By Sam Rivers
Whilst Isamu Noguchi is not a common household name, many of you will be familiar with his well-known Akari (light) lanterns, made from washi paper and bamboo. Despite being in abundance at the Noguchi exhibition, the Barbican team is able to illustrate the breadth of Noguchi’s other work in an elegant, yet unconventional manner. The absence of writing or plaques on the walls implores the viewer to look, not read. Thus, one can truly appreciate the artistic journey of Noguchi from his apprenticeship under Constantin Brancusi, to his set design for Martha Graham, and surprising friendship with architect Buckminster Fuller.
The exhibition achieves an incredibly immersive experience by adhering to and reflecting Noguchi’s own philosophy in many ways; the minimalist approach reflects what he learnt of Asian philosophies whilst studying with Qi Baishi, a Chinese painter, in Beijing. Immediately, the exhibition instils a sense of calm in the viewer due to the themes join seamlessly together as one meanders through the space. Reminiscent of a Japanese garden: balance, serenity, and composition are key. This is something Noguchi was inspired by himself, especially in his later large scale works like the UNESCO headquarters in Paris (1956-58) or the Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza (1961-64).
The space between the pieces makes the exhibition even more impactful and uplifting. Organised over two floors with a single room in the middle which can be viewed from above, the exhibition appears cohesive. You see the themes that Noguchi explored laid out on the top floor and then all mixed together on the bottom in a far larger open plan room. This room is illuminated by a series of his own lanterns which cast a beautiful glow on his artworks.
According to Noguchi, one must think “of space as a volume to be treated sculpturally”. Whilst this belief has been carefully observed throughout the exhibition, one particularly beautiful room stood out to me. Room 6, Landscape of the Mind contains only three pieces. A single spherical paper lantern (Akari, c.1956) suspended in the middle of the room casts light over to solid stone sculptures of Double Red Mountain, 1969 and Time Lock, 1944-45, set firmly on the ground. Not only does the light bring out all the details of the Persian travertine and the Languedoc marble, but it also casts shadows creating a harmonious environment for the sculptures to be observed in. The idea of how light can add to a series of sculptures is a common theme throughout the exhibition, creating an immersive and striking experience.
The contents of the exhibition, however, is not to be overlooked no matter how elegantly put together and lit it is, as Noguchi’s work is spectacular. It is the sheer variety and breadth of his work in both subject matter and material that impresses me. Noguchi’s broad range of materials include bronze, wood, marble, plaster and even cement. Each material is perfectly suited to the piece such as the Ribbon slate he uses in Humpty Dumpty, 1946, to emphasise the gravity defying composition of the piece making the piece far more compelling. Noguchi made use of the juxtaposition - he could create between material and subject matter such as the weightless appearance of stone, something considered to heavy and dense, in many of his pieces. He also intertwined many traditional techniques into his pieces. For example, Humpty Dumpty makes use of traditional Japanese joinery techniques.
It is made clear Noguchi was never afraid to explore contemporary problems in his art. Pieces such as Yellow Landscape, 1943, addresses the hate and racism he felt during his time at the Poston War Relocation Center. His Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima, 1982, which was never fully realised, makes this even clearer. However, Noguchi also created many pieces of art according to the Pure Abstract movement whilst studying with Brancusi in Paris. These include pieces like Globular, 1928. His fascination with space was also shown when he did set designs for the choreographer Martha Graham. As a sculptor he was very interested by the space around the sculpture, and this can be seen in many of his set designs. One such piece involved a fence strung form rope occupying the centre of the stage.
Throughout the exhibition the reader is presented the breadth and adaptability of Noguchi as a sculptor among other things. The curation of the exhibition introduces us to the themes that Noguchi explored throughout his lifetime. Overall, it’s a very elegant and successful exhibition much like the work of Noguchi himself.