Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza. Element study (CR# 514.01C). Isamu Noguchi, Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank, Element Study, 1961-1964. Plaster, faux granite paint. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00494. Photo by Kevin Noble. Image courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society.

Looking Up: The Skyviewing Sculptures of Isamu Noguchi was curated exclusively for the Western Gallery, located on Western Washington University’s campus in Bellingham, by The Noguchi Museum’s senior curator, Dakin Hart. The exhibit brings together, for the first time ever, all of Noguchi’s skyviewing sculptures. With over 40 of Noguchi’s sculptures and several drawings, this collection investigates the often-overlooked concept of “skyviewing” present in so many of Noguchi’s pieces. The Western Gallery describes the exhibition as one that, explores the various forms that the skyviewing theme takes in context of original works, comprising 60 years of Noguchi’s long career…Acting as observatories, reflecting telescopes, or sundials, the sculptures trace the path of the sun with cast shadows or lead the eye up towards the sky. 

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors are greeted by a gallery staff member, and are offered a map of the collection and the option to carry with them a copy of Looking Up: The Skyviewing Sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, edited by Western Gallery Director, Hafthor Yngvason. The art book is hefty, and it can be tricky to maneuver around the gallery with it while trying to fully experience the pieces within the collection. However, visitors can enjoy the text, the histories, and images within, before or after an exploration of the space, and copies of the book are made available for purchase in the university bookstore.  

The gallery is dimly lit, cool, and concrete. The sharp lines of the sculptures, and the stone, metal, and clay materials used to create them all adds to the post-war brutalist aesthetics of Noguchi’s work. Looking to the map I noticed that the numbers corresponding to the pieces were inconsistent in place, there wasn’t a clear order – chronologically or otherwise—to walk through the gallery. When I asked the gallery staff member which direction is best to start, they informed me that to the best of their knowledge, there isn’t a desired path. I chose to go left.  

Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture To Be Seen From Mars, 1947. Sand. Dimensions unknown. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01646. Photo by Soichi Sunami. Image courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society.

Immediately I was met with a large note, inscribed on the wall, from the exhibition curator, Dakin Hart. Hart writes to visitors and supporters of Noguchi’s work, “up is a relative, fairly meaningless concept – particularly in a cosmic sense. There is no up in space, and even here on Earth, up down, right left, just like east, west, north, south – are subject-specific conveniences that rely on, and mostly serve only to reinforce, our own points of view.” The absence of a clear pathway through the exhibit is intentional, the very theme of skyviewing, and Hart’s words on relativity, invites visitors to create their own path through the gallery.  

Following the perimeter of the gallery, I stopped to look at each sculpture and drawing, and challenged myself to find the parts that spoke to the theme of the exhibit. However, soon I was mesmerized by the lines, curves, and portals into and out of the pieces. Two of Noguchi’s Sky Mirror sculptures are present in the collection and might appear out of place when it comes to thinking about the exhibition theme. However, when looking at these sculptures from every angle you will notice that the smooth surface of the rocks shows a hazy reflection of the sky – or in this case the ceiling – offering a uniquely distorted perspective of sky-viewing.  

Isamu Noguchi, Sky Mirror, 1970. Basalt. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00748. Photo: Kevin Noble. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society.

Moving through the gallery, lamps, sketches, and hollowed aspects of Noguchi’s work draw attention to circular openings aimed at the sky. In the context of skyviewing, Noguchi’s lamps act as funnels, to look through and up. A model replica of Noguchi’s infamous Bolt of Lightning…Memorial to Ben Franklin (1933), is a centerpiece in the exhibition and with its vertical entry point and hollowed center it too serves as a channel toward the sky.  

Isamu Noguchi, Model for Bolt of Lightning…Memorial to Ben Franklin, 1984. Stainless steel, brass, paint. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00027. Photo: Kevin Noble. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society

The final piece in my journey, a sculpture entitled Space Blot (1982-83), #3 on the exhibition map, is an erect sculpture made of hot-dipped galvanized steel standing near the exit – or entrance – and is another piece where apart from the title, was challenging to pinpoint the relationship to the collections theme. There was no whole in this piece from which the sky might be viewed, no face gazing up or out, no mirror to reflect. However, taking a step back it’s clear, some of the pieces in the exhibition point, while others offer points of view. Space Blot does the former, it points.  

It goes without saying that Noguchi’s work is quite remarkable and should certainly be seen in person. Knowing that the exhibition examines such a specific theme, makes a tour of the space interactive for visitors, it goes beyond looking, it becomes a game of guessing, probing, and analyzing each individual artwork. The relationship between Noguchi’s sculptures that look, and the Western Gallery is intimate, largely because Western’s campus is home to the full-sized Skyviewing sculpture (1969). After departing from the gallery, staff recommend that you take the brick path to Western’s “Red Square”. There you will find the large black cubed sculpture. To fully appreciate this exhibition, I too urge you to walk under it, and look up toward the sky.  

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