AT FIRST GLANCE, the lower floor exhibition space at the Barbican art gallery in London resembles the lighting department of a furniture store such as Habitat. It is full of lighting units with Japanese-style paper and bamboo shades. After a moment, you will notice that these lighting units are not run-of-the-mill illuminations; they are interestingly shaped works of art lit up from within. These lamps are part of an exhibition of the artistic creations of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Born in Los Angeles, he was the son of a Japanese father and an Irish American mother. The first 13 years of his life were spent in Japan, where he began learning carpentry whilst helping his mother building their family house. From these early skills, it was not long before he embarked on what was to become a highly productive creative career, making works from a wide variety of materials from wood and stone to metals and plastics and … you name it.
Noguchi studied sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City. In 1927, he was given a grant to travel to Paris. It was there that he was apprenticed to the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957), who introduced him to abstraction. After learning much from the great sculptor in Paris, Noguchi abandoned pure abstraction and moved towards depicting the living world. However, his experiences working with Brâncuși influenced his artistic output for the rest of his life. After Paris, Noguchi travelled extensively, learning about techniques and philosophies, especially Chinese and Japanese. In 1929, he first met the architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), whose ideas about science and technology chimed with his. In the exhibition, there is a shiny chrome-plated bronze bust he made of Buckminster Fuller in 1929. There are also a couple of models he created in collaboration with Buckminster Fuller. Noguchi’s interest in science was not only expressed in sculptures but also in stage settings for ballet performances choreographed by Ruth Page and for performances by Martha Graham.
During WW2, although it was not required for him to enter one of the camps where the Americans ‘cooped up’ potential Japanese enemy aliens – Japanese who lived in the USA – Noguchi volunteered to be confined in a camp in Arizona. By doing so, his aim was to create an arts programme that would ease the lives of those confined in the camp. The barren landscape surrounding his camp proved to be yet another influence on his creative output.
Amongst the many exhibits in the Barbican’s show, there are, in addition to the lighting units, several pieces of furniture designed by Noguchi. One of these is a triangular plate glass tabletop supported by two interlocking timber supports. I have seen this elegant item for sale in upmarket furniture shops, but until I saw the exhibition, I had no idea it had been designed by Noguchi as long ago as 1944. It is still being made today. The wonderful variety of lighting sculptures, which at first reminded me of lampshades that were trendy in students’ rooms in the 1970s, are examples of ‘Akari’. Noguchi began creating them in the early 1950s, and despite their fragile nature, they are still in good condition now. One of the gallery invigilators told us that the translucent paper used to construct these lamps is made from mulberry tree bark. Known as ‘Washi’, this handmade paper can also be made from the bark of some other tree species.
As with other exhibitions at the Barbican gallery, the artworks are well-displayed and beautifully lit. If you go to this exhibition, you should not miss the video film in which Noguchi talks about his life and art very eloquently. And while you are watching it, you can sit on stools and a bench Noguchi designed. Prior to visiting this show, I had heard of Noguchi and seen a few of his works. The exhibition, which continues to the 23rd of January 2022, has truly opened my eyes to what a magnificent artist he was.