Noguchi at the Barbican review: Compelling and uplifting

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Isamu Noguchi in New York, 1947  (Arnold Newman Collection via Gety Images)
Isamu Noguchi in New York, 1947 (Arnold Newman Collection via Gety Images)

Even if you don’t recognise the name Isamu Noguchi, you may be more familiar with the sculptor’s work than you know. If you’ve ever had a collapsible modern paper lampshade or seen one in a restaurant or lobby, it was probably inspired by Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures. One of the goals of this show is to imbue those ubiquitous objects with their original sculptural purpose – and it achieves that abundantly.

The Akari works are dotted throughout the exhibition, among Noguchi’s sculptures made over six decades in wood, stone, bronze and plastics. Like so much of what he did, it reflects a deep engagement with transforming time-honoured or ancient forms and techniques – here Japanese Gifu traditions of lantern-making with mulberry bark paper and bamboo – into a contemporary language.

When Noguchi represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 1986, critics responded sniffily to the lamps’ presence as mere furniture. But to omit them would undermine Noguchi’s commitment to a truly democratic art – something he also achieved through public works, including sculpture gardens and even a “playscape” in a park in Atlanta, Georgia, documented here in videos. That commitment to a broad audience was born of a political conviction that one room outlines, including an image of his anti-fascist cement mural in Mexico and his reflections on being interned in a prison camp in 1942 owing to his Japanese-American identity.

 (Barbican)
(Barbican)

That context is crucial but it’s the only gallery here with much text: this beautiful exhibition mostly wants you to look, not read – to follow Noguchi’s sculptural journey visually. A paper guide sets the context, but this a pure, exquisitely composed show, taking you, among much else, from Noguchi’s early, vital apprenticeship with Constantin Brancusi in Paris, through experiments born of his friendship with the maverick architect Buckminster Fuller to radical designs for Martha Graham’s choreography.

And, of course, there are those lamps, in dialogue with the other sculptures. Noguchi wrote that they were “poetic, ephemeral, and tentative” and that lyrical quality, allied to refinement and perfect balance, is common to so much of Noguchi’s work, making this a compelling, uplifting show.

Barbican, Sept 28-Jan 9 (barbican.org.uk)

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