Isamu Noguchi's light sculptures—Akari, a term he coined, which translates loosely as light or illumination—are so familiar, it's easy to ignore them amidst the slew of knock-offs that litter the contemporary design landscape. But anyone interested in understanding why Noguchi's Akari remain a singular artistic achievement may want to visit
Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, a joyful, exceedingly beautiful exhibit currently on view at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York. Equally captivating to children and adults, the exhibit is also poetic and moving, much like Akari themselves, presenting a comprehensive overview of the hundreds of paper forms Noguchi created, dating back to the 1950's, and features a series of installations that includes the largest-ever Akari the artist designed.
Noguchi, the son of a Japanese poet and American writer, was one of the 20th Century's great sculptors, a prolific creative force who blurred the line between art and design with an oeuvre that comprised monumental stone sculptures , interior design schemes, stage set designs, and, arguably, the most replicated coffee table of the modern age. But for Noguchi, who was deeply informed by his Japanese heritage, the Akari series remains the most visually direct link to his paternal homeland. Akari: Sculpture by Other Means provides an illuminating history of Noguchi's lighting designs, their inception originating in a 1951 visit to Gifu City, a small Japanese town famous for paper lanterns made from the bark of the mulberry tree. Devastated by the war, and seeking a path to revitalization, Gifu City's mayor sought Noguchi's help in modernizing his town's paper lantern-making industry. The light bulb and Noguchi's finely tuned eye for elegant forms turned the traditional candle-lit Japanese paper lantern into the glowing light sculptures for which the artist may be best known today.
The importance of Akari within the enviable body of work Noguchi left behind, will, no doubt, continue to be debated. The intrinsic fragility, popularity, and relative accessibility of the works—qualities that Dakin Hart, Senior Curator of the Noguchi Museum, accurately describes as 'collapsable and lightweight; easily stored, shipped and installed...' automatically render these light sculptures lesser works in a world-renowned career. But Noguchi himself clearly felt otherwise, choosing to include Akari in his Venice Biennale installation, alongside undeniably important works in stone and marble. “For me, function was only an initial consideration; my main purpose has always been art as it relates to life. I work with the gamut of possibilities. Inherent in Akari are lightness and fragility. They seem to offer a magical unfolding away from the material world.” Much as this beguiling exhibit unfolds—magically.
On the main floor of the exhibit, an installation of Akari Clouds, featuring orbs of varying sizes, greets visitors.