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Who is Noguchi and why is the Barbican exhibit mediocre

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

I went to the Noguchi exhibition: let me tell you about him


There is an exhibition about Isamu Noguchi at the Barbican at the moment in London, so I went, with a friend who doesn’t really like/vibe with conceptual/minimalist art, and I had to convince him of the value of art in general as I myself tried to figure out why I was there lol.


But let me tell you about Noguchi, because it’s interesting. I've also included a review of the exhibition itself in the conclusion.


If you want the main gist, skip to “Work by Noguchi that I actually find interesting


This is just an informal summary of what I’ve learnt, but from what I get: he was inspired by the pioneers of modernism and minimalism in sculpture, but also his Japanese background, which makes him an interesting figure at the time (1930s-1960s). As an artist he’s interested in using the abstract to describe the “essence of things”, in how community and art can interact, and he uses raw material, light and space to conjure images of primal landscapes/something greater than ourselves.



Noguchi hanging out with a rock (c. 1970, photo by Evelyn Hofer)


Who the heckkk is Noguchi

He’s a half-Japanese half-American artist who worked mainly between 1930 and 1960 (spicy!)

It’s spicy because the interwar and post-war US world wasn’t too keen on Japan.

So the Barbican opens with a quote from Noguchi where he says how strangely he feels about his dual nationality – which today might seem like something an Oxford grad might say (I simply don’t know how to deal with my French/British identity, the cultural differences are sooo haaard uurhh imagine having to tackle baguette AND tea at the same time ☹).

At that time though it made sense to worry, because it’s more of a matter of “I don’t know what culture I belong to, and I might die because of it”. He made good use of his dual nationality tho so not all was lost.


What do you mean he made good use of it

He was one of the first artists to use Japanese ideas in conceptual art – but not in a Japonisme way (where you just kind of steal the ideas without understanding them), in an insider way, since he grew up in Japan and went to high school in the US.

So he used the “I’m inspired by Japanese zen gardens” trope, except he’s actually allowed to do so since at the time it wasn’t a trope, and also he lived near those gardens so he has a more personal understanding of them.


Not sure where to put this but it’s interesting

In 1942 he voluntarily went to one of the camps where Japanese people were interned in the US. The idea was to promote arts and crafts there, and open some workshops – which my friend found very amusing. To be fair it is quite funny. Brave in a kind of stupid way.



His art background (“what inspires you?”)

Sneak peak of his work


Noguchi trained under Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mt. Rushmore, and briefly under Constantin Brâncuși, who was the real big influence in his career.


Real Big Influence™: Brancusi

Just a word about Brancusi so you get the general context: Brancusi worked under Rodin (Le Penseur), the father of expressionist sculpture. Brancusi’s style is more minimalist, hand-made, often near abstraction. The idea is to capture the “essence of things”, in other words to use symbolism and abstraction to go straight to the point, a kind of figurative sculpture except you’re showing the feeling of that thing rather than what it physically looks like. Here are some examples:

Princess X, 1915-1916


Supposedly this depicts the essence of a woman, it’s her head and breasts as she looks in a mirror, but people thought it looked too phallic and were scandalized

Danaïde, 1918


Just adding this so you know he did portraits. In this one he was trying to show the most essential features of an art student he met in Paris. Which I find cool because really it looks like a cartoon – cartoons are peak modernism when you think about it

Fish, 1926


I honestly can’t be assed with these, but this work uses the sculpture’s stand as an integral part of itself, and also plays with balance, but I’m not quite sure why again, you can look it up if you’re interested


Brancusi-induced sculptures

You can see his Brancusi influence clearly in the expressionist/abstract sculptures he made about the war for ex.

Kouros, 1945


In this sculpture apparently the precarious balance of the sculpture alludes to the precarity of war. Kouros is a Greek term for a standing sculpture of a solitary young man.

Here’s a photo I took at the Barbican of the war sculptures. I don’t love these but they’re a big part of what he does so I’m including them anyway. Next parts I like more.



Work by Noguchi that I actually find interesting

The stuff below is what I like about Noguchi. He has a mystical, nearly parodically modernist approach to art, where he links materiality and abstraction to a mythical past and a vague concept of “eternity”. His texts were very funny to my non-art-student friend.


Here are a few examples to illustrate:


“If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.”


“Nature is not just one thing. The nature of trees and grass is one thing. But there are many degrees of nature. Concrete can be nature. Interstellar spaces are also nature. There is human nature. In the city, you have to have a new nature. Maybe you have to create that nature


The two above are pretty decent, but this one is a true blessing: “After each bout with the world, I find myself returning chastened and contented enough to seek, within the limits of a single sculpture, the world.”


Lunar series

Akari 120A, c.1956 / c.1963, Double Red Mountain, 1969


My photo of a room in the exhibition. The thin paper and its transparency worked really well with the brute, red material (the contrast) and gave me the impression that I was looking at a landscape on Mars.


"The harshness of electricity is thus transformed through the magic of paper back to the light of our origin – the sun – so that its warmth may continue to fill our rooms at night."


A quote in the exposition booklet said that he thought light could be comforting and alluring, like a warm flame in a cave. There was something friendly about this delicately suspended rock, the contrast between the graphic shadow shape and wire frame, and the organic nature of the material and the light (feels candle lit, or like a piece of sun).


“Useless architecture”

Noguchi thought ruins (he’s a Greek ruins enthousiast), playgrounds, fountains, theatre sets etc could be categorised as “useless architecture”, playful structures which interact with space and community. He thought of sculpture as interaction. When juxtaposed with a dancer, his sculpture makes the viewer draw parallels between the dancers’ body and that of the object.


- Theatre sets

Stage set for Hérodiade, 1944-45


Martha Graham with set design pieces for 1946 Cave of the Heart designed by Isamu Noguchi


- Outside art-chitecture – fountains, playgrounds

Playground in Atlanta, designed in 1976


Nine Floating fountains, for the 1970 World Expo, Osaka



Interior design

I grew up with a Noguchi table in the living room. It was shit as a table, especially when you’re a kid, because you can’t put any weight on it. It looks pretty good though!


The Noguchi lamps are basically an IKEA staple now. They were inspired by Japanese lanterns in the city/prefecture of Gifu.


You can tell how Noguchi’s ideas of light/transparency, raw material, simplicity/balance translates to these designs. I always think that if there is one part of modernism and minimalism that everyone can understand, it’s how its influence manifests in interior design or architecture.


Noguchi table


Noguchi lamps (Akari lamps)



In conclusion

Noguchi feels like a parody of modernism. One article points out that it feels like Noguchi’s response to war was “joyfulness”. Another criticizes him as being too aesthetic, and an artist who simply “likes a good space”. It does feel like Noguchi was far from the preoccupations of a working-class citizen during the war. Even his memorials to Hiroshima feel frivolous.


That says I think Noguchi as a landscape artist/poet makes sense. However obtuse and out-of-touch he feels, his use of light and material makes for the occasionally touching result. I loved his lunar light-sculptures, and the theatre sets.


I haven’t really talked about the exhibition itself because it isn’t that good – it doesn’t give enough context, the ground floor looks like an Ikea advert because of all the lamps (which, to be fair, are nice lamps), and the parts which could have been interesting aren’t big enough to allow the sculptures to breathe. The obtuse quotes by the artist on the walls add a layer of ridicule to the rooms, which feel packed and rushed.


Had the rooms been bigger I think I would’ve really enjoyed the meditative side of his work. This exhibit was like cutting a Japanese rock garden in half and cramming it in a room full of sculptures of Buddha and then explaining that “Buddhism and zen are about clearing the mind”, except you use a complicated allegory to explain that, and write it in bold letters in Helvetica on the wall.


Noguchi himself, however, was interesting to look at. I liked the idea of using warm light as a naturally comforting presence. I’m also thinking of looking more into post-Hiroshima art (seeing how badly Noguchi failed at making it).



Sources:

  • Ashton, Dore. Noguchi: East and West. University of California Press, 1993.

  • Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor, http://tfaoi.org/aa/4aa/4aa591.htm.

  • Panero, James. “'Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi'.” The New York Times, 25 June 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/books/review/listening-to-stone-the-art-and-life-of-isamu-noguchi.html.

  • Heathcote, Edwin. “Isamu Noguchi at the Barbican - Spotlight on a Singular Talent.” Financial Times, 4 Oct. 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/8a733fe6-3a3c-4fe6-b591-e4191533e339.

  • “Noguchi Review – This Isn't Art, It's Luxury Lighting.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/sep/29/isamu-noguchi-review-barbican-luxury-lighting-london.

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