A Guide to The Barbican’s Luminous Isamu Noguchi Exhibition

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Isamu Noguchi in his Long Island City studio, c. 1960s. Photo: Dan Budnik. ©INFGM / ARS

From sculpture to set design, ceramics to chess, a new exhibition at the Barbican proves that Isamu Noguchi was much more than just a lighting designer

Upon entering the atrium at the Barbican’s new Noguchi exhibition, the mood is more mid-century lighting showroom than fine art survey. Dozens of the late sculptor’s infamous Akari light sculptures stoop from the ceiling, perfect as Instagram fodder, or for children to play hide and seek in. As it happens, much of the late Japanese-American designer’s work encouraged play: over a six-decade career, Noguchi carved other-worldly playgrounds directly into the earth and imbued his biomorphic wood, stone, metal and plastic sculptures with unnerving lifelike qualities. He wanted his art to be accessible to all, and without some kind of human interaction, his designs were incomplete. I had never thought sculpture to be an emotional medium, but the tenderness of the artist’s coupled, interlocking sculptures, or the four-legged quirk of the Akari table lamps, proved this notion entirely wrong.

The works on show – there are over 150 – also paint a picture of an artist oscillating between figurative and abstract work, while simultaneously grappling with notions of belonging (Noguchi spent his childhood spent in Japan, and later moved to New York). His dictum that “everything is sculpture” holds steadfast; the early busts, milky lunar sculptures, luminous lanterns and elastic stone sculptures attest to an artist creating a warm, universal design language that is as joyful today as it was in the 20th century. Read on to discover five standout pieces from the exhibition.

R. Buckminster Fuller, 1929

In 1929, Noguchi struck up a friendship with the eccentric American architect Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the infamous geodesic dome. Having previously worked mainly with wood and stone, Fuller’s futuristic vision prompted Noguchi to experiment with materials which better matched the fast-paced mood of American industry. After all, according to Fuller, the pair first met in ”the year Henry Ford made chrome nickel steel commercially available for the first time in history.” To commemorate their new friendship, Noguchi made a transcendent bronze bust of Fuller plated with a layer of reflective, shiny chrome (a new material mainly used in the automobile industry). 

Radio Nurse, 1937

One of the earliest examples of electronic baby monitors was the Radio Nurse, designed by Noguchi in cream and brown Bakelite in 1937. The monitor was commissioned by the president of the Zenith Radio Corporation (the manufacturer of the item) to keep track of his daughter on their yacht, thanks to a creeping paranoia caused by the tragic kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932. The Radio Nurse was a functional, imaginative design influenced by traditional Japanese Kendo masks and American ’machine age’ sculpture of the 1930s, and marked the beginning of Noguchi’s useful domestic designs. 

The Lunar Series, 1943

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment in America was at an all-time high. ”With a flash, I realised I was no longer the sculptor alone. I was not just American but Nisei: a Japanese American,” said Noguchi at the time. Thanks to a fired-up political conscience, he voluntarily admitted himself into the Colorado River Relocation Center (Poston) incarceration camp in Arizona for six months, an experience which was to have a radical effect on his art. The ensuing Lunar series – milky, luminous biomorphic sculptures recalling the moonlike surface of the Arizona desert – showed an artist dabbling in abstraction and incorporating light into his work for the first time, thus preempting the Akari light sculptures he would later become famous for. 

Chess Table (IN-61), 1944

The chess set has proved an ample region for artistic play: artists including Man Ray, Max Ernst, Barbara Kruger and Rachel Whiteread have all reimagined the board and its pieces in myriad, abstract ways. Noguchi created an elegant, undulating chess table and accompanying plastic pieces for The Imagery of Chess exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, curated by exiled artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. Ditching the usual rigid, geometric structure of the chessboard, Noguchi’s sculptural plywood table showcased a more humanistic, emotional approach to design. 

Akari Light Sculptures, 1951

Noguchi created the first prototype for his Akari light sculptures in 1951 after becoming inspired by the paper lanterns used on cormorant night fishing boats in the Japanese town of Gifu. Akari is a Japanese word meaning ‘light’ that has associations with illumination and weightlessness – Noguchi would incorporate both of these principles into his numerous Akari sculptures, with their collapsible ease and floaty quality. “All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami, and Akari,” he asserted. Noguchi wanted his lights to be mass-produced and accessible to all, but the eye-wateringly expensive price tags made this an impossible feat. Luckily for us, IKEA makes trusty, cheap alternatives. 

Moerenuma Koen, 1988-2004

Moerenuma Koen was Noguchi’s last work, a fantastical, 400-acre free public park in Japan with mountains, rivers, beaches, and forests full of play equipment – heaven on earth for children, in other words. Perhaps better seen from space than on foot (just like much of Noguchi’s meticulously landscaped designs), the park was opened posthumously in 2005 and exemplified many of the artist’s ideas about social design. “The making and ownership of art could also be beyond personal possession – a common and free experience,” he said – a notion perfectly accomplished with this wondrous playground.

Noguchi is open at London’s Barbican from 30 September 2021 – 9 January 2022.