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Isamu Noguchi sitting on a chair / Photo: Jun Miki. Published by Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isamu_Noguchi.jpg

More than 20 years after the Vitra Design Museum’s “Sculptural Design” show, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne is dedicating the first comprehensive retrospective in Europe to the American-Japanese sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904 to 1988). Noguchi is one of the great sculptors of the 20th century. His life and work were shaped by the confrontation with the social and political issues of his time, by experiences of violence and racism, pain and oppression, but also by questions of identity and belonging. He himself was confronted with racism when he was interned for several months by the American government in one of the camps after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942, together with 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent.

Those interested in design are particularly familiar with his Akari lamps and his sculpturally shaped tables and sofas. Noguchi’s work is characterised as much by an expanded understanding of sculpture and the question of man’s relationship to the earth as by his feeling for material and his fascination for technology. His thinking, says the museum’s announcement, “was in every respect boundary-crossing, transnational and radically interdisciplinary”. Always in search of the connection between art and life, Noguchi created autonomous sculptures, monuments with a political statement, light objects, furniture, stage sets, playgrounds and gardens. Noguchi was Constantin Brancusi’s assistant in Paris when he was young and often travelled for years to Europe and Asia, to India and Mexico. In China he studied brush drawing, in Japan he experimented with pottery and garden art.

The retrospective begins with portraits – heads and figures, figurative and abstract. The focus is on Noguchi’s surrealist sculptures from the 1940s, which are reminiscent of human body parts that interlock like bones. From 26 March to 31 July, a total of 150 works from all creative phases will be on display. The exhibition, which would not have been possible without the support of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York, was curated by the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and the Barbican in London and organised together with the LaM (Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut). The last room of the show features Noguchi’s design for “Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars (Memorial to Man)”, conceived in 1947, two years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but never realised.

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