26 May – 1 July 2023
White Cube Mason's Yard
Working across a wide range of disciplines, the bi-racial, multicultural American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–88) developed a uniquely open-ended, ecumenical, forward-looking perspective on global culture. Extending his understanding of the body as a conduit for experience, 'This Earth, This Passage' brings together work from the 1920s to the 1980s in varied materials: bronze, hot-dipped galvanized steel, basalt and granite. The diversity of materials attests to the interdisciplinary nature of the artist's practice, informed by his itinerant travels and belief that art is in a 'constant process of becoming'.
Noguchi shaped himself through diverse, wide-ranging experiences: persistent travel, relationships with many of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century, and work in maker cultures across three continents. He turned his passage through the world into a way of working – seeking universality, accumulating a breadth of awareness and reifying his understandings in a new/old sculpture meant to be of existential use to humanity. Much has been written about Noguchi's role as a bridge between East and West, but what is essential to understand, in the words of his great friend, the futurist R Buckminster Fuller, is that Noguchi purposefully 'to-and-froed' around the globe in order to make the 'eastward and westward extensions' of his 'great back and front yards finally [merge] in world encirclement.'
This Earth, This Passage (1962), the sculpture from which the exhibition takes its title, is a psycho-geographic model of life on Earth. Noguchi made it by walking over the yielding surface of a large coil of clay, to produce a form like the top of a submerged caldera. His footprints remain clearly visible in the final bronze casts, indexing the journey of making. This Earth, This Passage is a compact monument to the ecology of human existence – a physical metaphor for the endless seeking that defines our passage through life.
Noguchi's approach to sculpture was inspired in part by his work with the choreographer Martha Graham (1894–1991), for whom he made more than 20 dance settings over three decades. Graham's 1946 dance Dark Meadow (1946) was, she wrote, about 'the adventure of seeking [...] the re-enactment of the Mysteries that attend that adventure: remembrance of the ancestral footsteps, terror of loss, ceaselessness of loss, recurring ecstasy of the flowering branch.' She envisioned a dance about the cycles of life, not only biological but also personal, social and cultural. Noguchi's set exemplifies the extent to which he and Graham succeeded in making our internal geographies accessible as landscapes of the mind. Of his own design Noguchi wrote, 'It was my homage to Mexico. I made four primordial shapes to define space and as counterpoint to action. They are not stones, but serve the same purpose of suggesting the continuity of time. They move and the world moves.'
By looking beyond what he termed the false horizon of the museum pedestal – using everything he learned designing gardens, playgrounds and dance sets – Noguchi remade the practice of sculpture into a discipline for understanding our place in the universe, a way of transcending imposed limitations, and for integrating the best habits and effects of art making into daily life. The empirical intent of his philosophy is evident in the wizened right angle of Giacometti's Shadow (1982–83), a reworking of Giacometti's attenuated figures, as a tool of measurement, a reference point, still casting a long thin shadow.
Noguchi's legacy exists in the hybrid material culture he created to communicate how he thought about activating what it means to be human. His faith in our ability to connect beyond our collective doubts about our place in the order of things is present throughout the seven decades Noguchi worked as a sculptor.
One of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was an idealist whose timeless work blended ancient and modern ideas. An itinerant cultural synthesizer, he consistently rejected categorization and the false dichotomies of his time, espoused globalism and anticipated the social practice of art by several decades. Primarily a sculptor, Noguchi’s expansive, interdisciplinary practice included public projects, gardens, playgrounds, furniture, lighting and set design, all informed by an abiding view that nature was of fundamental importance to the human condition and a determination to make work which encouraged this belief.FULL PROFILE