The Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi displayed an impressive range throughout his decades-long career, producing not only traditional sculpture, but also stage sets, memorials and furniture. His forays into industrial, landscape and interior design evince his belief that sculpture belongs in all realms of life, not merely to be placed on a pedestal and stared at. Hence, “Beyond the Pedestal,” the title of the Portland Museum of Art’s exhibition, a rare Maine retrospective of Noguchi’s work.
Noguchi believed that sculpture should not remain static, to be viewed passively from a safe distance. He wanted people to walk around, under and through his sculptures, and in some cases even to climb, play or relax on them. Interaction between people, objects and space is central to understanding and engaging with Noguchi’s art.
The exhibition is arranged according to three themes that help to elucidate Noguchi’s artistic philosophy: play and movement, monuments and social justice and domestic landscapes.
He designed playgrounds, and even dreamed up plans for entire city blocks to be filled with whimsical landscapes meant to be explored and enjoyed. “Slide Mantra Maquette” is made of a smooth white marble that evokes the crisp serenity of Santorini’s striking architecture or the classical sculptures of ancient Greece. The self-contained form is supremely elegant, but it is not cold or uninviting. One can easily imagine climbing its steps and gliding down the curved slide in an endless loop.
This sense of movement is prevalent throughout Noguchi’s work. Elegant paper cocoons form organic shapes in the “Akari” light sculptures, which emanate a soft glow. As viewers walk around them, the sculptures move slightly in reaction to the changing air currents. The pyramid-shaped “Akari” feature long strings at each corner, which end in a knot around smooth stones that rest on the floor. This anchoring element connects the ethereal form of the “Akari” to the earth.
“This Earth, This Passage” has a low-profile that could be overlooked. But it is one of the most remarkable pieces in the show. Noguchi stamped down wet clay with his feet before casting it in bronze, resulting in visible footprints that provide a visceral connection to the artist and his process of creation. Its round shape, as well as its title, suggest a portal or entrance. The viewer is left to decide where this passage leads.
“Beginnings” is another down-to-earth piece, comprised of chunks of andesite that are arranged differently each time it is exhibited. Here, Noguchi wanted to approach sculpture as a collaboration with nature itself. Indeed, the stones are only lightly chiseled by the artist’s hand. Moving around the stones engenders a feeling of tranquility and contemplation, akin to the Japanese stone gardens which inspired this piece.