Courtesy of Barbican Centre

Currently on view at the Barbican Centre in London through January 23, 2022, is Noguchi, an expansive look at the life’s work of the versatile and multi-talented Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Made possible by the collaborative curatorial work of the Barbican Art Gallery along with Museum Ludwig (Cologne, Germany), Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern, Switzerland), and LaM (Lille Métropole Musée d’art modern, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, France) and with the support of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden (New York), this is a comprehensive and engaging installation. 

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors receive a pamphlet or guidebook of sorts and are instructed to begin viewing the installation on the second floor. The upper gallery is open and overlooks the first floor which is illuminated by the glow of almost 50 of Noguchi’s ubiquitous Akari lights. Moving through the eight discrete spaces in the upper gallery, it becomes apparent that this an immersive experience created as one might imagine, in the spirit of Noguchi. The spaces are intimate but are sparsely populated with anywhere from three to a dozen objects ranging from Akari, to busts, ink on paper drawings, sculptures made of terracotta, wood, stone, bronze, and videos of Martha Graham dancing within an Isamu Noguchi designed stage set. The only text on the walls are quotes from Noguchi to contextualize the uniquely themed spaces. The actual installation of the objects vary from space to space as objects can be found clustered together on one platform or distributed across the space from high up in the corner to running along the floor of a wall. Just as there was nothing typical about Noguchi, there is nothing typical about this exhibition as we are invited to experience the breadth of his varied creations.

With the aid of the guidebook, it becomes evident that the upper gallery is first organized thematically and second with something approximating a chronology. The first space along this journey through Noguchi’s oeuvre is “I became a sculptor”, where we encounter works from his earliest days and see the influence of his time working with Brâncusi. Upon entering this particular space, as is the case for each area, we are greeted with text instructing us of the theme and providing a quote from Noguchi. In this space he tells us, “What Brancusi does with a bird or the Japanese do with a garden is to take the essence of nature and distill it – just as a poet does. And that’s what I’m interested in – the poetic translation.” 

Lest we become too attached to a chronological walk through Noguchi’s life, along with works from the 1920’s in “I become a sculptor”, there are more of his Akari dating to the 1950’s and 1960’s. For those missing the text panel one might expect upon entering a gallery, the guidebook does provide a rich narrative of Noguchi’s life and works to further aid in our understanding of his artistic journey. A unique feature of this guidebook are the thumbnail sketches of each object installed along with title, date, and material, providing another way to encounter the works. 

Through the remainder of the upper gallery and in the open space on the first floor, we are witness to the restless mind and creative spirit of Isamu Noguchi through the display of over 150 objects in varied scale, form, and material. Setting aside the textual descriptions we become so accustomed to in art exhibitions telling us what to notice in an object or how to think about a piece in relation to another, with this installation, Noguchi’s work invites us to be guided by the movement, shape, lightness and darkness.

The one area of the exhibition that quite literally and figuratively falls a bit flat is the space organized around the theme of “Political Conscience”. In an effort to include the mural Noguchi worked on while in Mexico, his 1934 Death (Lynched Figure), and the time he spent at the Poston Relocation Center during World War II, there are a series of photographs of these works, letters and articles by Noguchi affixed to the surface of a table. While these are transformative experiences in his life that influenced his later work and represent a shift in his own racialized identity, the inclusion of pages and pages of text feels a bit jarring after being led through the space by the pull of the physical objects. 

With that said, seeing primary source documents such as the unpublished essay, “I Become A Nisei” for Reader’s Digest in its entirety alongside pieces of correspondence from Poston to John Collier (Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Chief Administrator of the Colorado River Relocation Center) and Man Ray (Dada and Surrealist artist), are all deeply informative. 

Upon further consideration, perhaps the larger issue taken with this aspect of this installation is what is left unsaid about the complicated and contested narrative behind Noguchi’s decision to be incarcerated in Poston from New York. The very unique way he imagined and understood himself to be at Poston is reflected in his closing words to Man Ray. On May 30, 1942, less than a month after arriving, he writes, “Let me know when you wish to come – you may like it.” 

In the end we have a showing of Noguchi as if told by Noguchi himself. Echoing his 1949 solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery (New York) where the exhibition catalogue included brush drawings by Noguchi of each of his sculptures, we receive something similar with this exhibition’s guidebook. Additionally, this installation appears to have taken note from the same exhibition in the manner in which the works were installed with little regard for organization according to size, material, shape, or function. While not overtly spoken, these contribute to the overall feeling of being in direct communication with the creative spirit of Isamu Noguchi. 

After carefully maneuvering through the Akari and other sculptures on the ground floor, there are multiple videos on view highlighting some of Noguchi’s larger public installations. In the final room there is a compilation of multiple documentaries where we see Noguchi at work and hear him speak of his artistic process and journey. A fitting way to end and to begin to process what we have just experienced. It is quite tempting to start again at the beginning and have another look.

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