Isamu Noguchi in his studio in Gentilly near Paris, 1927

Radically cross-border

The major Isamu Noguchi retrospective in Bern shows the work of a cosmopolitan who was always in search of the connection between art and life.
by Andrea Eschbach | 11/9/2022

In Europe, sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) is largely known for his work as a designer: His “Coffee Table” has long since become an icon of furniture design. Just as legendary are the “Akari Light Sculptures,” feather-light lanterns made of Japanese washi paper and bamboo ribbing sold worldwide often as imitations of the original. However, the design objects created by this American artist who grew up in Japan represented just one facet of his larger vision of art.

This cross-disciplinary approach is demonstrated by the large exhibition currently on display at Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. Entitled simply “Isamu Noguchi,” it is the first major retrospective in Europe for two decades, with the Swiss capital being the show’s third stop after Museum Ludwig in Cologne and before that the Barbican in London. Visitors to the show can explore the oeuvre of a cosmopolitan whose driving aim was to show the connection between art and life. The American-Japanese designer and sculptor loved experimenting, pursued a wide range of interests and was radical in crossing boundaries. His work was an effortless blend of tradition and modernism, of artisanship and modern industrial technologies, of abstraction and figuration, of design and art.

The interweaving of art and life

The meandering presentation of Noguchi’s works encompasses designs for public plazas, monuments with political statements, sculptures and design objects through to playgrounds and gardens. Noguchi’s work is revealed to visitors in ten sections; it is the work of an artist who disliked pigeonholing of his output. “Everything is sculpture,” he once said. “Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” Noguchi saw all his work as being relevant for society, and so, following his own logic, the designer’s commercial works including a baby phone made of Bakelite and shaped like an abstract head are naturally shown alongside sculptures fashioned from wood, bronze, slate or marble.

One reason why Isamu Noguchi shied away from restricting himself to a single genre very likely had to do with his background; after all, he grew up in two worlds whose cultures could hardly be more different. Having spent his childhood in Japan he was familiar with traditional crafts and techniques involving wood and paper, as well as Japanese ceramics. For many of his sculptures and objects he realized from the early 1930s onwards he used mahogany and balsa wood, traditional seto or shigaraki ceramics as well as hand-made translucent washi paper.

Isamu Noguchi Play Sculpture, ca. 1965, manufactured 2017 Steel and paint 112.7 × 261.6 × 261.6 cm

Fascinating contrasts

Objects with mirror surfaces and biomorphic shapes like “Globular” (1928) testify to Noguchi’s time as assistant to sculptor Constantin Brancusi. For the artist, the formal reduction he learned from the Romanian and the perfect handling of tools and materials confirmed the Japanese understanding of art. The radical manner in which he implemented the techniques of various cultures, both traditional and contemporary, in his works is demonstrated in playful terracotta figures from a stay in Japan in the early 1950s; these form a harsh contrast to the New York sculptures of the late 1950s made by using machines to fold and form sheets of metal. In another contrast, Japanese joinery techniques that Noguchi learned as a young boy were incorporated into his “Interlocking Sculptures.” They are inspired by the dream worlds of the Surrealists, but equally reference Noguchi’s experiences of war. The intertwined biomorphic structures of bone-like elements come across as simultaneously playful and painful. We see a blending of art and design here – and the wooden feet of the Coffee Table are also interwoven – in a table that looks more like a sculpture.

Noguchi embarked on numerous trips to explore old cultural traditions not only in Asia but also in Europe and America. He visited Stonehenge, the gardens of Kyoto’s monasteries and temples, studied traditional ink painting in China, and investigated the astronomical observation site Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India. That said, he was equally interested in modern technology and science. His encounter and later friendship with R. Buckminster Fuller brought a change in the direction of his work. Noguchi was even involved in Buckminster Fuller’s futuristic aerodynamic “Dymaxion Car.”

Noguchi was forever asking questions, was curious and eager to discover new things. He put out his feelers in every conceivable direction, as evidenced by his also considering dance and theater to be art forms capable of having an influence on society. He designed sets on various occasions, and dancers and choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham numbered among his friends. The costumes he designed included the “Spider Dress” (1946). For Noguchi, the brass sculpture was a “dress of transformation”: For most of the performance the cage-like wire sculpture stands on stage as a lifeless but threatening object – until Martha Graham slips into it in the final scene and dances in a confused jumble of metal and limbs.

Isamu Noguchi
Until 8 January 2023

Paul Klee Centre
Monument im Fruchtland 3
3006 Bern

Opening hours:

Tuesday to Sunday
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Spot Isamu Noguchi
A look into the exhibition