If Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) hadn’t been a designer, his work as a sculptor would mostly be forgettable. It shows both a beautiful sensitivity to materials and an informed awareness of other artists of his time – Brancusi (for whom Noguchi briefly worked), Picasso, Duchamp, Calder, Max Ernst. It is polished and well composed. But his sculptures lack urgency. They don’t make you think that they were a matter of life or death to their creator.
If he hadn’t been a sculptor, Noguchi’s work as a designer would be less interesting. He wasn’t a pioneer of new production techniques in the ways that Charles and Ray Eames were, nor did he grapple with the challenges of mass manufacture. His most famous pieces were lampshades, in which traditional Japanese crafts were adapted to make both perfect spheres and the freeform shapes of mid-century western abstract art. Also a coffee table that became (through no fault of its own) an interior design cliche – a three-edged sheet of glass, curved at the corners, that rests almost casually on a wooden support that looks like a scaled-down monumental sculpture.
The shapes of these domestic objects would have been less convincing and more arbitrary if he hadn’t explored them first in sculpture. So you get pieces such as the Akari BB3-33S light of 1952-4, whose paper and bamboo shade recalls the horns of a Picasso minotaur, and is fixed on top of a slender metal pole that rises from a dense metal base. There might be something of a Giacometti standing figure in its precarious skinniness. There’s a hint of the weird versions of nature that Noguchi and other artists found in a universe reconceived by Albert Einstein. The light certainly explores his fascination with weight and lightness. Whatever, it’s lovely.
As the Barbican Art Gallery’s current Noguchi exhibition reveals, his greatest gifts were his eye and touch. They enabled him to make, for example, his Prismatic Tables of 1957, in which he plays with the ability of thin aluminium sheet (when folded) to imply substance, and then has them painted with a not-obvious but flawless choice of colours. He could hack and hew basalt, and polish and mottle it, such that it ran the gamut of rough and smooth and geological and crafted. As the artist Jeanne-Claude put it, in a film clip that can be seen in the show, his were “objects created by a human being who was obviously having fun”. He was “high on freedom”, says another who knew him, of the time when he lived and worked in rural postwar Japan with his young actress wife.
He was charming. He was good-looking. He was agile. He designed play structures for children and water features and gardens for World Fairs and corporate headquarters. He flourished in a space made possible by postwar abstract art: because it was nonspecific in its meanings, but communicated a general aura of enlightenment and higher things, it could equally well serve the international institutions and corporations and museums who commissioned his work. It could speak vaguely of E=mc2 to IBM and Unesco and MoMA. His pronouncements could be bland, using terms such as “nature” and “mankind” and “space” somewhat interchangeably.
Not that Noguchi ignored the gravity of the times in which he lived. His Death (Lynched Figure) of 1934 is a protest against the murders of black people. As the son of a Japanese father and an Irish American mother, he felt the conflicts of the 20th century more than most. In 1942 he voluntarily interned himself in a bleak camp in the 120-degree heat of Arizona, where west coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated, even though New Yorkers like himself were exempt. The World Is a Foxhole (I am a Foxhole) of 1942-43 strives to communicate the hope and despair of a dug-in soldier, with a flag flying from a spindly pole over a black hollowed-out base. After the war he visited Hiroshima, where he proposed a memorial to the victims of the atomic bomb.
Yet he found it hard to translate anger and fear into his objects. His pleasure in shape and surface won – The World is a Foxhole ends up looking like an engagingly wacky golf-course feature. Or he would trip over his desire to be serious, and produce his worst work, ponderous and mawkish. Sometimes you read a caption and wish you hadn’t, as the object in question gave more pleasure before you knew what message it was meant to impart.
Much of Noguchi’s appeal lies in his in-betweenness, in his ability to move between sculpture, furniture and gardens, not to mention stage sets for the ballets of Martha Graham. If you look only at any one aspect you lose something of the whole. Among the pleasures of the Barbican show are the views you get into and across its central hall, populated with a menagerie of curious forms, an array of asteroids and UFOs as heavy as granite and as light as paper.
Some are art, some are design, not that Noguchi was too concerned with the difference. “I am not a designer,” he himself said. “All my work, tables as well as sculptures, are conceived as fundamental problems of form.” This is a touch sententious – I’d say someone who designs furniture is a designer – but never mind. In the end the thing that unites his output is not any profound meaning but the joy of making. His riposte to the horrors of world wars and nuclear catastrophe was, it turns out, delight.