“A creative polymath”: Isamu Noguchi’s life explored in new Barbican exhibition

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

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

Ostende has curated the Barbican’s upcoming exhibition on Japanese-American designer and artist Isamu Noguchi. The showcase will be the first retrospective of the designer’s work in Europe for more than 20 years and will explore his life, work and creative method.

The design world is familiar with Noguchi because of his contributions to the modernist design canon. In this respect, he made his name working across lighting and furniture. But as Ostende explains, Noguchi was many things to many people. Alongside design, being the “creative polymath” he was, she says he worked across disciplines as diverse as theatre set design, sculpture, painting and even dance.

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

“The need to shift from one thing to another”

Born to a Japanese father and an American mother in 1904, Noguchi’s early career was marked by an apprenticeship with Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși in Paris. The relationship would flourish despite a considerable language barrier, and as Ostende explains, was the start of a lifetime of close working relationships and collaborations for the designer.

The Barbican’s exhibition will focus on two of Noguchi’s most fruitful collaborators: choreographer Martha Graham and architect, inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. These relationships were characterised by “profound dialogues” Ostende says.

Buckminster Fuller, with his humanist approach to the environment and the concept of “utopia”, had a particular impact on Noguchi she adds. “Noguchi believed art and design were closely linked to invention,” Ostende says, explaining the friendship. In further pursuit of this belief, she says he even underwent pre-med education, as well as studies in biology to understand the world around him. “His was of seeing the world really brings him close to so many different practitioners.”

These collaborations catalysed a way of working that Noguchi already practiced, Ostende says. “He often described his way of working with the need to shift from one thing to another,” she says. “Noguchi often had multiple works on the go 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 / The Kagawa Museum

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

The Akari lamp – or “light sculpture”, as it is often referred to – stands out as one of Noguchi’s most famous creations, and Ostende says it will be treated as such in the exhibition. Made of traditional Japanese washi paper and then-new lightbulb technology, it stood as an example of the designer’s deliberate mix of old and new.

Despite its light, modernist aesthetic, the story behind the Akari is a sad one, Ostende explains. Noguchi developed the design in the 1950s, while travelling through Japan. “He was profoundly affected by the devastation that World War II had caused in the country,” says Ostende, who adds that he visited Hiroshima to see the damage of the atomic bomb first-hand.

At the height of his career by this time, she explains that while travelling, Noguchi was asked how he might be able to help revitalise the struggling Japanese post-war economy. The Akari, based on the traditional Japanese paper lanterns, was his answer.

As for how the exhibition will use the “light sculpture”, Ostende has worked closely with exhibition designer Lucy Styles who was brought into the project. One of Styles’ challenges was to ensure the lamps are the “main source of light” throughout the show, Ostende says. “It 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 was always concerned with context”

The multiple usages of Akari lamps in the exhibition speaks to one of Noguchi’s core beliefs, Ostende says. “He was always concerned with context when it came to art,” she explains. “In the case of the Akari, the object was only one part of the ‘art’ – the other components were the room it lit and, of course, the people who viewed it.”

But Noguchi was not a proponent of “art for art’s sake”, Ostende says. She likens his writing 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 the artists and designers of today than perhaps he ever did with his contemporaries.

“Even though it’s decades-old, his work is still incredibly relevant for designers and artists of today, who also want to make a difference with their practice,” she says. None of this is to say that he took himself or is work too seriously, however. As Ostende explains, Noguchi was a staunch believer in play and his influential landscape designs for children’s playgrounds are a reminder of this.

Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at “Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?”, 1986 Venice Biennale. 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”, Ostende says. The Akari lamps in particular, she says, was a way for the designer to “bring sculpture to everyday households”.

“He actually saw this ‘commercial’ form of design as a way of escaping the art market and working with more freedom and fewer constraints,” Ostende says. “He believed in the idea that even in mass-production, individuality is still possible.”

Beyond the Akari lights, many of Noguchi’s other designs were mass-produced as well. 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 30 September, and will run until 9 January. For more information, including opening times, head to the Barbican website.

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