If you recognize Isamu Noguchi's name, it's probably as the designer of the curvy glass-and-wood coffee table he created for Herman Miller, an iconic symbol of the midcentury interior. Or perhaps you've seen one of his akari lamps, those undulating paper lanterns that lend a comforting glow to the severest of modern rooms. I owned a Noguchi akari once. (Sadly, it's no longer with me delicate paper lamps don't often survive multiple cross-country moves.) There was something pet-like about it, standing in the corner on its little black feet. It combined the friendliness of a nightlight with the cachet of pedigreed modern design, and it softened the Knoll credenza, the Eames shell chair and all my other sharp-edged thrift store finds.
I've since learned that Noguchi's furniture and industrial design covered a period of only 10 years or so, and wasn't something he cared to discuss in later life just one of many dichotomies in his life. "His reputation as a sculptor suffered from a longstanding involvement with design," says Bruce Altshuler, an NYU professor and former director of the Noguchi Garden Museum in New York, in an interview posted on the museum's web site (www.noguchi.org). "The sculptural qualities of Noguchi's lamps were appreciated, but their functional and commercial aspects were seen to compromise their status as objects of art."
Yet of all the midcentury Modernist gang, Isamu Noguchi is the only one whose work might be called spiritual. While his design work was right in step with his peers, his sculptures display a yearning for meaning that rebukes mere pragmatism. George Nelson, Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames all burned with a missionary zeal, but they wanted to change the world; Noguchi simply wanted to find his own place in it.
The story of Noguchi is one of warring contrasts. He was the illegitimate son of an American woman and a Japanese man; educated until the age of 13 in Japan, he was sent to the American Midwest as a teenager. (One can only assume that the seeds of his lifelong identity crisis were sown by these dislocations.) East and West, modern and ancient every aspect of his life and work was marked by opposing impulses. His art is the tangible expression of a man who described himself as "an irregular verb," always a Japanese man in America yet always an American in Japan. Modernism insists on the superiority of the new, sometimes even at the expense of beauty. Noguchi's paradox is that he was a modernist who prized the past, who saw tradition as an unbroken thread, not a shackle that had to be snapped.
Between Heaven and Earth: The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi collects 20 sculptures in the UCF Art Gallery. At the gallery entrance, you are confronted with a more symbolic entrance: "This Earth This Passage," a circle of bronze resting on the floor, resembling kneaded clay. (If you look closely, you'll see the artist's footprint.) Freudian implications aside, it's a fine introduction to Noguchi's recurring themes of transit and cross-cultural interaction. Also just inside the door is "Pregnant Bird," a flying curve of abstraction that exemplifies one of those opposing pairs: a ton of marble that looks weightless. These two pieces seen together underline the show's title heaven and earth.
Several of the pieces when seen from a distance seem to be untouched stones, elevated to the status of art only by being mounted on pedestals. Once you approach, however, the artist's hand is apparent. In "Worm Pyramid," a triangular chunk of granite, and "Young Mountain," a rough-dappled lump of sandstone, the unrefined exterior surfaces are carved through with polished, twisting passages of a geometrical precision, the empty volumes within contrasting with the solidity outside. (All that slabbed weight surrounding empty space suggests a buried loneliness.) The contrast of natural and industrial also pops up in "Vertical Man," a vaguely skull-shaped piece of travertine floating eye-level on a steel stand, ominously meticulous horizontal slashes cutting through the raw stone.
Other stone pieces are dreamscapes topography that seems instantly recognizable though it reflects no real terrain. Of "Double Red Mountain" and "Ziggurat," Noguchi said, "My works in this vein are landscapes really … they are landscapes of the mind." That these pieces refer to archetypal forms, Noguchi confirms: "Our familiarity extends beyond experience to memories of knowledge." The sculptures seem to have been plucked out of the far reaches of déjà vu, accessible to the viewer as a dream barely remembered.
At the end of his life, Noguchi seemed to come to terms with his duality. These enigmatic totems are clearly Japanese: "Ground Wind #2," a breeze through low grass made tangible in granite; "Suspended Not Suspended," the sound of a temple bell realized in obsidian. Instead of vacillating between the opposing tropes of tradition and technology, shadow and illumination, floating and grounded, these works allow the oppositions to converge.
But back to those famous lamps. The akari series embodies all the contradictions of Noguchi's work he considered them fine art, yet they're mass-produced; they are almost a cliché of the modern interior, yet they directly reference ancient Japanese lanterns in both form and process. The sometimes-asymmetrical forms are unmistakably handmade and altogether human. Rather than muffle the resonance of the past, the akaris vibrate with it.
Between Heaven and Earth is a coup for UCF. Noguchi's sculptures are rarely shown in traveling exhibitions; the cost of shipping tons of stone is prohibitive, and few facilities have enough space to allow these pieces room to breathe. (Still, the UCF gallery gets crowded fast; on my second visit, I noticed sculptures I hadn't appreciated the first time.) The worn wood floors harmonize with the rough stones and handmade paper; the lighting and judicious use of wall color show the work off admirably. Gallery director Theo Lotz, assistant director Janet Kilbride and their associates are to be congratulated. However, whether or not UCF will be able to host future exhibitions of this caliber remains to be seen. I recommend visiting on Saturday; on a Wednesday, I spent 20 minutes circling the campus looking for parking, lost $2 to a malfunctioning parking permit machine and had to have a $25 ticket (issued while I searched for a working permit dispenser) voided. Zen as it may be, it takes a hell of a paper lamp to smooth over a beginning like that.
(9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at UCF Art Gallery through March 5; Noguchi film series 2 p.m. every Saturday; lecture by Noguchi Museum curator Bonnie Rychlak 11 a.m. Feb. 14; 407-823-3161; free)firstname.lastname@example.org