Noguchi, Barbican Art Gallery, exhibition review: ‘Blurring the line between representational and abstract’

Alcoa Forecast Program Table, 1957. Photograph: INFGM / ARS, New York / SPDA, Tokyo

You’ll have seen Noguchi tables and Akari lamps, and you are probably familiar with 1940s interlocking sculptures, but these iconic works only reflect a small part of the huge and varied oeuvre of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988).

Now a major retrospective at the Barbican charts the young man’s early link with Constantin Brancusi through to his subsequent development of an eclectic vernacular combining influences from around the world.

Noguchi may be known mainly as a sculptor and designer, but he worked also in dance, architecture, landscape and traditional crafts, apprenticing himself to masters in New York, France, China and Japan to develop new styles.

Isamu Noguchi’s Peking Brush Drawing, 1930. Photograph: Kevin Noble / The Noguchi Museum Archives / INFGM / ARS – DACS

Though loosely connected throughout much of his career with the surrealist movement, Noguchi’s work is breathtakingly diverse, blurring the line between representational and abstract, and exploring a wide range of intellectual traditions.

The artist did not have a conventional life. Following a chaotic childhood, he established himself professionally in the US, only to be interned and nearly deported during the Second World War (despite having been born in Los Angeles). He repeatedly suffered artistic rejection and it was not until well into the 1950s that Noguchi began to experience the acclaim and recognition that his creativity merited.

Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, 4 July 1947. Photograph: Arnold Newman / Arnold Newman Collection / Getty Images / INFGM / ARS – DACS

Sculpture is the art form that anchored him, and this is evident in the collection of over 150 works collected in this show. Throughout Noguchi’s career similar forms reappear – tubes, obelisks, spheres and elegant cow pats. The media in which these are fashioned is highly diverse, however, ranging from stone and bronze to ceramics, paper and galvanised steel, and the forms materialised in an array of sites, from sculpture gardens to playgrounds.

It is this cross-over aspect of Noguchi’s work that is most intriguing about the works collected here; he was at ease in the world of high art, but also that of everyday objects for children. Perhaps the main message of this exhibition is that there need be no distinction between the two.

Unfortunately, the Barbican is not requiring face coverings, so a visit to this windowless space was a rather never-wracking experience, as many visitors were unmasked. Should the pandemic subside before the show closes on 9 January, it will make fascinating viewing.

Noguchi runs until 9 January at Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS.