“It was only in art,” Isamu Noguchi said late in life, “that I could ever find my identity.” Here was an artist better known as a designer, a sculptor who spent his formative years in Japan but was never fully accepted there, and a figure who wanted to create art as a public space, who would use and touch most of which have long since been destroyed.
Noguchi (1904-88), celebrated in a large exhibition at the Barbican in London, may seem like a slightly unadulterated figure, an artist who hovers between two worlds: the rapid industrial modernism of the 20th century and the slow, contemplative crafts of Japan. There is a feeling of a lost soul, hyper-aware of the lightness of his contribution. In a film about the bamboo and paper Akari lanterns with which he is now most associated, he talks about their short lifespan, their fragility and how relentless their nature is, like the cherry blossoms that bloom beautifully but soon in the wind spread.
But he was also a successful artist who grabbed prominent public commissions, from the 1939 World’s Fair to the landscape of Yale’s Beinecke Library; he even turned his Long Island City studio into a museum for himself. His lamps and tables can be seen in every design area from Brazil to Beijing, and he works with some of the most famous names in radical 20th-century culture, from Martha Graham to Buckminster Fuller.
It is true that there were fewer blockbuster exhibits of his work than for some of his contemporaries, but he never went out of fashion or disappeared. Noguchi does not particularly need rediscovery. The question, then, is whether we can find the identity that has eluded its self-reflection for so long?
The first reaction is that the exhibition, whether or not, is identical or not. The Barbican’s Brutalist woodcut concrete interior could have been made for Noguchi. His paper lanterns pierce the space and create a floating layer of light that reduces the weight of the interior, and the scattered landscape of objects, products and sculptures looks like a narrative garden, a walk through a field shape.
Quotes from Noguchi, rather than captions, are gently spread across the walls so that they are the words of the artist rather than the curator you are reading. This is not always a good thing. Taken out of context and transformed into aphorisms, the words have a clumsy scent about them, a superficiality that confirms clichés about east-meet-west-Zen contemplative airiness. “After every battle with the world,” reads one, “I find my return disciplined and content to seek the world within the confines of a single sculpture.” Oh, is that already? Try a grain of sand and save time.
The many and varied works here stretch across his unusual path from abstract to figurative, then back again, and his worlds grow to the extent of the citizen. There are large stone statues and chrome-plated heads, table decorations and feces, water objects and flying sackcloths, works in terracotta and wood. It follows almost perfectly the 20th century in its avant-garde, its reactions, its vagrancy, its exoticism, its architecture and commercialization. Even if you are not affected by everything or especially affected by something, I dare not at least enchant or intrigue you.
“I think,” Noguchi once said, “I am the product of my mother’s imagination.” His mother was Leonie Gilmour, an American writer, journalist and educator who briefly became the lover of the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. He left her when she was six months pregnant and when Gilmour took her two-year-old son to Japan to be near his father, he wanted nothing to do with him. It was a rejection that haunted the artist to the end.
They stayed until Noguchi was 13 and then returned to the US, where he began to fulfill his mother’s fantasies that he would become an artist. He initially supported himself with portraiture assignments and worked for Gutzon Borglum (the creator of Mount Rushmore). When he met an exhibition of Constantin Brancusi, he decided to go to Paris, where in 1927 he worked for six months in the Romanian sculptor’s studio.
The influence is evident in his early works in metal and marble, the beautifully carved shapes that look like they would be so good to hold, with soft folded metal and winding totems, and it is there, indispensably, in his later paper lanterns, one of which is almost an image of Brancusi’s endless columns.
Upon his return to the US, Noguchi abandoned abstraction, indicating that he was not quite ready for it, and returned to the bust, exactly when the figure returned with the large-scale works and murals of the WPA New Deal program used by artists. . Although they were less than fashionable on the international scene, they are good. A Fuller bust is chrome-plated and has a Terminator gloss that captures the obsession of the subject, yet repulsively cynically.
During the war, Noguchi was spared, but went voluntarily. Yet he seems to be looking for an identity, he was a co-founder of a group to raise awareness of the condition and patriotism of Japanese Americans and reported to a camp in Poston, Arizona. He thought he might be useful in the camp.
He was wrong: he thought he could design spaces to make conditions more comfortable, to teach or to make himself useful, but his ideas were rejected by the authorities. He leaves after seven months, and then his art takes on a cosmic aspect, looking beyond the earth to space, lunar landscapes, surrealistic alien forms. His black bow, designed as a cenotaph for Hiroshima, remains unbuilt (he thought because he was considered an American in America) and he imagined a face so large in the sand that it was bizarre, from Mars would see off.
He returns to sculpture, but also makes a name for himself as a designer, especially with Herman Miller. His ominous, kendo-mask-like baby monitor of 1937, “Radio Nurse”, had already achieved some success, but now he has put himself into production. He saw his products no differently than his art, and his table with its glass top and biomorphic walnut base included his intention that ‘everything is sculpture’.
I think he is probably the only artist-designer whose works really existed. Donald JuddThe beautiful chairs were incredibly uncomfortable, but Noguchi’s work was practical and elegant. Perhaps that was part of his problem: success in the world of commercial design could lurk in the perceptions of art.
His practice as a designer goes far beyond products – sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, for theater (truly awful designs for a 1955 King Lear with John Gielgud, who not surprisingly does not appear here), interiors, gardens, even cars with Fuller.
But perhaps the landscapes were the most important, mostly on film in the show, but also with Noguchi’s own models. He regarded public landscapes, gardens and playgrounds as the ultimate form of art, reconciling the tangibility and usefulness of products with the sublimity of nature, social function and the spatial qualities and presence of sculpture. His was not a single art, but a mixture of influences and applications, and in the mixture he may have found the identity to which he tends. “To be hybrid,” he said, “to expect the future.”
‘Noguchi’ lasts until January 9, 2022 at the Barbican, barbican.org.uk