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Celebrating one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, this autumn Barbican Art Gallery is set to stage the first European touring retrospective of his work in two decades. Retracing the evolution of Noguchi’s illustrious career over six decades across sculpture, architecture, dance and design, the exhibition celebrates the artist’s inventive and risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment. Drawing from The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, as well as private and public collections, the exhibition brings together over 150 works, including an extraordinary range of sculptures, created in stone, bronze, ceramics, wood, aluminium and galvanised steel, as well as theatre set designs, architectural and playground models, lighting and furniture design.

Isamu Noguchi assembling “Figure” in his MacDougal Alley studio, 1944. Photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt. The Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS / Estate of Rudolph Burckhardt

Mostly known as an icon of mid-century 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 travelling 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, My Arizona (second state with original elements), 1943. Fiberglass, Plexiglas, 46.4 x 46.4 x 11.7 cm. Photograph by Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS

Barbican’s Head of Visual Arts, Jane Alison tells Something Curated: “We are thrilled to be staging this major retrospective of Isamu Noguchi’s work. I am immensely grateful to The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, for their generosity and expertise, as well as our partners at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and LaM museum in Lille where the show will travel after London. Noguchi constantly pushed the limits of art, experimenting with materials, scale and place to create art with a purpose. He saw sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature, as a way to improve how we live, as invention, as play, as art. For fans of Noguchi or those yet to discover his work, I am sure this will be a joy and a revelation.”

Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture To Be Seen From Mars, 1947. Sand, Dimensions unknown. Photograph by Soichi Sunami. The Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS

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 Brâncuși 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.

AKARI (1953) Models; 27N, 2N, BB3-70FF, BB2-S1 14A, BB1-YA1, 31N. Paper, bamboo, metal. © INFGM / ARS – DACS / The Kagawa Museum

Organised 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 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.

Martha Graham with Spider Dress and Serpent for Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart”, 1946. Photograph by Cris Alexander. The Noguchi Museum Archives, © INFGM / ARS – DACS

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 civilisations. The exhibition culminates with iconic large-scale works from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when he practised between studios in the USA, Italy and Japan, and finally realised his public designs for monuments, gardens and playgrounds.

Noguchi at Barbican Art Gallery, London | 30 September 2021 – 9 January 2022

Feature image: Isamu Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at “Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?”, 1986 Venice Biennale Photograph by Michio Noguchi The Noguchi Museum Archives, 144398 ©INFGM / ARS – DACS

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