From lamps to playgrounds, Isamu Noguchi believed sculpture should be omnipresent
We tour the Barbican’s Noguchi exhibition with curator Florence Ostende, who says that the Japanese-American artist and designer believed in the “social function” of sculpture and its influence on how we experience public space.
While most people know Isamu Noguchi for his iconic coffee table designs and ubiquitous paper lamps, lesser-known is that the Japanese-American sculptor designed some of the most incredible playgrounds you’ll ever see. Though it seems at odds with the very grown-up mindset of making furniture, the two are inextricably linked by Noguchi’s core belief that sculpture should not stand alone in a gallery, but instead be an integral part of the urban landscape. Take his Play Mountain concept as an example. Conceived in 1933 to take over a city block in New York, Noguchi carved out the features of a playground – stairs of varying heights, slides, a paddling pool – from the land itself, using no additional equipment. It is an architectural sculpture, part Roman amphitheatre, part Egyptian pyramid, designed to encourage children to interpret the space how they like, rather than prescribing to them how it should be used. Florence Ostende, the curator of the Barbican’s eponymous Noguchi exhibition (on until 23 January), tells me Play Mountain could be considered “early pioneering land art”. And while it was never actually realised, the ideas it represented – that sculpture should surround us and influence how we interact with space – perpetuated much of the artist’s career. He once said: “I am interested in space – and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects, and perceptible and imperceptible movements.” Florence adds that he “pushed the frontiers of what was defined as a sculpture” and saw everything he made, from lamps and coffee tables to stage designs and playgrounds, as sculptural.
Noguchi himself attributed some of his fascinations with playground design to his childhood. Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a white American writer mother, and Japanese poet father, he and his mother moved to Japan when he was two, following an already estranged father who deserted them again soon after they arrived. He returned to the US alone at 13 to attend high school, again feeling like an outsider. He wrote of Play Mountain that it was his “response based upon memory of my own unhappy childhood… It may be that this is how I tried to join the city, New York. To belong.” In fact, Florence says that throughout his life Noguchi travelled extensively, “stating he felt at home everywhere and nowhere.” In the exhibition is a self-portrait shown publicly for the first time, a sculpture showing a naked boy bent double looking through his own legs, “seeing the world upside-down”. He does so through searing blue eyes, depicted using bright blue beads that poignantly stand out against the dark wood of the figure, “a reminder of his dual identity,” Florence notes.
Setting out as a young aspiring sculptor, in the late 1920s, Noguchi trained with Constantin Brancusi, who is known as the father of modernist sculpture. It was a stint that Florence describes as an “awakening” that shaped his approach to abstract form, setting the artist on a course towards the biomorphic designs he is known for. Brancusi also encouraged Noguchi to employ truth to materials, and so the artist spent much of his traineeship learning how to carve wood and stone, and polishing Brancusi’s artwork Leda. The influence of this particular work, Florence says, can be seen in Noguchi’s piece Globular, a mirror-finish brass sculpture that reflects the viewer and their entire surroundings in its compound curves. “You get the idea that sculpture is not only the object but the entire space that surrounds it,” the curator explains, suggesting that the artist’s dedication to the civic duty of sculpture was ingrained from the start.
“I am interested in space – and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are an inventing an order of things.”Isamu Noguchi
During his time in Paris, Noguchi met choreographer and dancer Michio Itō, who commissioned him to make masks for one of his performances. He also introduced the artist to many members of the avant-garde scene, including artist Alexander Calder and choreographer Martha Graham, who was equally pivotal to his practice as Brancusi, Florence believes. The two collaborated on over 20 productions across their careers, beginning with stage designs for her show Frontier in 1935, which used minimalist sculptural stage props such as a piece of rope crossing the stage and a bench, “as if the dancer would become the sculptor of the space,” Florence says, again describing Noguchi’s vision of sculpture as crucial to spatial design.
Despite his strong artistic direction and impressive social network, it would take Noguchi until the 1940s to become well-known as an artist and designer. Meanwhile, he financially survived on portrait sculpture commissions, creating busts of friends and collaborators such as Ginger Rogers and George Gershwin. One of his sitters was Buckminster Fuller, who became a close friend and important influence on Noguchi’s transition into commercial product design. “He became a technological utopian throughout their friendship,” Florence says. “They believed in the idea of technological progress and invention.” In the 1930s they worked together on the Dymaxion car, a futuristic design that applied the aerodynamics of planes, fusing Fuller’s scientific knowledge with Noguchi’s skill for balanced, organic forms. In 1937, Noguchi also designed one of the first baby monitors, for Zenith Radio Corporation, another early example of his sculptural concepts filtering into industrial design. Notably, the shape is akin to Japanese Kendo masks, another pre-cursor to later work marrying tradition with contemporary technology. The same year, as his popularity as an artist grew, he travelled to Mexico to work with Diego Rivera on an anti-fascist sculptural mural; “he felt strongly that sculpture should have a meaning or purpose,” Florence says. (It was also around the mid-30s that Noguchi is said to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo.)
In 1938 he was commissioned to create a sculpture for the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Centre, and Noguchi began to gain higher status as an artist and designer. Then the Second World War hit, and after Pearl Harbour in 1941, anti-Japanese prejudice was rife across America. From 1942-1945, around 122,000 people of Japanese descent were imprisoned in ten internment camps across the States. By this point, Noguchi had established confidence in his work and his beliefs in the power of social design and art, and optimism about the role of artists as activists in society, and set out to use his position to help. He interned himself in one of the camps, despite being exempt from internment, with the intention to redesign the gardens and recreation areas, and introduce arts programmes, all for the wellbeing of the prisoners. “He wanted to participate in the community,” Florence says, and though he had been told by officials beforehand that he would be supported to create work for the camps, once inside, Noguchi’s attempts were repeatedly refused. In fact, officers treated him like any other prisoner, and so he experienced firsthand the racism and awful conditions of the camp, and actually found it difficult to leave, finally being allowed out after six months. “He left feeling very disillusioned,” Florence says. “He went back to New York disappointed that his ideals and beliefs in the social function of sculpture had not been recognised or achieved in the way he wanted to.” While inside, Noguchi wrote an essay titled I Become a Nisei, an emotive text that describes daily life in the camp alongside personal reflections on cultural identity.
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Isamu Noguchi: Lunar Infant, 1944. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum Archives, 150797. (Copyright ©INFGM / ARS – DACS)
“Sculpture is not only the object but the entire space that surrounds it.”Florence Ostende
After this life-altering experience, Noguchi “went back to basics” Florence says, disenchanted with the social and political role of sculpture and “seeking the realisation of himself as a sculptor through the simple act of carving”. He returned to the importance of materials and form, a mentality which led to his coffee table design for Herman Miller – a piece now synonymous with the artist’s name and so prevalent in magazine-worthy homes around the world that it spawned a hilarious Tumblr account, Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table. Also in the late 40s, the artist slowly began to instil his learnings from collaborating with Buckminster Fuller, experimenting with light and invention in the series Lunar. Then, in the early 1950s, he visited Gifu, a Japanese town known for its manufacture of paper parasols and lanterns, and found inspiration for his renowned Akari lights – a product that seemed to converge all the aforementioned influences. Using traditional washi paper techniques, the lamps featured rounded, pillowy, seemingly floating forms typical of Noguchi, which could be flat-packed, and a lightbulb – the first mainstream product to do so in a paper lantern. The design seamlessly brought together technology and tradition. “This became an important aspect of his contribution to modern sculpture and design throughout the 20th Century, this blending of tradition and modernity,” Florence says, “and understanding those two languages as coexisting somehow.” Noguchi himself explained that he had brought “ancient art into our modern art” and that the name Akari means “light as illumination, just as our word light does”, but also “suggests lightness as opposed to weight”. The 70 years since Noguchi’s first Akari light have seen countless replicas, and I would bet most of the people reading this have owned one at some point.
And so Noguchi pieces made their way into millions of homes around the world, and while this went towards his vision for sculpture being everywhere, for everyone, it was in his large-scale, public pieces where his dreams of sculpture being “a common and free experience” were truly made real. In the second half of his life, Noguchi created dozens of civic sculptures (many across the US) and public spaces, including gardens – such as the Jardin Japonais at the Unesco building in Paris, which again brought traditional Japanese ideas into the western cultural landscape. However, most of his playground designs remained merely concepts, until finally in 1975 he was commissioned to create a playground for Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, called Playscapes.
It brings together many of the ideas Noguchi had honed over his career, including some from Play Mountain, namely the pyramid and surrounding triangular steps that seemed carved from the playground’s surface; and from Contoured Playground, another concept creating freeform play areas out of the topography. Playscapes, though, distils these ideas into individual, sculptural pieces of play equipment – swings, seesaws, climbing frames, slides – which might be why it was the one that actually got built during his lifetime (another was built in Sapporo, Japan, in 2005), and thank goodness it did. Boasting eye-popping primary colours and geometric shapes, it is not only a visual feast, but it also guides kids to explore and use their imaginations to interpret the space. Noguchi said he liked to think of playgrounds as “a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative: thus educational,” and this perhaps explains his lifelong interest in designing them, a key part of his dedication to making sculpture a fundamental part of our environment. In his playgrounds, he said: “I wished to show my long-held belief that play could lead to a new appreciation of sculpture.”
Arnold Newman: Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, 4 July 1947 (Copyright © Arnold Newman Collection / Getty Images / INFGM / ARS - DACS)