Peeking into the Hughes Wing at Cameron Art Museum last Thursday, seeing the painters’ tape and paper lanterns strewn haphazardly along the floor, one would be forgiven for not knowing an exhibition was close at hand.
“We really like things that are not just set in their sculpture box, things that like to play,” says Dakin Hart, senior curator at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York City. He was speaking to a small group of donors gathered at CAM for a special preview of the new show, which will open to the public on November 22. “It hasn’t happened yet, but at some point [in staging things] you’ll just feel it, and it’ll suddenly feel like a transformed space.”
Hart and CAM’s chief curator, Holly Tripman Fitzgerald, were setting up a retrospective of work by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The exhibition features pieces from over six decades, ranging from the 1920s to 1980s, all on loan from the Noguchi Museum. A behind-the-scenes gallery talk with Fitzgerald is scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m.
Noguchi is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors. Born to a well-known Japanese poet father and Brooklyn-born, Bryn Mawr-educated writer mother, he traveled widely and maintained studios in New York and Japan until his death at 84 in 1988. Working in materials ranging from bronze to granite to paper and bamboo, Noguchi sought to bring the past and present to life by making art that he called “ever new and ever old.”
From the early 1930s on, Hart says, “[Noguchi] really made multiculturalism the center of his identity as an artist.” In 1942, with his star just ascending in the U.S., and with anti-Japanese sentiment swirling in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he voluntarily entered an internment camp in Arizona. He stayed for seven months, with the goal of redesigning the camp from the inside. (He didn’t succeed, but wrote beautifully about the experience in an essay for “Reader’s Digest.”)
Noguchi also was constantly innovating. Though known primarily as a sculptor, he also designed a glass-topped table for Herman Miller, worked on a playground design with the architect Louis Kahn, and created stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company, ballet choreographer George Balanchine and composer John Cage. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was unafraid of technological invention and considered Benjamin Franklin a personal hero. In his embrace of different forms, “Noguchi looks like an avatar for the way all artists work now,” Hart says.
Among the 60-some-odd works included at CAM’s “Unfolding Noguchi” is “Slide Mantra Maquette” (c. 1985), a granite model of a slide with a continuous spiral design. Noguchi said of the work:
“I am ever mindful of the notion that to discover or rediscover the true meaning of sculpture, the experience of sculpture has to be expanded.”
In this case, that meant giving viewers the tactile experience of actually sliding down the smooth stone facade. (A 10-foot-tall, white marble version was built for the 1986 Venice Biennale and sits in Miami’s Bayfront Park today.)
Museum-goers will get a chance to compare several sculptures, including “Black and Blue” (1980), with their paper miniatures. When Hart arrived at the Noguchi Museum in 2013, he saw a photo of a miniature and inquired as to where they might be kept. Shortly after, he discovered a shipping box stuffed with over 400 paper maquettes.
“They were all mixed up, and they had gotten glued together,” Hart says. “We slowly but surely separated them all and were able to figure out which pieces they went with.”
The maquettes on display at CAM range from 1955 to 1988. In the case of “Black and Blue,” the miniature predates its larger iteration by almost 30 years.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, however, is surely “Akari 200D”—a 2-meter-wide paper globe lantern housed within a simple wooden structure. There are 39 “Akari” (Noguchi’s name for his popular series of light sculptures) scattered throughout the exhibition space—which brings us back to last Thursday’s seeming disarray. Because the “Akari” are made of paper and constructed to fold easily into themselves, they can be placed pretty much anywhere.
“They’re accordions,” Hart explains, picking one up by its bamboo ribbing. “The best way to deal with them is just to let them do what they do, you know? They’re a lot more resilient than you would imagine.”
That resiliency comes from washi paper, which is made from the inner bark of a mulberry tree. Noguchi’s designs were so clever that IKEA once tried to license them. He refused, but the Swedish retailer copied them anyway after it was determined the globe shape was too conventional to patent. “That’s part of why the innovation continued,” Hart says, “because he tried to stay ahead of the fakes. It drove him crazy.”
The exhibition at CAM coincides with a spike in interest in Noguchi in recent years. His coffee table for Herman Miller regularly goes for thousands of dollars on the high-end online marketplace 1stdibs. Attendance at the Noguchi Museum has doubled in the past three years. Hart, for one, chalks it up to the sculptor’s insistence on playing the long game.
“Noguchi spent 60 years trying to figure out how to make things that felt timeless, outside time and space,” Hart says. “He did it his way, and his way was so open-ended, and ecumenical and all-embracing. I think for people today that’s very attractive.”
November 22, 2019 – May 24, 2020
Gallery talk: Friday, November 22,
11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Cameron Art Museum
3201 S. 17th St.
Members: free; Non-members: $10