Isamu Noguchi Water Table 1968
from granite and basalt that he made during the last decades of his life. A number of these are sited externally at the sculpture park. But inside the YSP’s magnificent galleries are earlier objects that are made (often compositely) from less orthodox sculptural materials such as stainless steel, terracotta, balsa wood and sheets of thin metal folded and cut like paper. Opposing qualities often meet in the same work: transience and endurance, massiveness and weightlessness, linearity and planarity, hardness and fluidity. Throughout all the works, large and small, the artist’s refined and painstaking workmanship also counterpoints their apparent spontaneity of conception. One gallery brings together maquettes for public gardens, playgrounds and swimming pools, which he called ‘sculpturing of space’. These mostly date from the 60s, but some strik
ing bronze and plaster models from the early 30s show that the claim often made for Noguchi as a precursor of Robert Smithson and other land artists may not be far-fetched. Noguchi did not divorce or downgrade his designs for furniture and lighting from his practice as a sculptor. They are also here, handsomely displayed in a separate space. Most fascinating and unexpected of all are the smaller sculptures from the 40s, not often seen, made from genuinely ephemeral materials. These are exemplified by the remarkably surviving small wooden figure Katchina, 1943, that incorporates folded paper, string and coloured feathers. The most attention-grabbing exhibits are large tableaux comprising elements from Noguchi’s stage sets for dance works by Martha Graham’s company during the 40s. In three of the galleries these are arranged on a raised stage, almost like an altar. These exhibits are laudably untrammelled by any intrusive adjacent labelling, but maybe just one photograph of the original stage production next to the exhibit would have shown that, for example, the designated ‘set elements’ for John Brown, 1945, incorporating a real man’s coat and hat and a noose, is not quite the proto-Rauschenberg ‘combine’ that it seems. Or that the branching brass wire form made for the dance work Cave of the Heart, 1947, however alluring it might be as a sculptural object in its own right, was intended to be inhabited by the living body of Graham herself. Noguchi experimented with the sculptural/sonic potential of the theremin in the 30s, and later became friends with John Cage and the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. According to Dore Ashton in 1992, ‘[Noguchi] stands to modern sculpture the way Merce Cunningham stands to the dance.’ But Noguchi’s modernist sculptural paradigm was really largely equivalent to that of his contemporary, Henry Moore, while in the early 70s he also embraced the rigour of the utopian concrete art of Max Bill. However close he may have got to it, no actual performative aspect enters into Noguchi’s practice, so he is not going to cause a flutter among the dovecotes of postmodern academics who are engrossed by Helio Oiticica or Lygia Clark, or the Japanese Gutai artists of the 50s. This clearly and sensitively disposed exhibition invites you to encounter Noguchi’s work without the mediation of very much historical exegesis. The organisers resist any prescriptive attempt to redress the artist’s marginalised status within the sculptural canon, other than by showing his work. But once you have begun to become aware of his protean persona, the diversity and complexity of his tastes and interests, and his research into the meaning and use of leisure in society, you will agree that there could be no better or more appropriate place for Noguchi’s work to be seen. ❚
DAVIDBRIERS is an independent writer based in West Yorkshire.
DARIA MARTIN 28 October – 07 December 2008 MAUREEN PALEY. 21 Herald Street, London E2 6JT telephone: +44 (0)20 7729 4112 fax: +44 (0)20 7729 4113 www.maureenpaley.com
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