Isamu Noguchi's work has a lot to say about what relevant art is and how the criteria change over time.

He did not lack prominent exhibitions.

The all-round artist was represented early on by hip galleries in New York and Europe and recognized by purchases from renowned museums;

In 1958 the man with an American and Japanese passport took part in the Brussels World Exhibition, then in 1959 and 1964 at the Documenta, and in 1968 he was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

In 1986, shortly before his death, he made his solo appearance in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

There he came up with a daring entry, a spiraling marble slide.

So this sculptor has not been overlooked, although he has had to take some criticism if he was even mentioned in the large group exhibitions.

In the New York Times, Hilton Kramer called “so much aesthetic refinement and so little power” “depressing”.

The polemics range from “obtrusive designer simplicity” to the impression of “accidentally ending up in a lamp shop”, and the word “ridiculous” is even mentioned once.

Between sculpture, design and garden art, his work still seems quirky, sometimes quirky.

The overview now in Cologne's Museum Ludwig will undoubtedly bring new followers to the artist, who was born in 1904 as the son of an Irish-American teacher and a Japanese poet.

In the catalogue, fellow artist Danh Vo is enthusiastic about how someone “constantly modified and updated his own approach”, thinking in “transnational definitions and categories”.

Noguchi's curiosity about the most diverse materials is contagious - basalt, steel and iron, ceramics, paper and slate.

Noguchi's childhood and youth are transnational, taking him from California to Tokyo, Chigasaki and Yokohama in 1918 to a boarding school in Indiana and then to New York, where he secures his livelihood as a young portrait sculptor.

Throughout his life, the globetrotter traveled incessantly and extensively in the United States, Europe and Asia, mostly with fixed goals in mind, such as in 1927, when he offered himself as an assistant to the artist Constantin Brancusi in Paris, to work in his studio for half a year and to get some inspiration before moving on to London.

When he returned to the Big Apple in 1929, he befriended the dancer Martha Graham and Richard Buckminster Fuller - Noguchi portrayed his head as a chromed bronze, giving the architectural visionary a New Man look, with a mercury liquid, reflective, immensely futuristic countenance , which could have been the inspiration for the band Kraftwerk as well as the work of Thomas Schütte.

In 1932, together with "Bucky", Noguchi created the sleek models of the Dymaxion Car, which was intended to advance individual transport on the road, in the air and on water, but was not intended to go into series production.

From the numerous other portraits of friends and contemporaries to an anonymous, hermetic "Hiroshima mask" made of iron from 1954, an author seems to be speaking in the plural, an artist who shows no interest in a stylistically straightforward, recognizable work.

Thematically, too, Noguchi defines his thoroughly political work in a conceivable breadth.

In 1934, for example, he commemorated the lynching of the African American George Hughes with a hanging sculpture, after shortly before designing the Bakelite housing for an alarm clock, which then went into mass production.

Even those who have never heard the name Isamu Noguchi should know his "Coffee Table", a knee-high, glass kidney-shaped table from 1944, or his Akari lamps made of paper.

In the heyday of an autonomous canon of forms such as Concrete Art and Minimal Art, Noguchi neither shied away from traditional bronze, nor did he suppress his penchant for the narrative and the anecdotal.

Since figuration and abstraction were treated as opposites in a fierce ideological dispute at the time, the always corporeal expression of Noguchi's sculpture could not hope to be popular everywhere - it appears playful, bulging, swollen, whimsical, as in some figures from the 1950s that have body fragments or joints let think.

As early as 1928, Noguchi noted that he wanted to create “something alive”, creating forms that “imply imminent movement”.

Whether biomorphic or anthropomorphic, influences from Jean Arp and Henry Moore to Louise Bourgeois could have entered this work everywhere.

In a human-sized sculpture called Mortality, Noguchi dangles a few raw logs: so seldom simple in this oeuvre, so compelling.

At the end of the exhibition, the (unrealized) "Sculpture to be Seen from Mars" from 1947 is thrown on the wall in a large projection: a stylized face that grows up from the sand as a relief and wanted to be seen from the plane.

Two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Noguchi reacted to the imminent destruction of the earth by the atomic bomb.

As a result of a purchase by the Ludwig Museum, Cologne has retained a red-lacquered wave that forms an elegant and flawless circle: “Play Sculpture”, designed in 1965, Noguchi’s answer to Donald Judd.

Art for children to touch.

Overall, it is a flexible artistry that accounts for this oeuvre, less the singular individual work.

Should the spirits continue to differ?

As early as 1942, the polyglot spirit Isamu Noguchi saw himself committed to a credo that is more understandable today than it was then: “Being hybrid sets the course for the future.”

Isamu Noguchi.

Museum Ludwig, Cologne, until July 31.

The catalog from Prestel Verlag costs 35 euros.

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