Beyond Looking – a review of ‘Looking Up: The Skyviewing Sculptures of Isamu Noguchi’

Proceed to Manhattan Bank Plaza. Element Study (CR# 514.01C). Isamu Noguchi, Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank, Element Study, 1961-1964. Coating, imitation granite paint. Noguchi Museum Archives, 00494. Photo by Kevin Noble. Image courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and The Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society.

Looking Up: The Panoramic Sculptures of Isamu Noguchi was curated exclusively for the Western Gallery, located on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham, by the Noguchi Museum’s senior curator, Dakin Hart. The exhibition brings together, for the first time, all of Noguchi’s sculptures looking up at the sky. With over 40 sculptures by Noguchi and several drawings, this collection investigates the often overlooked concept of “watching the sky” present in so many of Noguchi’s pieces. The Western Gallery describes the exhibition as an exhibition which, explores the various forms the theme of seeing the sky takes in the context of original works, comprising 60 years of Noguchi’s long career… Acting as observatories, reflecting telescopes or sundials, the sculptures trace the trajectory sun with cast shadows or lead the eye to the sky.

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors are greeted by a member of gallery staff, and are offered a map of the collection and the opportunity to take home a copy of Looking up: the panoramic sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, edited by the director of the Western Gallery, Hafthor Yngvason. The art book is heavy and it can be difficult to move around the gallery while trying to fully experience the pieces in the collection. However, visitors can enjoy the text, stories, and images inside before or after exploring space, and copies of the book are available for purchase in the university bookstore.

The gallery is dimly lit, cool and concrete. The sharp lines of the sculptures and the stone, metal and clay materials used to create them add to the post-war brutalist aesthetic of Noguchi’s work. Looking at the map, I noticed that the numbers corresponding to the rooms were inconsistent, there was no clear order – chronological or otherwise – to go through the gallery. When I asked the gallery staff member which direction is best to start, they informed me that as far as they know there is no desired path. I chose to go left.

Isamu Noguchi, Sculpture to see from Mars, 1947. Sand. Dimensions unknown. Noguchi Museum Archives, 01646. Photo by Soichi Sunami. Image courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and The Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society.

Immediately, I was greeted with a large note, inscribed on the wall, from the curator of the exhibition, Dakin Hart. Hart writes to visitors and supporters of Noguchi’s work: “Up is a relative concept, quite meaningless – especially in a cosmic sense. There is no top in space, and even here on Earth, top to bottom, right to left, just like east, west, north, south – are subject-specific conveniences which rely on, and primarily serve only to reinforce, our own views.” The absence of a clear path through the exhibition is intentional, the very theme of observing the sky, and Hart’s words on relativity, invite visitors to create their own path through the gallery.

Following the perimeter of the gallery, I stopped to look at each sculpture and drawing, and challenged myself to find the parts that spoke to the theme of the exhibition. However, I was quickly fascinated by the lines, curves and portals going in and out of the rooms. Two of Noguchi sky mirror the sculptures are present in the collection and may seem out of place when it comes to thinking about the theme of the exhibition. However, when looking at these sculptures from all angles, you will notice that the smooth surface of the rocks shows a blurry reflection of the sky – or in this case the ceiling – providing a uniquely distorted perspective of sky gazing.

As you walk through the gallery, lamps, sketches and sunken aspects of Noguchi’s work draw attention to circular openings pointing skyward. In the context of sky gazing, Noguchi’s lamps act as funnels, looking through and up. A model replica of Noguchi’s infamous Love at first sight… Memorial to Ben Franklin (1933), is a centerpiece of the exhibition and with its vertical entry point and hollowed out center it also serves as a channel to the sky.

The last piece of my voyage, a sculpture entitled Space transfer (1982-83), #3 on the exhibit floor plan, is an upright sculpture in hot-dip galvanized steel standing near the exit – or entrance – and is another room where, aside from the title, he was difficult to determine the relationship with the theme collections. There was no set in this room to see the sky from, no face looking at the top Where out, no mirror to reflect. However, taking a step back it is clear, certain pieces of the exhibition point the finger, while others offer points of view. Space transfer does the first, he points.

Model for Challenger Memorial (CR# 1129-m7)
Isamu Noguchi, model for Challenger Memorial, 1985-1987. Steel rods, plastic and adhesive tape. Courtesy of Noguchi Museum Archives, 02408. Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists’ Rights Society.

It goes without saying that Noguchi’s work is quite remarkable and certainly worth seeing in person. Knowing that the exhibition addresses such a specific theme, makes the visit to the space interactive for visitors, it goes beyond looking, it becomes a game of guessing, probing and analyzing each individual work. The relationship between Noguchi’s gazing sculptures and the Western Gallery is intimate, in large part because the Western campus is home to the large Sky gazing sculpture (1969). After leaving the gallery, the staff recommends that you take the brick path to Western’s “Red Square”. There you will find the large sculpture in black cubes. To fully appreciate this exhibition, I too invite you to walk under it and look up at the sky.

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