Isamu Noguchi is the second venue of the first touring retrospective of Isamu Noguchi’s work in Europe in twenty years. It is jointly organized and curated by Barbican Centre (London), Museum Ludwig (Köln), and Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern), in partnership with LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut. The Museum Ludwig presentation is curated by Rita Kersting.
Noguchi’s work was shaped by an expanded conception of sculpture and the question of human beings’ relationship to the earth, as well as his fascination with materials and technology. His thinking was transgressive, transnational, and radically interdisciplinary in every regard. From the 1920s to the 1980s he created monuments with a political message, light objects, stage sets, playgrounds, and gardens, always in pursuit of the connection between art and everyday life.
As an assistant to Constantin Brancusi, Noguchi developed a deep intuition for the essence of materials and for the surfaces of wood and stone. Throughout his life, he traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, as well as India and Mexico—spending years on the road. He studied brush drawing in China, and experimented with pottery and landscape gardening in Japan. Appropriation and renewal, in the sense of building global networks and a universal perspective, were impulses that shaped his artistic work.
The retrospective begins with portraits—heads and figures, abstract and realistic, like a panorama composed of a wide variety of media, social contacts around the world, and artistic views. Featured are a rare self-portrait as a boy with blue eyes, along with heads of Martha Graham and Buckminster Fuller—both of whom were artistic partners for decades—Noguchi’s uncle Takagi, the writer Tara Pandit, the dancer Michio Ito, the painter José Clemente Orozco, the musician Kyoko Kawamura, and Noguchi’s wife of five years in the 1950s, the actress Yoshiko (“Shirley”) Yamaguchi.
The focal point of the exhibition are Noguchi’s Surrealist interlocking sculptures from the 1940s. Some of these works recall human bodies with elements like limp limbs or bones. They combine playful composition and painful fragmentation.
The foundation of his life and work was his engagement with the social and political questions of his time. His opposition to racism and violence as well as questions of identity and belonging are reflected in many of Noguchi’s artworks. In others, the memories of pain and oppression become almost invisible. 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, Noguchi entered one of the camps in the Arizona desert. Still decades later, his sculptures continued to bear the memory of the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese American.
The rich facets of his work include his public and political art projects from the 1930s, dance collaborations, ceramics, as well as public works and plans for cities from Jerusalem and Hiroshima, to Munich, Bologna, Paris, and Delhi.
The last room of the exhibition shows Noguchi’s design for Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars (Memorial to Man). The work was conceived in 1947, two years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was never realized. Since his early playground designs, Noguchi viewed the earth as an artistic material. In Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars (Memorial to Man) he presents an extraterrestrial perspective on our planet Earth. A human face appears on the surface of the planet, a reminder of the fact that humanity shaped the earth with culture but also destroyed it.