• Ina

Noguchi Retrospective at the Barbican (11 Days Left to Visit!)

Updated: Jan 13

Barbican’s exhibition featuring 150 artworks by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) ends on January 23rd, so there’s still enough time left to discover one of the most pioneering and experimental artists of the 20th century.


Don’t miss the chance to see Noguchi’s first touring retrospective in Europe in the past 20 years, reflecting six decades of his creative practice.

Get ready to explore his quintessential risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment and experience the kaleidoscopic career of a true creative polymath.


The display which also focuses on presenting Noguchi as a global citizen includes an extraordinary range of sculptures made in stone, wood, ceramics, and aluminium, as well as playground models, theatre set designs, furniture, and lighting.


“Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” (Isamu Noguchi)


Braving a unique social, spiritual, and environmental consciousness, Noguchi saw art “as something which teaches human beings how to become more human” and believed sculpture could “be a vital force in our everyday life.”

Set of elements for Martha Graham's Herodiade: Chair, Clothes Rack, Mirror (1944, Plywood, paint)
Isamu Noguchi, Set of elements for Martha Graham's Herodiade: Chair, Clothes Rack, Mirror (1944, Plywood, paint)

Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an Irish American mother, he travelled the world, always searching for a place he felt he truly belonged. As an American citizen of biracial heritage, he was constantly trying to answer some basic identity-related questions: “With my double upbringing and nationality, where is my home? My affections? My identity? Japan or America, either, both – or the world?

The first room, titled “I Became a Sculptor” explores the beginning of his career. After studying academic sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York, he began by making portrait heads and masks. In 1927, after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he travelled to Paris for an apprenticeship with the modernist master Constantin Brancusi.

From left to right: Leda (1928, brass), Globular (1928, brass), Positional Shape (1928, brass and gold plate) and Red Seed (1928, wood, aluminium)
From left to right: Isamu Noguchi's Leda (1928, brass), Globular (1928, brass), Positional Shape (1928, brass and gold plate) and Red Seed (1928, wood, aluminium).

Here, he learned more about abstraction and direct carving. Noguchi rejected the ideal of pure abstraction and was particularly interested in cellular structures, the natural world and living organisms.

From left to right: Endless Coupling (1957, Iron), Akari L7 (washi paper, bamboo, metal, electrics), Bird B (1958, Greek marble), The Spirit’s Flight (1969, Serpentine). Ceiling: Akari PL2 (1965, washi paper, bamboo, metal, electrics)
From left to right: Endless Coupling (1957, Iron), Akari L7 (washi paper, bamboo, metal, electrics), Bird B (1958, Greek marble), The Spirit’s Flight (1969, Serpentine). Ceiling: Akari PL2 (1965, washi paper, bamboo, metal, electrics).

The “Spirit’s Flight” was inspired by Brancusi’s endless column motif: “The result is an effect of aliveness. As is well known, all nature tends to the helix – from the flow of the water to tropical storms, wind, or the flow of blood.”

Slide Mantra Maquette (1985, Botticino marble)
Isamu Noguchi, Slide Mantra Maquette (1985, Botticino marble)

Next, between 1928 and 1931, Noguchi travelled to Moscow, Biejing, London, Tokyo and Kyoto. During the time he spent in London, he learned more about Asian philosophies, religions, and art at the British Library.

Isamu Noguchi, Set elements for Erick Hawkins's Stephen Acrobat: Jungle Gym, Hanging tree (1947)
Isamu Noguchi, Set elements for Erick Hawkins's Stephen Acrobat: Jungle Gym, Hanging tree (1947)

The New Nature section of the exhibition features multi-angled works like "Trinity" (see photo below), named after the first nuclear test detonation that took place in the New Mexico desert in 1945. By sculpting the heart of the nuclear fission, with an atom split into multiple nuclei, Noguchi was voicing his criticism over the impact of technological progress.

Visitor analysing the artwork Trinity, Triple (1945, bronze) by Isamu Noguchi.
Visitor analysing the artwork Trinity, Triple (1945, bronze) by Isamu Noguchi.

"All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami, and Akari"(Isamu Noguchi)

For the design industry, Noguchi main’s legacy is without a doubt the ubiquitous Akari lamp. Given their commercial appeal, they became a passion project for him, no wonder he made over 100 models before his death in 1988.

, basalt).In the center: Isamu Noguchi's "To intrude on nature's way" (1971)
In the center: Isamu Noguchi's "To intrude on nature's way" (1971, basalt).

Matt Kirsch, curator of research at The Noguchi Museum: ”Noguchi would have hated them to be termed “luxury items”, but their price tag does factor into that so the fact that IKEA introduced a range of shapes imitative of Akari for the worldwide market and that caught on is testament to their credibility and allure.”

📍 Barbican Art Gallery, London.

📅 Until January 23, 2022.

🎫 Purchase tickets from here.

⏰ Opening hours:

Sun-Wed 10am-6pm (last entry 5pm)

Thu-Sat 10am-8pm (last entry 7pm)

20-22 Jan 10am-10pm (last entry 9pm).


🚇 The closest London Underground stations are Barbican and Moorgate(on the Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan, Circle lines ) and St. Paul's (on the Central line).


*All photos were taken by Ina/WithinLondon, unless stated otherwise :)

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