- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

American museums rarely accorded the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) major exhibitions, but the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has gone a long way toward rectifying that neglect with “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor,” a rich display of 54 sculptures and 25 works on paper. The first exhibit in 30 years to focus on his sculpture explores both the philosophic and artistic scope of his six-decade career.

Exhibit curator Valerie J. Fletcher cites as her primary goal the revelation of the metaphysical dualism in the artist’s work. In this, she has succeeded admirably, illuminating the extraordinary balance and synthesis that form the core of the artist’s vision.

Spotting the polarities in Mr. Noguchi’s art ” light and dark, verticals and horizontals, circles and squares, influences from Eastern and Western philosophies, among many ” is not always easy. Given this difficulty and the fact that the exhibit provides just a scant three explanatory wall labels, visitors are likely to find the free exhibit brochure an indispensable guide.

The first gallery’s huge stone sculpture, “To Bring to Life” (1979), is a good example of the dualities through which the artist conveyed his meaning. The contrast between its rough, rust-colored surface and hard, smooth inner core probably was intended by the artist as a metaphor for the physical and spiritual.

The son of an American teacher and Japanese poet, Mr. Noguchi was raised in Los Angeles. He studied art in Paris in the late 1920s with renowned sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Mr. Noguchi adopted his mentor’s biomorphic, abstract forms in the late ‘20s, calling them his “Paris Abstractions.”

In 1930, Mr. Noguchi began what would become frequent travels abroad with short stays in Moscow, Beijing and Kyoto, Japan. During his stay in Japan, he learned traditional Eastern brush painting and calligraphy, although you would never know it from the Matisse-like drawings he was producing at the time. He also studied Japanese ceramics during this period. His impressively tall sculpture “Queen” (1931) synthesizes influences from both early Haniwa Japanese burial figures and Western surrealist art.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Noguchi underwent voluntary imprisonment in an internment camp for Japanese Americans in the hope of exploiting his design expertise to improve camp living conditions. Disillusioned by the experience, he returned to New York to make art.

Highlights of his work during the war years included his multihued “Lunar” series ” Brancusi-like “biomorphs” hung from ceilings ” and rice-paper Akari lanterns ” he called them “sculpting with light.” His work from this period seemed to reflect a recovered faith in peoples’ goodness.

From 1944 to 1948, he turned to making interlocking sculptures of fitted slabs of stone and wood. They stand almost like apparitional totems, their attenuated shapes reminiscent of some of Pablo Picasso’s stretched figures. As Miss Fletcher writes in the valuable brochure, the sculptor made them as a symbol for global interdependence, as no one element can stand alone.

The mid-1950s through mid-1980s saw the sculptor searching for different types of stone in countries such as Sweden, Greece, France and Italy. He was working with images of the sun, such as “The Sun at Noon,” a sensuous, iconic, open circle of French red and Spanish Alicante marble.

Suns, with their round shapes that emit light and symbolize life, became his expressive forms of choice near the end of his life. But the black granite floor sculpture “Galaxy Calligraphy” (1983-1984), exhibited alone in the last gallery, reminds visitors of the sculptor’s characteristic duality. Visitors can easily imagine its blackness as standing for night and its surface extensions as galaxies in an immeasurable universe.

These final images ” “suns” as promulgators of light and “Galaxy” as an expression of darkness ” make a fitting end to this unusual presentation of the great sculptor’s thoughts and art.

WHAT: “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. daily through May 8


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

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