imitated Akari (light) lanterns, made from washi paper and bamboo. At Noguchi, a new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, there is certainly an abundance of Akari to be found – large, small, spherical, cuboid, hanging, standing, high, low. But more illuminatingly, the show conveys the enormous breadth of his work as an artist and designer from stage sets to children’s playgrounds. Along the way, it takes in his early training with modernist pioneer Constantin Brâncuși in the 1920s, his association with Buckminster Fuller, and his deep interest in creating accessible work, whether through his popular lanterns, or public art.
There’s a great deal to learn about a career stretching over six decades, during which time Noguchi was, we discover, constantly evolving his approach to abstract sculpture and navigating his dual heritage identity. His mother was Irish American, his father Japanese, and he spent long periods of time living in both Japan and New York as well as travelling extensively. As he looked for a sense of belonging, he was constantly, as he put it, ‘gyrating’ between the two.
After starting out making portrait heads, his apprenticeship with Brancusi in Paris turned him towards abstraction. We learn how he came to reject pure abstraction and became interested in what he termed ‘poetic translations’ of nature, which he sought to distil. Back in America, he was much taken with the potential of technology and material innovation for remaking the world, and was deeply influenced by the work of Fuller, collaborating with him on models for the Dymaxion car (1932-33). In a conversation with him towards the end of his career, he reflected that ‘your ideas were an abstraction that I could accept as being part of life, and useful’.
Early in his career, Noguchi began extending the scope of his sculptural work. While his playground landscapes from this time – intended as ‘simple, mysterious and evocative’ – were to remain unbuilt, he found stage sets a fruitful creative area, most notably in his work for Martha Graham. Footage in the show of Frontier (1935) shows how his simple set of a fence and two taut ropes was at the heart of the performance. To him, the space that the rope enclosed was the sculpture, not the rope itself, and Graham was the sculptor.
Noguchi was starting to not only question his chosen art form in an essay called ‘What’s the Matter with Sculpture’, but to produce more socially engaged work inspired by contemporary problems, participating in a couple of anti-lynching exhibitions and creating an anti-fascist mural in Mexico City. One of the most memorable sections in the exhibition relates to his experience of wartime America after the Pearl Harbour attack led to Japanese-Americans being incarcerated. Although himself exempt, he voluntarily entered an internment camp in the Arizona desert in a spirit of solidarity in 1942, with the aim of improving the camp environment and setting up community activities including a woodcarving workshop. His efforts were thwarted by the authorities and he left after around six months, subsequently channelling his strong feelings into pieces such as his Lunar works, which show the influence of the desolate desert landscape, and his growing interest in cosmic themes. Other works, some involving bones, were a reaction to the destruction caused by the war, such as Cronos (1947). One of several biomorphic interlocking structures, this is a reference to the mythological figure Cronos swallowing his own children.
These are a sharp contrast with the Akari lanterns that he designed from the 1951 onwards, which combined traditional craft techniques with the modern technology of electric bulbs. He went on to experiment with aluminium in sculptures made in 1958 in response to the skyscrapers he saw around in New York.
In his civic sculptures of the next two decades, he engaged further with the built environment in a number of sculptural landscapes. For the UNESCO Gardens in Paris, he composed large stones shipped in from Japan in a landscape of ponds and planting to complement Breuer’s architecture. Perhaps the most spectacular project was for the Expo ’70 World Fair in Osaka, at which Noguchi and architect Shoji Sadao created futuristic fountains that explored water as an exciting sculptural medium. Playscapes were another repeated area of interest.
For me, the presentation of the work doesn’t always enhance visitor understanding. Some beautifully arranged groups of work make for pleasing compositions but leave the identity and chronology of the individual pieces hard to grasp – an exhibition guide stands in for labels. And in a later room on public art installations, the presentation of a row of monitors screening different footage alongside each other at the same time (with only one audio playing) make for a distracting visual overload.
We learn about the research trips that took Noguchi all over the world. I would also have appreciated a few more details of his personal life – at one point, we hear of his marriage to a Japanese film star, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and his excitement of setting up a home and new studio with her in Japan, but not much more. (It turns out the marriage was relatively brief).
Gripes apart, this exhibition remains a great chance to explore the full range of Noguchi’s work, far beyond that of the familiar Akari.