March 26 – Ju­ly 31, 2022

The Mu­se­um Lud­wig is host­ing the first com­pre­hen­sive ret­ro­spec­tive in Eu­rope in over twen­ty years on the Ja­pa­nese Amer­i­can sculp­tor Isa­mu Noguchi (b. 1904 in Los An­ge­les, d. 1988 in New York). It will cov­er all of Noguchi’s cre­a­tive pe­ri­ods and prac­tices with 150 works and pre­sent him as an ex­per­i­men­tal and po­lit­i­cal­ly en­gaged artist. The ex­hi­bi­tion was or­ganized and cu­rat­ed by the Mu­se­um Lud­wig in Cologne, the Zen­trum Paul Klee in Bern, and the Bar­bi­can in Lon­don, in part­n­er­ship with LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art mod­erne, d’art con­tem­po­rain et d’art brut. The ex­hi­bi­tion would not have been pos­si­ble with­out the col­lab­o­ra­tion of the Isa­mu Noguchi Foun­da­tion and Gar­den Mu­se­um, New York.

Noguchi is a great twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry sculp­tor, who is of­ten bet­ter known for his icon­ic col­lab­o­ra­tions and de­sign pro­jects out­side the strict do­main of the fine arts, such as his cof­fee table for Her­mann Miller, Dance Sets for Martha Gra­ham, and Akari lights. His work was shaped by an ex­pand­ed con­cep­tion of sculp­ture and the ques­tion of hu­man be­ings’ re­la­tion­ship to the earth, as well as his fas­ci­na­tion with ma­te­rials and tech­nol­o­gy.

Noguchi’s think­ing was trans­gres­sive, tran­s­na­tio­n­al, and rad­i­cal­ly in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary in ev­ery re­gard. From the 1920s to the 1980s he cre­at­ed monu­ments with a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage, light ob­jects, stage sets, play­grounds, and gar­dens, al­ways in pur­suit of the con­nec­tion be­tween art and ev­ery­day life.

As an as­sis­tant to Con­s­tantin Brân­cuși, Noguchi de­vel­oped a deep in­tui­tion for the essence of ma­te­rials and for the sur­faces of wood and stone. Through­out his life he trav­eled ex­ten­sive­ly to Eu­rope and Asia, as well as In­dia and Mex­i­co—spend­ing years on the road. He studied brush draw­ing in Chi­na, and ex­per­i­ment­ed with pot­tery and land­s­cape gar­den­ing in Ja­pan. Ap­pro­pri­a­tion and re­ne­w­al, in the sense of build­ing glob­al net­works and a uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive, were im­puls­es that shaped his artis­tic work.

The ret­ro­spec­tive be­gins with por­trait­s—­heads and fig­ures, ab­s­tract and re­al­is­tic, like a pano­ra­ma com­posed of a wide va­ri­e­ty of me­dia, so­cial con­tacts around the world, and artis­tic views. Fea­tured are a rare self-por­trait as a boy with blue eyes, along with heads of Martha Gra­ham and Buck­min­ster Fuller—both of whom were artis­tic part­n­ers for de­cades—as well as Brân­cuși, Noguchi’s un­cle Tak­a­gi, the writ­er Tara Pan­dit, a Ra­dio Nurse, the dancer Mi­chio Itō, the pain­ter José Cle­mente Oroz­co, the mu­si­cian Kyoko Kawa­mu­ra, and Noguchi’s wife of five years in the 1950s, the ac­tress Yoshiko Ya­m­aguchi.

The fo­cal point of the ex­hi­bi­tion is Noguchi’s Sur­re­al­ist In­ter­lock­ing Sculp­tures from the 1940s. Some of th­ese works re­call hu­man bodies with el­e­ments like limp limbs or bones. They com­bine play­ful com­po­si­tion and pain­ful frag­men­ta­tion.

The foun­da­tion of his life and work was his en­gage­ment with the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ques­tions of his time. His op­po­si­tion to ra­cism and vi­o­lence as well as ques­tions of iden­ti­ty and be­long­ing are re­flect­ed in many of Noguchi’s art­works. In others, the me­m­ories of pain and op­pres­sion be­come al­most in­vis­i­ble. 120,000 Amer­i­cans of Ja­pa­nese de­s­cent were im­pri­s­oned af­ter the Ja­pa­nese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in 1942, Noguchi en­tered one of the camps in the Ari­zo­na desert. Still de­cades lat­er, his sculp­tures cont­in­ued to bear the me­m­o­ry of the dis­crim­i­na­tion he ex­pe­ri­enced as a Ja­pa­nese Amer­i­can.

The rich facets of his work in­clude his public and po­lit­i­cal art pro­jects from the 1930s, dance col­lab­o­ra­tions, ce­ram­ics, as well as public works and plans for ci­ties from Jerusalem and Hi­roshi­ma, Mu­nich, Bolog­na, Paris, and Del­hi. The last room shows Noguchi’s de­sign for Sculp­ture to Be Seen from Mars (Me­mo­rial to Man).

The work was con­ceived in 1947, two years af­ter the atom­ic bombs were dropped on Hi­roshi­ma and Na­gasa­ki, but it was nev­er re­al­ized. Since his ear­ly play­ground de­signs, Noguchi viewed the earth as an artis­tic ma­te­rial. In Sculp­ture to Be Seen from Mars (Me­mo­rial to Man) he pre­sents an ex­trater­re­s­trial per­spec­tive on our plan­et Earth. A hu­man face ap­pears on the sur­face of the plan­et, a re­min­der of the fact that hu­mani­ty shaped the earth with cul­ture but al­so de­stroyed it.

The ex­hi­bi­tion was or­ganized by the Mu­se­um Lud­wig, the Zen­trum Paul Klee in Berne (Septem­ber 23, 2022 – Jan­uary 8, 2023), the Bar­bi­can in Lon­don (Septem­ber 30, 2021–Jan­uary 23, 2022), along with the LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art mod­erne, d’art con­tem­po­rain et d’art brut (March 17 – Ju­ly 3, 2023).

➞ You can find a full bi­og­ra­phy of Isa­mu Noguchi's life here.  


Cu­ra­tor: Ri­ta Ker­st­ing

Ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign: Ti­no Graß

For the gener­ous sup­port of the ex­hi­bi­tion we thank: