Japan had a special place in the heart of the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88), and not only because it was the homeland of his largely absent father.
From the origami paper-folding Noguchi learned as a child to the Zen gardens he studied as an adult, Japan provided the inspiration that fueled his rise into the top ranks of 20th-century art. It is therefore fitting that a large retrospective of his work, opening this month in Tokyo, credits the many ways in which Japanese culture influenced his development as a sculptor.
Originally scheduled for last fall but postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Isamu Noguchi: Ways of Discovery” will run from April 24 to Aug. 29 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Drawing its title from the name Noguchi gave to one of the featured works, the exhibition traces a remarkable creative journey that culminated in the stone sculptures of Noguchi’s later years, made at his studio in Mure, Kagawa Prefecture.
Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, the product of a relationship between an American woman and a Japanese poet who abandoned his pregnant lover and returned to Japan. Noguchi’s mother nevertheless followed two years later, although the reunion was brief — she discovered he had started a family with another woman. As a result, Noguchi spent most of his childhood in Japan, living with his mother in poverty, first in Tokyo and later in Yokohama and the countryside beyond. He was a lonely child, ignored by his father and taunted by other children for being “different.” But it was during his rural sojourn that Noguchi learned gardening and traditional Japanese carpentry, skills he would capitalize upon at key points in his career.
As a young man Noguchi lived in Paris, where he apprenticed for a time with the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, a pioneer of modernism who encouraged his protege to move away from realistic expression. Later, while supporting himself creating busts of wealthy patrons, Noguchi experimented with abstract designs in wood and metal while also sketching out concepts for civic spaces. By the 1930s, when he secured his first such commission — a mural on a market wall in Mexico City — Noguchi had expanded his definition of sculpture to include the space around it. He believed sculpture should be “lived” rather than merely “seen.”
Over the next five decades Noguchi worked tirelessly on innovative designs for gardens, fountains, courtyards and children’s playgrounds. Although many of his plans were never realized, there are public spaces designed by Noguchi all over the world. (A favorite of mine, in Tokyo and open to the public, is the stone garden plaza inside Sogetsu Kaikan in Akasaka, the headquarters of a famous school of flower arrangement.)
In keeping with Noguchi’s concept of sculpture, curator Atsuyuki Nakahara designed the exhibition so that visitors experience the art within the space, rather than simply walk through and look at the individual pieces. He divided the works into three groupings and placed them on separate floors so that each section feels and functions like a distinct space. Entering from the museum’s B1 level, visitors will walk into an eye-popping installation centering on 150 of Noguchi’s iconic “Akari” paper-and-bamboo lamps, suspended from the ceiling at varying heights and illuminated for differing periods of time.
Although Noguchi is known primarily as a sculptor, he made contributions in a number of fields, including theater and product design. He created sets for the avant-garde dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and designed mass-market furniture and lighting, some of which — like the “Akari” series — are still manufactured today. He started on the lamp venture in 1951 after watching traditional craftsmen in Gifu make lanterns by gluing handmade paper around lightweight frames of molded bamboo strips. Over the years, Noguchi designed over 100 different models, from simple globes to bold, architectural forms that are not so different from his stone sculptures. This was deliberate, as Noguchi saw his mission, in making the lights both beautiful and affordable, as a way “to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living.”
Visitors are invited to stroll through the constellation of lights, and take photographs, ensuring that this opening section will be as popular with the Instagram crowd as with die-hard “Akari” fans. Around the periphery will be five sculptures representing different periods of Noguchi’s career, including “Avatar,” designed in 1947 to represent a Hindu deity appearing in this world. This sculpture, which stands taller than the average adult and shows the strong influence of surrealism, is part of the “Interlocking Sculpture” series that Noguchi worked on throughout the 1940s. “Black Sun,” a circle carved from Swedish granite, is a study for a much larger work — nearly 3 meters in diameter and weighing 12 tons — that is now in a city park near the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The Seattle version, completed in 1969, was the first sculpture on which Noguchi collaborated with Masatoshi Izumi, a stone carver in Mure with whom Noguchi worked closely for the rest of his life.
Going up a floor, the visitor will enter a second section titled “The World of Lightness.” Noguchi was fascinated with the idea of making heavy things appear light and light things appear heavy, and in 1958, gave himself the assignment of creating a work from a single sheet of aluminum. This evolved into a series of metal works that are linear in form and folded at sharp angles, very much like origami. This section of the exhibition combines examples of his folded metal sculptures (“heavy things appearing light”) with a selection of “Akari” lamps in strong, irregular forms (“light things appearing heavy”). In the center is a large and surprising sculpture of joined sewer pipes painted in fire-engine red, designed by Noguchi as playground equipment that could be made cheaply from commonly available materials. The play sculpture was fabricated in Japan expressly for the show and will afterward be placed in a public park in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture.
The final section, up one more floor, is made up primarily of large stone sculptures on loan from The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan in Mure, where about 150 of the artist’s later works, some unfinished, are maintained in the natural setting of his former garden, home and studio. This is holy ground for serious students of Noguchi’s oeuvre, and having made the pilgrimage myself, I can attest that nothing can replicate the experience of beholding Noguchi’s sculptures where they were made, walking among his tools and inhabiting the space where he once worked. Nevertheless, to give a hint of what it’s like, there will be a video with images of Mure playing at the exhibition.
In any setting it is awe-inspiring to spend time in the presence of these powerful and expressive stone sculptures, which Noguchi himself regarded as the culmination of his life’s work. And especially in this time of limited travel, it is wonderful that these works can reach a larger audience in Tokyo, and that they are presented as part of a retrospective that illuminates the path Noguchi followed on his journey of discovery.
“Isamu Noguchi: Ways of Discovery” will run from April 24 through Aug. 29 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Taito Ward, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.tobikan.jp/en/exhibition/2021_isamunoguchi.html.
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