Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design
Seattle Art Museum
100 University St, 654-3100
Through Sept 5

An Evening with Robert Wilson
Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St, 654-3121
Thurs Jun 30, 6 pm, ticket required.

The sculptures of Isamu Noguchi are not impressive. They don't make the mind think or the heart beat. His work, particularly his public and garden art, tends to just be there, filling up some quiet space. His sculptures are soundless and super still. Noguchi is the master of the thoughtless; his empty forms seem to be the work of the hands alone rather than hands directed by a charged brain. When we see, for example, a piece like Becoming or Leda, it reminds us of something secreted and molded by a languid insect. Other pieces seem to have been shaped by a beaver. And this, of course, is the intention; one of Noguchi's main goals in art was to erase the line between human design and natural evolution.

Noguchi was born in 1904 to an American mother and Japanese father. He spent a rather sad childhood in Japan, and a rather happy young manhood in New York City and Paris, studying and producing art. By his late 20s, Noguchi was well on the way to becoming one of the most famous sculptors of the 20th century. He died in 1988 of old age. His work can now be found everywhere, and it's almost impossible for a human being with some amount of education to go through life without once hearing his name. The man's impact on our world was total.

But that's the only impressive thing about Noguchi—the enormous size of his oeuvre. What he actually made was hardly exciting, moving, or groundbreaking. His public art never jumps at you, never attacks. You will not find an ounce of political agitation in his sculptures, and none of his tables have a word to say about the state of things. His chairs are as silent as his bronze busts. The ruling mood of his work is serenity. The objects that came out of his studios in Long Island City and Kita Kamakura were as serene as tranquilized hospital patients. And it is this quality (the calmness of his art) that gained him fame in America. Restless occidentals like to surround themselves with oriental things that express eternal inner peace.

Yet the people closely associated with Noguchi made art that was forceful. The works of Constantin Brancusi (Noguci's mentor) are charged with beauty, and the theatrical works of Robert Wilson (Noguci's acolyte) are consistently ambitious and political. (Wilson's opera The Life of Joseph Stalin is 12 hours long!) And it is Wilson's ambition that makes the traveling installation Isamu Noguchi—Sculptural Design impressive and noisy. Composed of four environments (the first is a dark theater, the second is a colorful living room, the third is a garden at dusk, the last is an aluminum factory) that display a wide range of Noguchi's output, the exhibit is exceptional because it deemphasizes the sculptor's quiet creations and emphasizes the set designer's loud genius. Isamu Noguchi—Sculptural Design is about Robert Wilson.

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What you experience as you walk through the four rooms is not the strangeness of a work (or works) of art within a work of art, but the completeness of one work of art that happens to use Noguchi's creations as its raw material. In the way that the famous sculptor used bronze, marble, granite, bamboo, and cherry wood to make his serene stuff, Wilson uses this serene stuff to make a vibrant work of art. This is why the objects in the exhibit are not labeled, and no reason is given as to why one thing is over here and the other over there. The furniture, the Akari lamps, the small and large sculptures, the cutlery and cups, the radios (the best thing Noguchi ever made), the little swimming pool—every piece of art in Sculptural Design has surrendered its substance and name to a new master.

Wilson's exhibit is not the first to usurp Noguchi. Bryan Ohno Gallery's 1999 exhibit of the sculptor's work, Isamu Noguchi, was remarkable not for its content but the installation's design, which was by local architects George Suyama and Jay Deguchi. The harsh floors, the paper-covered walls, the black ceiling, and the lighting dominated what was on display. And maybe that is the essential problem with a serene work of art: It doesn't have the force to defend itself from the force of others (which explains why Constantin Brancusi exerted an abnormally long influence on Noguchi's imagination). A tranquil object is always a vulnerable object. ■