At play in the cosmos: Isamu Noguchi

Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, 4 July 1947. Photograph by Arnold Newman. © Arnold Newman Collection / Getty Images / INFGM / ARS — DACS.

“I like to think that when you get to the furthest point of technology, when you get to outer space, what do you find to bring back? Rocks!”

Isamu Noguchi’s playful remark to the art critic Calvin Tomkins in 1980 flips a space-age feat on its head. Finding something so earthly on the Moon is a reminder of our entanglement with the cosmos —John Muir’s idea that whenever you single something out, you find it “hitched to everything else in the Universe”. More, the moonshot’s collision of high tech and raw nature encapsulates tensions driving Noguchi’s own creative urge.

The Barbican’s stunning show (now running to 23 January) chronicles the sculptor’s eternal teetering at such points of paradox. The child of a Japanese father and Irish-American mother — the poet Yonejiro Noguchi and writer Léonie Gilmour — Noguchi was born in California and spent years in Japan, declaring in the 1940s that “to be hybrid anticipates the future”. Poised between worlds, he became an unwearied explorer of others, trekking from China and India to Indonesia, Mexico, Italy, Greece and beyond, absorbing, translating, alchemizing.

As a midcentury American, I’ve studied his material language. Noguchi’s aesthetic saturated US culture, not least through his mass-produced illuminated sculptures crafted from mulberry paper and bamboo, Akari (‘light’ in Japanese). In design he was as omnipresent as Charles and Ray Eames. In sculpture he was one in the pantheon with the likes of Hepworth, Moore, Calder, Arp. So I had this idea that I knew his work. But this show — first stop in the first touring retrospective to reach Europe for two decades — ended up stretching my thinking on Noguchi all over the place.

Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Infant, 1944. Magnesite, wood, electrical components, 55.9 x 40.6 x 40.6 cm. Photograph by Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 150797. ©INFGM / ARS — DACS.

First there’s the restless experimentation with media: wood, earth, concrete, steel and plaster to zinc, granite, marble, magnesite. Then, the pull towards science. Like Bauhaus luminaries Moholy-Nagy and Kandinsky, Noguchi was gripped by advances in physics and wrangled intuitively with concepts of time and space. And there is his social conscience, forged in the conflagrations of the long 20th century. As the critic James Panero has noted, Noguchi’s capacity to unify manifold influences sculpturally in some way mirrors his process of self-shaping — “giving form to mixed identities”.

The show is a crowded cosmos: the subtle ‘Lunar’ light sculptures, compelling portraiture in terracotta and bronze, stage sets of Beckettian spareness for Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, models and maquettes of fountains, public sculptures, playgrounds. The exhibition’s lower level, a prospect of weightless luminaires, angular standing stones and scaffolding-like pieces in primary hues, is like a stroll through an enchanted forest — or a cocktail party thronged with benevolent aliens.

Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images

The layout, part-chronological, part-thematic, traces how creative currents played out over Noguchi’s career. The earliest works here emerged after his apprenticeship to the Modernist pioneer Constantin Brâncuşi in Paris in 1927. Some of them echo the Romanian master’s work, such as Globular, a biomorphic abstraction in reflective brass. Soon enough, Noguchi was moving on to portrait heads, including the futuristic and powerful 1929 R. Buckminster Fuller in chrome-plated bronze.

Noguchi had met the maverick visioneer in Romany Marie’s, a boho bistro in Greenwich Village where they discovered a shared drive towards material utopianism. In 1932, when Noguchi created his ‘aerodynamic’ homage to the dancer Ruth Page (his lover and erstwhile collaborator), Fuller dubbed it Miss Expanding Universe — the suspended sculpture’s fanned-out form a nod to Edwin Hubble’s breakthrough discovery. Years later Noguchi would devise his ‘transformative’ Spider Dress for Martha Graham’s dance Cave of the Heart, its branching wires like radiating flames or beams.

Martha Graham with Spider Dress and Serpent for Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart”, 1946. Photograph by Cris Alexander. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01619. ©INFGM / ARS — DACS

The atomic era gave scientific inspiration an apocalyptic edge. Noguchi’s reflections on the bomb included Trinity (1945) — an ominous, bristling jut of a piece marking the Manhattan Project’s test in New Mexico that year. Six years later he would make the trip to Hiroshima, and decades on design Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima (1982), a massive arc in black granite, wood and steel. “I had the notion that such a memorial might be meaningful somewhere in the United States as a gesture of regret and a sign of opposition to this devastating event,” he said. It was never realized. (Noguchi wrote approvingly, however, of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.)

Isamu Noguchi, Trinity (Triple), 1945 (fabricated 1988). Bronze plate, 141.6 x 56.5 x 49.5 cm. Photograph by Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 9891. ©INFGM / ARS — DACS

As the show’s array of letters and documents traces, Noguchi’s politicization had begun long before. The wrenching Death (Lynched Figure) from the mid-1930s was based on a harrowing photograph by Berenice Abbott showing the lynched corpse of African-American farmhand George Hughes. Soon after in Mexico City, Noguchi was working under Diego Rivera on History Mexico, a sculptural frieze in polychrome concrete featuring struggling masses and marvellously rendered, if somewhat obvious, symbolic touches.

Noguchi’s eloquent, long-unpublished essay ‘I Become a Nisei’ — the term for a North American child of Japanese immigrants — marks a shift to the personal. The trigger was Roosevelt’s shameful wartime decision to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps. In 1942 Noguchi voluntarily entered the Colorado River Relocation Center at Poston, Arizona, with the idea of helping to improve conditions, but was met with hostility from both the authorities and fellow inmates. He was released only after several months, having gained considerable insight into the American condition: “For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.”

A “middle people with no middle ground”. Noguchi’s characterization of the Nisei’s plight is blunt. Certainly he had experienced marginalization. While some seem to think of his life as charmed — he was Brâncuşi’s only apprentice, for instance — he endured periods of poverty and had to fight for recognition. It took until the 1970s for him to have a “serious gallery relationship”, as Matthew Kirsch of the Noguchi Museum has noted. The difficult years clearly made him a philosopher.

Isamu Noguchi (design) with Shoji Sadao (architect), Play Equipmentat. Moerenuma Koen, 1988–2004. Sapporo, Japan. ©INFGM / ARS — DACS

But while Noguchi went his own way, he was not without support: along with Fuller, his friends included Charles and Ray Eames, Frida Kahlo, Abbott, Calder. It’s interesting to see that like them — all ‘creatives’ with a foot in science, technology, engineering, medicine — Noguchi interfused the functional with the aesthetic. Calder, for instance, toyed magnificently with automation; Noguchi, with electrification. And like Fuller with his domes, Noguchi — as the show explores in some depth — sought to democratize art. He thought of the playground, for instance, as “a primer of shapes and functions” and an arena for discovery, insights shared today by playspace innovators such as Günter Beltzig. And while most of Noguchi’s plans for playgrounds went unrealized, his public works, from fountains to sculptures, are legion.

Yet for all the materiality, the sheer weight of stuff, I was struck by Noguchi’s way with impermanence. Form can, after all, be collapsible, as Dakin Hart of the Noguchi Foundation has noted of Noguchi’s iconic Herman Miller coffee table, his puzzle-piece ‘flatpack’ interlocking sculptures and, of course, Akari. There’s a sense of flux — that he was always poised to move on, to shape-change. That extends to his rejection of pigeon-holing attitudes towards craft and art. As Hart put it, “he loathed the prejudice that irrationally demeans table-making and equally irrationally sacralises art-making”.

Isamu Noguchi assembling “Figure” in his MacDougal Alley studio, 1944. Photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03765. ©INFGM / ARS — DACS / Estate of Rudolph Burckhardt.

That bias persists. I’ve noted a curious notion aired by some, that Noguchi was ‘really’ a designer struggling to attain the urgency of an artist like, say, Giacometti. Quite aside from the odiousness of comparisons, I wonder at the easy dismissal. Along with the marvels on show at the Barbican, there are all the stupendous absentees such as the monumental stone Black Sun in Seattle and Kouros at the Met.

Is it familiarity? In a 1973 interview with Paul Cummings for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Noguchi noted that Duchamp had given a talk where he said that the Nude Descending the Staircase “was practically a hollow shell by now because it had been over-consumed and was no longer useful”. Yet if art does have a nutritive quality that’s leached away by overexposure, I’d say too that millions have yet to see the Nude or any other Modernist masterpiece — and that the many who have might come to them with ‘new eyes’.

I found myself seeing stone itself differently at the Barbican. We can view a sculpted form as its materiality, as minerals or metals or electron clouds. But to Noguchi it was not just rock. It was “also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between”. If stone was the ballast keeping this nomad-artist grounded (and tethered to the Universe), those ‘spaces between’ might be seen as a place where he found the freedom to become what he had to be. Noguchi will give you a compelling sense of what that was.

Noguchi runs to 23 January 2022 at the Barbican. The show is organized and curated by the Barbican, Museum Ludwig in Cologne and Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, in partnership with Lille Metropole Musee.