Isamu Noguchi

United States Pavilion, Biennale

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate centerpiece for Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale than Slide Mantra, 1986. This sweeping white marble spiral incorporates many of the central influences on his work of the past 50 years, including Modernist biomorphic abstraction and the carefully considered, meditative naturalism of Japanese gardens. It demonstrates as well his profound sensitivity to the sensuous properties of materials, and reflects the dual role Noguchi has taken for himself as a sculptor: as a creator both of formally expressive objects and of environments for people to use. The spiraling marble form, geometric and natural at the same time, is also an elegant slide that seems to have been lifted from some empyreal playground. One attendant at the pavilion even stood by the little interior steps at the back of the piece urging passersby to take off their shoes and go for a slide, and many took her up on the offer.

In the atmosphere of the Biennale, half art exhibition and half carnival, Slide Mantra was a surefire hit, simultaneously grandiose and innocent, profound and playful. Its implicit reference to the playground designs that are prominent in Noguchi’s work was continued inside the pavilion, in bronze models for various unrealized playgrounds, from Play Mountain, 1933, to several versions of the playground he proposed for New York’s Riverside Park in the early ’60s. The design for the pavilion installation, on which the artist collaborated with the architect Arata Isozaki, sandwiched this public Noguchi between two 1986 sculptures that emphasize his use of largely unworked organic materials to create intimate, almost meditative works. The five rough stones of Beginnings, spotted around the gallery like the rock islands in a Japanese garden, were matched by Ends, an approximately six-foot-square hollow cube, formed of six granite slabs, with simple chisel marks slashed into its faces. Counterbalancing these in turn was the Tetrahelix, 1986, a large steel geometrical form that Noguchi, in his catalogue text, describes as "the mysterious link of creation.”

Of all the works in the exhibition it was Noguchi’s araki, the “light sculptures” he has made out of rice or mulberry-bark paper and wire since the early ’50s, that embodied most forcefully the apparently irresolvable contradictions of his work. Looking like nothing more than paper lanterns, these delicate structures restate formal themes—spheres, beehives, twin horned shapes, twisted columns—familiar from Noguchi’s work in other materials, but they draw as much on the Japanese sense of design, in which formal beauty can coexist with usefulness, as on the idealism of Modernist art. Reportedly, the diversity of the works exhibited puzzled some European critics used to sharper distinctions between fine and applied arts. But this installation represented well the oppositions that Noguchi bridges in his work—between found organic form and geometric abstraction, between the virtual space of sculpture and the real space of public parks and gardens, between East and West.

Charles Hagen