Isamu Noguchi, Biomorphic Art and Design

Isamu Noguchi, Biomorphic Art and Design

Isamu Noguchi, Trinity, 1945, Gregory, 1948, Strange Bird (To the Sunflower)
Photo taken from the Hirshhorn’s Facebook page

Biomorphic and anthropomorphic themes run through quite a few exhibitions of modern artists in Washington at the moment.  The Hirshhorn’s Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York has several of the abstract, biomorphic Surrealists such as Miro and Calder.  The wonderful exhibition will come to a close after this weekend.

Isamu Noguchi’s many sculptures that are part of Marvelous Objects deal with an unexpected part of the artist’s life and work. Noguchi was interned in a prison camp in Arizona for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Whatever the horrors of his experience, he dealt with it as an artist does — making art and using creativity to express the experience by transforming it.

Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1944

Lunar landscape comes from immediately after this difficult time period. The artist explained, “The memory of Arizona was like that of the moon… a moonscape of the mind…Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent — an illusion within the confines of a room or a box — where imagination may roam, to the further limits of possibility and to the moon and beyond.”   It’s like taking tragedy and turning it into magic.

Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945 Noguchi Museum, NY

The most interesting piece from this period is Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945.  It is pictured here 2x — on top photo, right side, and from a different angle on the left, from a photo in the Noguchi Museum. Between 1945 and 1948, Noguchi made a series of fantastic hybrid creatures that he called memories of humanity “transfigurative archetypes and magical distillations.”  Yet the simplicity and the Zen quality I expect to see in his work is gone from this time of his life.

From the beginning of time, “humans have wanted a unifying vision by which to see the chaos of our world.  Artists fulfill this role,” said Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

I’m reminded of the ancient Greeks who created satyrs and centaurs to deal with their animal nature.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s a small Greek sculpture of a man and centaur from about 750 BCE, the Geometric period.  The  man confronting the centaur seems to be taming him or subduing his own animal nature. Like Noguchi’s sculpture, it has hybrid forms and angularity, but it’s made of bronze.  Noguchi’s sculpture is of smooth green slate, which gives it much of its beauty and polish.

Man and Centaur, bronze, 4-3/4″ mid-8th century BCE Metropolitan Museum

Noguchi was a landscape architect as well as a sculptor. When designing gardens, he rarely used sculpture other than his own.  Yet he bought garden seats by ceramicist Karen Karnes.  A pair of these benches by Karnes are now on display at the National Museum for Women in the Arts’ exhibition of design visionaries.  Looking closely, one sees how she used flattened, hand-rolled coils of clay to build her chairs.  The craftsmanship is superb.  It’s easy to see how her aesthetic fit into Noguchi’s refined vision of nature.

Karen Karnes, Garden seats, ceramic, from the Museum of Arts in Design, now at NMWA
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

The New Wave in Design

Various artists designed soundproof wall panels in The Next Wave, 21st century design show

Congratulations to the Artisphere in Arlington, Va. for showcasing the latest in contemporary industrial design.  The Next Wave: Industrial Design Innovation in the 21st Century is an exhibition curated by Douglas Burton of Apartment Zero.  It’s a kaleidoscope of many different designers from around the world, brought together in a pleasing, well-integrated exhibition. 

Stacking Drawers by Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay, Israel

The objects and furniture taken together become a peaceful setting to make us dream and think about where and how good design and convenient living can come together.  Sleek black and white are mixed with a selection of greens, reds and yellows.  This exhibition’s design is superb; it’s a treat for the eyes.  Considering that these designers did not plan their pieces to be shown with other designers, this installation is one that shows well as an ensemble.

Most objects were functional, but the only “machine” to catch my eye was a vacuum cleaner. My photos show some objects, but there was also a selection of light fixtures which didn’t make the pictures.

According the Burton, the curator:  “Industrial design is the creation and development of concepts that optimize the function, value and appearance of products for our mutual benefit.”  Since the Bauhaus was founded in Germany in the early 20th century, the marriage of  form and function in industrial design has been strong.  At times, architects have enjoyed playing the role of sociologist and have gotten into the process, too.  Good industrial design propelled Apple Computer to great success, because its founder, Steve Jobs, was obsessive about good design.  It paid off!

Bodo Sperlein of Germany designed  the Re-Cyclos Equus Set, while Lladro of Spain made it.

The cleverness of designers always intrigues me, and ingenious ideas abound in this show.  Josh Owens’ SOS Stool doubles a stool with cup holders, or as a table (photo on bottom).  The Re-Cyclos Equus Set (above) features teapots and cups composed of horses’ heads and legs.  It puts an ultra modern spin on an age-old practice in furniture design, reminding me how the ancient Egyptians uses lions’ claws for the feet of their chairs.  

Happy Family by Beau Oyler, Jared Aller

Admittedly, I like all of these designs but am slow to buy it and live with it.  It is so clean, so perfect and how many of us actually live so orderly?  Most of these designs are a great look for urban apartment living.    Even if I wouldn’t necessarily buy the products, it’s inspiring to think about good design and restful to ponder the results.  As Burton asserts at the entrance to the exhibit: “It is innovation in design that allows us to experience moments of engagement and inquiry.”

There are several examples of fiber arts.  Many of the designers work with recycled materials.  One of the most interesting was a rug made out of the inner tubes of used bicycles.  Mani Marquina and Ariadna Miguel of Spain designed Bicicleta Rug.  Made of rubber, it’s easy on the feet. I’d like to have it on my kitchen floor to cushion my feet while cooking.  If I need more shelf space, or a places to put  utensils, books and plants, Happy Family (shown above right) is a modular hanging shelf made of recyclable polypropene and connected with magnets.  When there is company, Kaleido-Trays (below) is colorful and makes for easy storage.

Clara Von Zeigbergk of Denmark designed Kaleido Trays,  while Thomas Shiner designed Seminar Bench


A mix of accessories by various designers

Arlington is to be congratulated and thanked for its commitment to supporting the arts, with its numerous theaters, gallery spaces for emerging artists and for educational outreach. The Artisphere Yarn Bomb is up now, too, carving a trail for pedestrians to follow with its vivid colors.  Just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, Arlington’s art scene, along with the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, add to the rich art scene that’s already in DC.

The exhibition closes on Sunday, May 19th. It has already been up around 3 months, so I thank designer friend Amanpreet Birgisson for telling me about it. For more information contact: [email protected] or

Josh Owen designed the SOS stools; behind is the Passion Chair by Philippe Starcke


Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016