Noguchi review – it’s not art, it’s luxury lighting | Exhibitions

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IIf you like to browse the high-end lighting boutiques, the Barbican Art Gallery is the place for you right now. Paper shades are everywhere, from large wavy shades on the floor to deluxe versions of spherical shades you can buy anywhere. Beautifully spaced, warm with glowing light, artfully adorned with stone, ceramic and bronze artifacts, this investigation of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is a must-have for design aficionado – and utter boredom for anyone in the know. search for real art.

There is no punch, no emotional or psychic energy, just a smooth progression of smart but harmless creations. There couldn’t be a sharper contrast to the recent revealing Barbican exhibit by the great iconoclast Jean Dubuffet, in which every ugly quirk of Art Brut has grabbed you. Noguchi’s fluid creations in the same spaces didn’t even fill my mind the time I looked at them. It was as if they had no reality.

In films that can be watched sitting on their own furniture, Noguchi appears as a sympathetic and creative man. In one clip, he sits on playground equipment he designed and chats with his mentor, architect Buckminster Fuller.

Faithful modernist pupil… The work of Noguchi at the Barbican. Photography: Tim P Whitby / Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

Playgrounds were a lifelong interest, a utopian social space that satisfied Noguchi’s belief in the life-enhancing power of sculpture. Born in the United States in 1904, but raised partly in Japan, he trained in cabinetmaking before seeking the pioneer of abstraction, Constantin Brâncuși, in his Paris studio and starting his own artistic career in New York. from the 1920s.

Brâncuși’s radically simplified forms inspired him. Then Fuller showed him how abstract art can serve society. And this is the trajectory that you can see for yourself on the upper floor of the gallery where its development is carefully narrated. Noguchi’s earliest sculptures are clearly à la Brâncuși, like his 1928 piece, Globular, which echoes the sinuous metallic and art deco sensuality of the Parisian master. And that sets the tone, for Noguchi was far too loyal a pupil of the modernist pioneers.

In this he is typical of artists from New York and London in the 1920s and 1930s – the true cutting edge of modern art was in continental Europe. You may be hoping to see Noguchi brilliantly blend Western and Japanese ideas into a global modernism of his own.

Social space… Noguchi tested his Slide Mantra at the Venice Biennale in 1986.
Social space… Noguchi tests his Slide Mantra at the Venice Biennale 1986. Photograph: © INFGM / ARS – DACS

I think that is what the Conservatives want to believe he is doing. But instead, he comes across as the New York equivalent of either Henry Moore or Ben Nicholson, producing gorgeous but completely tame abstractions that are toned down from hardcore European originals. Thus, a room filled with biomorphic and surrealist figures are shy imitations of much more disturbing sculptures by Picasso and Giacometti.

What struck me the most was how beautiful these items would look in a chic luxury home or apartment. Noguchi makes you see the history of modern art in a new and disappointing way. We like to imagine 20th century modernism as a story of revolution and resistance, from Dadaists defying WWI to Picasso throwing paint in the face of fascism. But Noguchi reveals the cozier side of modern art: producing a new kind of abstract elegance to decorate the homes of the rich.

Some will see his desire to move from pure art to applied art, his ease in embellishing a room, as radical. This is probably the reason why this exhibition is taking place today: because Noguchi can be seen as a “utopian” and “progressive” artist who sought to give sculpture a social function. But was the Bakelite baby monitor he designed in 1937 really radical? I can’t imagine hungry sharecroppers hungry for sleek tech. And they probably didn’t need the streamlined car he modeled for Fuller, either.

History Mexico, 1936.
History Mexico, 1936. Photography: Isamu Noguchi / © INFGM / ARS – DACS

Noguchi’s heart was in the right place: he campaigned against racism and fascism in the 1930s. But his love of a beautiful form in a well-structured space made him powerless to aesthetics and greatness. class. His business just can’t communicate anger or pain. From his experience in an internment camp in Arizona for Japanese Americans during World War II was born his 1945 wall relief, My Arizona, with a cheerful red plastic sign on part of its streaked white surface. but harmonious. It would be great in a high end kitchen. It is certainly not anxious. Even his design for a memorial to the dead in Hiroshima seems too graceful to me.

After the war, he spent more time in Japan and discovered his most ingenious connection to traditions when he worked with a lantern-making company to create his Akari light sculptures. They are probably his greatest legacy, but a design classic is not the same as a great work of art. I found myself staring at the rough Barbican columns instead, which has at least some brutal poetry.

At the Barbican from September 30.


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