Noguchi, Barbican Art Gallery, exhibition review: ‘Blurring the line between representational and abstract’



Alcoa forecast program table, 1957. Photograph: INFGM / ARS, New York / SPDA, Tokyo

You have seen Noguchi tables and Akari lamps before, and you are probably familiar with the interlocking sculptures of the 1940s, but these iconic works only reflect a small part of the immense and varied work of the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. (1904-1988).

Today, a major retrospective at the Barbican traces the young man’s early connection with Constantin Brancusi to his later development of an eclectic vernacular combining influences from around the world.

Noguchi is perhaps best known as a sculptor and designer, but he also worked in dance, architecture, landscape, and traditional crafts, learning from masters in New York, France, China and in Japan to develop new styles.

Isamu Noguchi Beijing brush drawing, 1930. Photograph: Kevin Noble / The Noguchi Museum Archives / INFGM / ARS – DACS

Although loosely linked throughout his career to the Surrealist movement, Noguchi’s work is breathtakingly diverse, blurring the line between representation and abstract, and exploring a wide range of intellectual traditions.

The artist did not have a conventional life. After a chaotic childhood, he settled professionally in the United States, only to be interned and almost deported during World War II (although he was born in Los Angeles). He suffered artistic rejection on several occasions and it was not until the 1950s that Noguchi began to gain the praise and recognition his creativity deserved.

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

Sculpture is the art form that anchored him, and this is evident in the collection of over 150 works brought together in this exhibition. Throughout Noguchi’s career, similar forms reappear – tubes, obelisks, spheres and elegant cow dung. The media in which these are shaped are however very diverse, ranging from stone and bronze to ceramics, paper and galvanized steel, and the forms materialize in a range of sites, from gardens to sculptures at playgrounds.

It is this intersecting aspect of Noguchi’s work that most intrigues the works collected here; he was at ease in the world of high art, but also that of everyday objects for children. Perhaps the main message of this exhibit is that there is no need to distinguish between the two.

Sadly, the Barbican doesn’t require a face covering, so a visit to this windowless space was rather never a heartbreaking experience, as many visitors were unmasked. If the pandemic subsides before the show closes on January 9, it will make the viewing fascinating.

Noguchi runs through January 9 at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Center, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS.

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