Noguchi review – the sculptor who was high on life

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Barbican Art Gallery, London
Playful, abstract, made in the aftermath of war… what unites the Japanese American sculptor’s all-embracing work – the art, the furniture, the ballet sets – is his sheer joy of making

If Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) hadn’t been a designer, his work as a sculptor would mostly be forgettable. It shows both a beautiful sensitivity to materials and an informed awareness of other artists of his time – Brancusi (for whom Noguchi briefly worked), Picasso, Duchamp, Calder, Max Ernst. It is polished and well composed. But his sculptures lack urgency. They don’t make you think that they were a matter of life or death to their creator.

If he hadn’t been a sculptor, Noguchi’s work as a designer would be less interesting. He wasn’t a pioneer of new production techniques in the ways that Charles and Ray Eames were, nor did he grapple with the challenges of mass manufacture. His most famous pieces were lampshades, in which traditional Japanese crafts were adapted to make both perfect spheres and the freeform shapes of mid-century western abstract art. Also a coffee table that became (through no fault of its own) an interior design cliche – a three-edged sheet of glass, curved at the corners, that rests almost casually on a wooden support that looks like a scaled-down monumental sculpture.

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