Isamu Noguchi’s (1904-88) work as a sculptor would be largely forgotten if he hadn’t been a designer. It demonstrates a wonderful sensitivity to materials as well as a thorough understanding of other artists of his period, including Brancusi (for whom Noguchi temporarily worked), Picasso, Duchamp, Calder, and Max Ernst.
It’s well-crafted and polished. His sculptures, on the other hand, lack urgency. They don’t make you believe they were a life or death situation for their author.
Noguchi’s work as a designer would be less fascinating if he hadn’t been a sculptor. He wasn’t a pioneer of new manufacturing methods like Charles and Ray Eames, and he didn’t have to deal with the problems of mass production.
Lampshades, in which traditional Japanese crafts were modified to create both perfect spheres and the freeform forms of mid-century western abstract art, were his most renowned works. A three-edged sheet of glass, curved at the corners, rests almost casually on a wooden structure that appears like a scaled-down colossal sculpture, has also become an interior design cliché (through no fault of its own).
If he hadn’t initially investigated these household items in sculpture, the forms would have been less believable and more random. As a result, you get works like the Akari BB3-33S lamp from 1952-4, which has a paper and bamboo shade that resembles the horns of a Picasso minotaur and is suspended on a thin metal pole that rises from a thick metal base.
In its fragile skinniness, it reminds me of a Giacometti standing figure. There’s a nod to the strange interpretations of nature discovered by Noguchi and other artists in Albert Einstein’s reimagined world.
His concern with weight and lightness is definitely explored by the light. Whatever the case may be, it’s beautiful.
As the current Noguchi show at the Barbican Art Gallery demonstrates, his greatest talents were his sight and touch. They allowed him to create works like his 1957 Prismatic Tables, in which he plays with the capacity of thin aluminium sheet to suggest solidity when folded, and then has them painted in a not-so-obvious but perfect color scheme. He could cut and hew basalt, polishing and mottle it to get a range of rough and smooth, geological and manufactured effects.
His were “objects created by a human being who was obviously having fun,” as the artist Jeanne-Claude phrased it in a video clip that can be viewed in the exhibition. He was “high on freedom” while he lived and worked in rural postwar Japan with his young actress wife, according to another person who knew him.
He was enticing. He had a nice appearance.
He was a quick thinker. For World Fairs and corporate offices, he built play structures for children as well as water features and gardens.
He thrived in a realm made available by postwar abstract art, which could as well serve the multinational organizations, businesses, and museums that commissioned his work since it was vague in its meanings yet conveyed a broad air of enlightenment and higher things. To IBM, Unesco, and MoMA, it might mumble something about E=mc2. His statements may be boring, with words like “nature,” “mankind,” and “space” being used interchangeably.
Not that Noguchi was unaware of the severity of the times he lived in. His death (Lynched Figure) in 1934 was a protest against black people being murdered. He felt the tensions of the twentieth century more than others as the son of a Japanese father and an Irish American mother. In 1942, he willingly imprisoned himself in a desolate camp in Arizona’s 120-degree heat, when west coast Japanese Americans were forcefully transferred, despite the fact that New Yorkers were exempt.
With a flag fluttering from a spindly pole above a dark hollowed-out base, The World Is a Foxhole (I Am a Foxhole) of 1942-43 attempts to convey the optimism and anguish of a dug-in soldier. He went to Hiroshima after the war and suggested a monument to the victims of the atomic bomb.
However, he struggled to transfer his feelings of rage and terror into his sculptures. The World is a Foxhole ends up appearing like an entertainingly crazy golf-course feature because to his enjoyment of the shape and surface. Or he’d get caught up in his attempt to be serious and create his worst work, which was heavy and mawkish.
You sometimes wish you hadn’t read a caption since the item in question brought you more pleasure before you realized what message it was trying to convey.
Much of Noguchi’s popularity stems from his ability to shift seamlessly between sculpture, furniture, and gardens, not to mention stage sets for Martha Graham’s ballets. If you focus only on one element, you will miss out on part of the bigger picture.
The views you receive into and across the Barbican’s central hall, filled with a zoo of strange shapes, an assortment of asteroids and UFOs as hefty as stone and as light as paper, are among the show’s delights.
Some are works of art, while others are works of design, although Noguchi was unconcerned about the distinction. “I’m not a designer,” he said. ”
All of my work, including tables and sculptures, is conceived as fundamental form problems.” This is a little sententious – I’d say a designer is someone who creates furniture – but never mind.
In the end, it’s the pleasure of creating that binds his work together, not any deep significance. It turns out that his response to the horrors of world wars and nuclear weapons was pleasure.