Sculpture is tough. It’s hard to design. It’s hard to make. And it’s become harder and harder to see. At least, it has become much more difficult to see on the terms sculptors have long made their work. While I am a huge fan of modernism and the possibilities it unleashed, one of its echoes was a shift away from the figure. That alone might not sound like much, but the human figure is a unique standard. We all have bodies and hands, for example, so you don’t have to be a painting expert to sense that a painting of a hand feels “right” – or if it feels “off.”

Similarly, the serpentine shift of the body in space (we stand with our weight on one leg, and this subtlety in art is called “contrapposto”) has led to centuries of sculptural nuance. And when sculpture first wandered into objects and abstraction, it only succeeded by speaking to an audience aware of and drawn to this level of sophistication.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was born in Los Angeles. His father was Yone Noguchi, an acclaimed Japanese poet. His mother was the American writer Léonie Gilmour, one of Noguchi’s editors. Their son, in many ways, was caught between the two cultures. He was a success in both places, and yet he was always seen as the “other” – never quite an American, never quite fully Japanese.

However ill-wrought and tumultuous his critical fortunes were during his lifetime, Noguchi is rightly coming into focus as the zenith of America’s mid-century modernism and the model for post-war American sculpture. Noguchi’s work was warm and subjectively organic in feel, unlike the steely cold cubes of, say, David Smith. Noguchi delivered the lessons of Brancusi to an American idiom of personal expression.

Noguchi ping-ponged back and forth between the U.S. and Japan but had returned by 1937 to New York City, where he designed “Zenith Radio Nurse,” the seminal baby monitor now esteemed as a plum point of American design: The brown Bakelite form resembles an art deco microphone and is included among several objects in an out-of-the-way vitrine at the Portland Museum of Art’s “Beyond the Pedestal: Isamu Noguchi and the Borders of Sculpture.” It’s a hidden gem, but it’s a gem among diamonds in the PMA’s extraordinary show.

Akari are Noguchi’s paper light sculptures. Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Anti-Japanese xenophobia dug deep into Noguchi’s life. Like the great and then-hugely-famous Maine painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, (1889-1953), Noguchi spent much of World War II in an American concentration camp. It is clear his reputation suffered for his Japanese name and heritage. But as his influence is becoming undeniable, the cobwebs are slowly being wiped away. Noguchi was a sculpture and design genius. His work was brilliant and exciting, and we see its echoes everywhere – and we’ll see it even better the more we can admit the pervasiveness of industrial design.

Noguchi became an unsung star with Herman Miller Company. Along with Charles Eames, Noguchi was part of a team that changed American design. Their chairs, coffee tables, and furniture created the American idea of “modern design.” Even today, some of Noguchi’s designs are standard fare for the swankiest of American offices.

The PMA’s show does a remarkable job of balancing Noguchi’s public designs with his drawing, concentration camp work, industrial design and artistic sculpture. It feels like the Noguchi Museum (in Long Island City, N.Y.) people did the bulk of the curating, but, not knowing, we shouldn’t hand that mantle to them: The PMA curators have done an excellent job over the past couple of years (particularly Andrew Eschelbacher – a sculpture expert – and Jessica May) of installing design elements and sculpture.

Table, 1971, marble, 2 by 52 by 17 inches. Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

“Beyond the Pedestal” is loaded. Featuring 40 sculptural objects and 10 works on paper, it is a rare full-throated view of America’s greatest modernist sculptor. (Yup, that’s the deal: Sorry David Smith fans … but not really.) The PMA treats us to most facets of Noguchi’s quiver: drawing, furniture, object design, bronze floor works, wall-pieces, design vignettes (such as for his great installation “Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?” – the American representation at the 1986 Venice Bienniale – and maquettes for the play sculptures for children Noguchi so valued.

Word on the street is that one of those sculptures, “Play Sculpture”– a large orange-red writhing pipe system – is likely coming permanently to the PMA. If that happens, it will be a coup for Maine and the PMA.

“Slide Mantra Maquette,” Botticino marble, 27 by 29 by 27 inches. Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

“Beyond the Pedestal” leads with a small maquette of a marble-like play sculpture, a crown-like set of stairs and slide object that makes Noguchi’s compact design more than readily apparent. Also within the front space of the main gallery is a stone bench installation. I regularly visited one of these near my place of work in Seattle, and it only really occurred to me over the course of years how brilliant and understated the work really was. So while I saw this piece with familiar eyes, all I can suggest to other viewers is patience.

The stage installation works are fine, but because of their theatricality, they might stand out too much over the more subtle works that had so much more of a significant effect on American sculpture. A rope-like object running up to the ceiling with a photo of a ballet dancer, after all, is more likely to catch most of our eyes than a brown bronze circular-ish form that reaches no more than an a couple of inches from the floor. Noguchi’s design for Beinecke Library’s sunken garden at Yale, also, is painfully underdeveloped in terms of context: Gordon Bunshaft, the lead designer of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, worked with Noguchi on the sunken gardens for the seminal Lever House (NYC’s first glass curtain-wall slab building) and the Beinecke – a thin-skinned marble box of a building that is possibly the most exciting interior of any building ever designed in America (the marble glows with light at sunset).

“Memorial to Buddha,” 1957, (partially reconstructed 1978), bronze, plaster and wood. Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Noguchi’s goal, as he explained it, was “to order and animate space.” We see this in every phase of his work. Whether it is his gorgeously subtle Japanese paper lights – the “Akari” – or his astoundingly sculptural tables, chairs and couches.

In fact, it is a couch and coffee table set that the PMA brilliantly uses to punctuate the show. Having seen Noguchi’s vast range of design and sculpture inclinations, the couch seems practically inevitable. It brings into focus the fundamental social humanism deep at work within his entire oeuvre.

There is so much to see, but in the end, Noguchi’s human touch – his tables, chairs, couches and regular designs – deliver the clear message that Noguchi was always a true man of the people.

And because we’re still here, so is Noguchi. For years, our cultural logic and sensibilities have ever turned more and more toward the directions Noguchi sought to point out for us. With every year, it’s easier to see that he has long been leading the way.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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