“A Creative Polymath”: Isamu Noguchi’s Life Explored in New Barbican Exhibition


As the Barbican prepares to show the Japanese-American designer and sculptor’s first retrospective in 20 years, we explore his life, his inspirations and his work.

“Was he a designer? A sculptor ? A landscaper? The answer is yes, ”according to Barbican curator Florence Ostende.

Ostend is hosting the next Barbican exhibition on Japanese-American designer and artist Isamu Noguchi. The showcase will be the first retrospective of the designer’s work in Europe for over 20 years and will explore his life, work and method of creation.

The design world knows Noguchi because of his contributions to the modernist design canon. In this regard, he made a name for himself working in the field of lighting and furniture. But as Ostend explains, Noguchi was a lot to a lot of people. Along with design, being the “creative polymath” that he was, she says he worked in disciplines as diverse as stage set design, sculpture, painting and even dance.

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

“The need to move from one thing to another”

Born to a Japanese father and an American mother in 1904, the beginning of Noguchi’s career was marked by an apprenticeship with the sculptor of Romanian origin Constantin BrâncuÈ™i in Paris. The relationship would flourish despite a considerable language barrier and, as Ostend explains, it was the start of a life of working relationships and close collaborations for the designer.

The Barbican exhibit will focus on two of Noguchi’s most successful collaborators: choreographer Martha Graham and architect, inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. These relationships were characterized by “deep dialogues,” says Ostend.

Buckminster Fuller, with his humanistic approach to the environment and the concept of “utopia,” had a particular impact on Noguchi, she adds. “Noguchi believed that art and design were closely related to invention,” says Ostend, explaining the friendship. In pursuit of this belief, she says he even took pre-medical training, as well as studies in biology to understand the world around him. “It was seeing the world that really brought him closer to so many different practitioners.”

These collaborations catalyzed a way of working that Noguchi was already practicing, says Ostend. “He often described his way of working with the need to move from one thing to another,” she says. “Noguchi often had multiple jobs in progress at the same time and rarely focused on just one. “

Akari (1953). Models; 27N, 2N, BB3-70FF, BB2-S1 14A, BB1-YA1, 31N © INFGM / ARS – DACS / Le Musée Kagawa

“He was deeply affected by the devastation caused by World War II”

The Akari lamp – or “light sculpture” as it is often called – is establishing itself as one of Noguchi’s most famous creations, and Ostend says it will be treated as such in the exhibition. Made from traditional Japanese washi paper and new bulb technology at the time, it was an example of the designer’s deliberate mix between the old and the new.

Despite its light, modernist aesthetic, the Akari story is sad, says Ostend. Noguchi developed the design in the 1950s, while traveling through Japan. “He was deeply affected by the devastation that World War II had caused in the country,” says Ostende, who adds that he went to Hiroshima to see firsthand the damage from the atomic bomb.

At the height of her career around this time, she explains that while on a trip, Noguchi was asked how he could help revitalize the struggling post-war Japanese economy. The Akari, based on traditional Japanese paper lanterns, was his answer.

As for how the exhibition will use ‘light sculpture’, Ostend worked closely with set designer Lucy Styles who was associated with the project. One of Styles’ challenges was to ensure that the lamps were the “main source of light” throughout the show, says Ostend. “This will be the portal through which you experience the rest of the exhibition,” she adds, likening its use to a prop or staging element, as well as an artefact in its own right.

Radio Nurse and Guardian Ear, 1937, manufactured by Zenith Radio Corp. Photograph by Kevin Noble © INFGM / ARS – DACS

“He has always been concerned with the context”

The multiple uses of Akari lamps in the exhibition bear witness to one of Noguchi’s core beliefs, says Ostend. “He always cared about the context in art,” she explains. “In the Akari’s case, the object was only part of the ‘art’ – the other components were the room it illuminated and, of course, the people who saw it.”

But Noguchi was not a proponent of “art for the sake of art,” says Ostend. She compares his writings and research on purpose, sustainability and the environment, with which he was prolific, to that of a philosopher. In this way, she says he has more in common with artists and designers today than he perhaps ever did with his contemporaries.

“Even though it dates back decades, her work is still incredibly relevant to today’s designers and artists, who also want to make a difference with their practice,” she says. However, none of this is to say that he took himself or worked too seriously. As Ostend explains, Noguchi was a strong supporter of play, and his influential landscaping for children’s playgrounds is a reminder of this.

Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at “Isamu Noguchi: What is sculpture? », Venice Biennale 1986. Photograph by Michio Noguchi © INFGM / ARS – DACS

“Even in mass production, individuality is still possible”

The playgrounds, as well as the commercially produced Akari lamps, showcased Noguchi’s “commitment to accessible public art,” says Ostend. Akari lamps in particular, she says, were a way for the designer to “bring sculpture into everyday households.”

“In fact, he saw this form of ‘commercial’ design as a way to escape the art market and work with more freedom and less constraint,” says Ostende. “He believed in the idea that even in mass production, individuality is still possible.”

Beyond the Akari lights, many other models of Noguchi were also mass produced. Much of this work was produced alongside George Nelson, Paul László, and Charles Eames for the Herman Miller Company. The Noguchi table, for example, remains in production today.

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

Noguchi will open at the Barbican Art Gallery on September 30 and run through January 9. For more information, including opening hours, visit the Barbacane site.


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