Isamu Noguchi: Life in Design


An exhibition celebrating the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), one of the most experimental and pioneering artists of the 20th century, is currently on show in London.

This is the first touring retrospective of the artist in Europe for 20 years and focuses on Noguchi as a global citizen and his risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment. The artist was mostly known as an icon of mid-century design – in particular for his celebrated coffee table and Akari lights. He pushed the boundaries of sculpture by embracing social, environmental, and spiritual consciousness.

Noguchi believed sculpture could be ‘a vital force in our everyday life’, as a way of creating harmony between humans, nature and industry. He once said, ‘Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture’.

A Major Survey of Isamu Noguchi’s Work

This major survey also celebrates Noguchi as a global citizen, who travelled across the world to China, Mexico, and India, amongst many of the countries he visited.
Isamu Noguchi was the son of a Japanese father and American mother, and he constructed a unique sculptural philosophy while grappling with his identity as an artist caught between two cultures, East and West. Deeply influenced by the aesthetic vision of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), whom he encountered in his twenties, Noguchi devoted his life to pursuing a world enabling the creation of abstract form fundamentally resonant with nature. Due to war, Noguchi also knew the pain of belonging to nations that were bitter enemies, and he produced artworks imbued with an earnest desire for peace.

Retracing the Evolution of the Artist’s Career

The exhibition retraces the evolution of Noguchi’s kaleidoscopic career over six decades across sculpture, architecture, dance and design. Drawing from the collections of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, as well as private and public collections, the show brings together over 150 works, including an extraordinary range of sculptures – created in stone, bronze, ceramics, wood, aluminium and galvanised steel – as well as theatre set designs, architectural and playground models, lighting and furniture design.

As a young man Noguchi lived in Paris, where he apprenticed for a time with the Romanian sculptor Brancusi, a pioneer of modernism who encouraged his protégé to move away from realistic expression. Later, while supporting himself creating busts of wealthy patrons, Noguchi experimented with abstract designs in wood and metal while also sketching out concepts for civic spaces. By the 1930s, when he secured his first such commission – a mural on a market wall in Mexico City – Noguchi had expanded his definition of sculpture to include the space around it. He believed sculpture should be ‘lived’ rather than merely ‘seen’.

Isamu Noguchi with Brancusi and Qi Baishi

Exploring all aspects of Noguchi’s prolific artistic practice, an extensive range of his vast interdisciplinary output is presented, from his early apprenticeship with Brancusi in Paris and the celebrated Chinese brush painter Qi Baishi in Beijing. While en route to Japan for his first time since childhood, Isamu Noguchi paid an unexpected visit to Beijing from July 1930 to January 1931. Here, he was exposed to a collection of scrolls by the poet, seal carver, and traditional ink- painting master Qi Baishi (1864-1957). Noguchi was intrigued and asked to be introduced to Qi Baishi with whom he then observed and studied during his visit to China.

Public and Political Art Projects

Also explored in the exhibition is his public and political art projects of the 1930s, and radical dance collaborations with pioneering modern choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham. The exhibition delves into his celebrated interlocking sculptures produced during the 1940s. They comprise multiple parts to be assembled and dissembled, displaying Noguchi’s outstanding creativity in the face of adversity during the Second World War.

Organised by interconnecting themes, as well as chronological artistic development, the show highlights Noguchi’s close and enduring friendship with inventor and futurist R Buckminster Fuller. Their creative dialogue on the cosmic scale of the universe inspired Noguchi’s world consciousness and continued use of new technology from his artistic beginnings until his late career. The self-illuminating Lunar sculptures were created after his devastating experience of voluntary internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona, in 1942. These experiments went on to influence some of his best-known works, the Akari light sculptures.

Isamu Noguchi and Product Design – the Akari Light

Although Noguchi is known primarily as a sculptor, he made contributions in a number of fields, including theatre and product design. He created sets for the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and designed mass-market furniture and lighting, some of which – like the Akari series – are still manufactured today. Noguchi started on the lamp venture in 1951 after watching traditional craftsmen in Gifu make lanterns by gluing handmade paper around lightweight frames of moulded bamboo strips. Over the years, the artist designed over 100 different models, from simple globes to bold, architectural forms that are not so different from his stone sculptures. This was deliberate, as Noguchi saw his mission, in making the lights both beautiful and affordable, as a way ‘to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living’.

Noguchi was fascinated with the idea of making heavy things appear light and light things appear heavy, and in 1958, gave himself the assignment of creating a work from a single sheet of aluminium. This evolved into a series of metal works that are linear in form and folded at sharp angles, very much like origami.

Isamu Noguchi’s Ceramics

The exhibition has an outstanding selection of his ceramics made in post-war Japan that demonstrate Noguchi’s innovative approach to traditional craft techniques – he was one of the first sculptors to incorporate these within contemporary practice. His environmental designs produced in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima address themes of violence and peace, while conveying the Los Angeles-born artist’s negotiation of his own biracial identity.

The photographs from his travels through Europe and Asia between 1949-50 reveal Noguchi’s exploration of artistic hybridity and expansion of sculptural media into large-scale architectural environments, including his fascination with Jantar Mantar, the 18th-century astronomical observatories in Delhi and Jaipur, in India, reiterating his combined interest in modernism and past civilisations. By Noguchi’s era, the Jantar Mantar were thriving tourist curiosities and his photographs from visits, made in 1949 and 1960, are evidence of the obvious attraction they held for him, too, as a source for many of the ideas on sculpted space that he would elaborate on, particularly in his public projects in the second half of his career.

Visit to India

His visit to these two cities in the autumn of 1949 were brief stops on a tour throughout India, as part of an even grander tour of Europe and Asia. Looking at the Jantar Mantar observatories through a camera lens allowed him to frame a number of viewpoints within each locale and to observe the visual counterpoint between the rectilinear structures, their setting in an open court, and the surrounding urban environment.

The exhibition culminates with iconic large-scale works from the 1960s through the 1980s, when he kept studios in the US, Italy and Japan, and finally realised his public designs for monuments, gardens, and playgrounds.

Noguchi, until 9 January, 2022, at Barbican Art Gallery, London, On 4 November, there is a curator tour: Noguchi, Citizen of the Earth