Isamu Noguchi: Socially Engaged Art – Barbican


Isamu Noguchi believed that art should improve the way people live and believed that sculpture could “be a vital force in our daily life. He saw art “as something that teaches human beings how to become more human” because everything is sculpture; “Any material, any idea born unhindered in space”, he considered sculpture. As such, his practice included children’s playgrounds, furniture, gardens, lamps and theater sets, in addition to sculpture using stone, ceramics, wood and aluminum.

Art comes from the awakening person – Isamu Noguchi

The diversity of his practice raised questions for some art critics at the time, as his work withstood classification. Yet this now makes for a large-scale and deeply fascinating exhibition because, as Roger Lipsey wrote, from the UNESCO Garden of Noguchi, there is “an embarrassment of wealth”. The exhibit makes excellent use of the Barbican’s spaces and is imaginatively organized with mini-installations created by bringing Noguchi’s works together instead of displaying them primarily as individual artifacts.

Isamu Noguchi Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

Organized by interconnected themes as well as by chronological artistic development, the exhibition presents a wide range of Noguchi’s vast interdisciplinary production, from his early apprenticeship with the modern master Constantin Brâncuși in Paris and the famous Chinese brush painter Qi Baishi in Beijing. , to his public and political art projects from the 1930s and radical dance collaborations with modern choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham. Noguchi’s close and enduring friendship with inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller is also highlighted. Their creative dialogue on the cosmic scale of the universe inspired Noguchi’s world consciousness and the continued use of new technologies from his artistic beginnings to the end of his career.

Starting with the portraits that helped him survive financially for much of his career, we also see his first commission related to the performance of Japanese dancer and choreographer Michio Itō and his metal sculptures inspired by cellular structures, organisms. living and natural world. Next, we dive into his famous interlocking sculptures produced in the 1940s, which include multiple parts to put together and take apart. There is also political engagement from archival material on his antifascist mural History Mexico to Death (Lynched Figure) which was conceived as a form of social protest.

Isamu Noguchi Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

Isamu Noguchi Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

His ambition has always been to create socially engaged art, never more so than in the years following World War II where he contributed to a reconfiguration of the artist in search of a new foundation for culture. His self-illuminating moon sculptures were created after his experience of voluntary internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona, in 1942. These influenced some of his best-known works, the light sculptures. Akari, who use washi paper and light bulbs. . His ceramics, made in post-war Japan, testify to his innovative approach to traditional craft techniques. His environmental designs produced in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima address themes of violence and peace. Photographs of his travels across Europe and Asia between 1949 and 1950 reveal his exploration of artistic hybridity and the expansion of sculptural media into large-scale architectural environments. The exhibition ends with iconic large-scale works from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when he made several of his public designs for monuments, gardens and playgrounds.

The exhibition makes a strong case for considering Noguchi as one of the most experimental artists of the 20th century through his inventive and risky approach to sculpture as a living environment. Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at Barbican, says: “Noguchi has constantly pushed the boundaries of art, experimenting with materials, scale and place to create art with purpose. He saw sculpture as a way to create harmony between humans, industry and nature, as a way to improve our way of life, as an invention, as a game, as an art.

Isamu Noguchi Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

Isamu Noguchi Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

Rarely on display archival documents and photographs offer an illuminating glimpse into Noguchi’s life and highlight his humanist values. The extent to which Noguchi engaged with spirituality in his practice is less clearly explained. Embracing social, environmental and spiritual awareness, Noguchi believed that art “comes from the awakening person”. Awakening is what we might call the spiritual or a connection to something that flows very “quickly in the air”. The artists are the ones who “come with the least obstruction” to this flow. To be open to the flow, artists try to “overcome barriers” such as “habit and convenience and fear and accommodation” or “barriers of self and what everyone thinks of art”. As such, Noguchi saw “no conflict between spirituality and modern art” as art “opens another channel to our non-anthropomorphic divinity,” the invocation always being to God. However, he saw Zen as providing a more direct link. [to art] than by other mystical forms “with the spiritual being“ direct appreciation of the thing itself. ”As a result, he believed that“ you cannot tell if the art comes from the spiritual or vice versa ”.

Drawing from the collection of the Noguchi Museum in New York City, as well as private and public collections, this extraordinary exhibition explores the kaleidoscopic career of a true artistic mathematician through six decades of practice that ignored established hierarchies and boundaries. between disciplines. He learned wise traditions to create hybrids that anticipated the future, an innocent synthesis that rose from the embers of the past. He heard the resonance of the universe in the stone he worked and sought to find “within the limits of one sculpture, the world”. He “wanted something irreducible, an absence of gadgets and” intelligence, while contemplating the relative “in space, time and life.” He said, “We are a landscape of all we know” and wrote about creating “landscapes of the mind”. This exhibition offers not only a landscape of the mind of a polymath but also a landscape of his soul.

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

Noguchi, September 30, 2021 – January 9, 2022, Barbican Center

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