Portrait of Isamu Noguchi at his MacDougal Alley studio, New York


Barbican Art Gallery, London
September 30, 2021 – January 23, 2022
Sculpture can be a vital force in our everyday life if projected into communal usefulness.
Isamu Noguchi

Noguchi is jointly organized and curated by Barbican Centre (London), Museum Ludwig (Cologne) and Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern), in partnership with LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut. It is the first touring retrospective of Isamu Noguchi’s work in Europe in twenty years.

Reflecting on six decades of a practice that disregarded established hierarchies and boundaries between disciplines, Isamu Noguchi stated in 1988 that “Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.” This exhibition, drawing from the collection of The Noguchi Museum in New York, as well as private and public collections, focuses on Noguchi as a global citizen and his risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment. Over 150 works are presented, including an extraordinary range of sculptures—made in stone, ceramics, wood, and aluminum—as well as theatre set designs, playground models, furniture, and lighting.

Mostly known as an icon of midcentury design for his celebrated coffee table and Akari lights, Noguchi pushed the boundaries of sculpture by embracing social, environmental and spiritual consciousness. This major survey celebrates Noguchi as a global citizen traveling across the world to China, Mexico, and India, amongst other countries. Rarely exhibited archive materials and photographs also offer illuminating insights into the life of Noguchi, son of a Japanese father and American mother, highlighting the humanist values of this visionary artist.

  • Isamu Noguchi, Akari 27N, 2N, BB3-70FF, BB2-S1 14A, BB1-YA1, 31N. Paper, bamboo, metal.
    ©INFGM / ARS / The Kagawa Museum

Exploring all aspects of Noguchi’s prolific artistic practice, the exhibition presents an extensive range of his vast interdisciplinary output, from his early apprenticeship with modern master Constantin Brancusi in Paris and celebrated Chinese brush painter Qi Baishi in Beijing, to his public and political art projects of the 1930s, and radical dance collaborations with pioneering modern choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham. The exhibition delves into his celebrated interlocking sculptures produced during the 1940s. They comprise multiple parts to be assembled and dissembled, displaying Noguchi’s outstanding creativity in the face of adversity during the Second World War.

Organized by interconnecting themes as well as chronological artistic development, the exhibition highlights Noguchi’s close and enduring friendship with inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Their creative dialogue on the cosmic scale of the universe inspired Noguchi’s world consciousness and continued use of new technology from his artistic beginnings until his late career. The self-illuminating Lunar sculptures were created after his devastating experience of voluntary internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. These experiments went on to influence some of his best-known works, the Akari light sculptures. Using washi paper and electric bulbs, Akari combine traditional and modern technology, while bringing sculpture to everyday households, in line with the artist’s democratic commitment to accessible public art.

The exhibition also includes an outstanding selection of his ceramics made in post-war Japan demonstrating Noguchi’s innovative approach to traditional craft techniques—he was one of the first sculptors to incorporate these within contemporary practice. His environmental designs produced in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima address themes of violence and peace, while conveying the Los Angeles-born artist’s negotiation of his own biracial identity. Photographs from his travels through Europe and Asia between 1949-50 reveal Noguchi’s exploration of artistic hybridity and expansion of sculptural media into large-scale architectural environments, including his fascination with the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatories in India, reiterating his combined interest in modernism and past civilizations. The exhibition culminates with iconic large-scale works from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when he practiced between studios in the USA, Italy and Japan, and finally realized his public designs for monuments, gardens and playgrounds.

  • Isamu Noguchi (design) with Shoji Sadao (architect), Play Equipment at Moerenuma Koen, 1988–2004. Sapporo, Japan. ©INFGM / ARS

Digital Feature

Kate Wiener, Assistant Curator at The Noguchi Museum, introduces the life and work of Isamu Noguchi, drawing from Noguchi’s autobiographical writings and documents from The Noguchi Museum Archives.

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The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated book published by Prestel and designed by Tino Graß. The book provides rich and insightful essays by Fabienne Eggelhöfer, Florence Ostende, Rita Kersting with Nana Tazuke, Dakin Hart, alongside a conversation with Karen Ishizuka, Katy Siegel and Danh Vo orchestrated by Devika Singh, while a fully illustrated chronology details the entirety of Noguchi’s career.

Noguchi is at Barbican Art Gallery from September 30, 2021 through January 23, 2022. The exhibition is organized and curated by Barbican Centre (London), Museum Ludwig (Cologne) and Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern), in partnership with LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut. This exhibition would not have been possible without the collaboration of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. It is curated at Barbican by Florence Ostende and designed by acclaimed architect Lucy Styles with graphic design by Kellenberger-White. The exhibition will travel to Museum Ludwig, Cologne, from March 26 to July 31, 2022, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, from September 23, 2022 to January 8, 2023, and LaM, Lille from March 17 to July 2, 2023.

The exhibition is generously supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.