If you like hanging out in high-end lighting shops, the Barbican art gallery is the place for you right now. Paper lampshades are everywhere, from tall wavy ones on the floor to deluxe versions of the spherical lantern shades you can buy anywhere. Beautifully spaced, warm with glowing light, artfully ornamented with objects in stone, ceramics and bronze, this survey of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is a must for design buffs – and a total bore for anyone in search of true art.
There is no punch to it, no emotional or psychic energy, just a gentle progress of clever but harmless creations. There couldn’t be a sharper contrast with the Barbican’s eye-opening recent show of the great iconoclast Jean Dubuffet, in which every ugly quirk of art brut gripped you. Noguchi’s smooth creations in the same spaces didn’t even fill my mind for the time I looked at them. It was as if they had no reality at all.
In films that you can watch while sitting on his own furniture, Noguchi comes across as a nice and creative man. In one clip he sits on a piece of playground equipment he designed and chats to his mentor, the architect Buckminster Fuller.
Playgrounds were a lifelong interest, a utopian social space that satisfied Noguchi’s belief in the life-enhancing power of sculpture. Born in the US in 1904, but raised partly in Japan, he trained in cabinet-making before seeking out the pioneer of abstraction, Constantin Brâncuși, in his Paris studio and beginning his own art career in 1920s New York.
Brâncuși’s radically simplified forms inspired him. Then Fuller showed him how abstract art can serve society. And that’s the trajectory you can see for yourself on the gallery’s upper floor where his development is neatly narrated. Noguchi’s first sculptures are manifestly Brâncuși-like, such as his 1928 piece, Globular, which echoes the Paris master’s curvy, art deco metallic sexiness. And this sets the pattern, for Noguchi was an all too faithful pupil of the pioneer modernists.
In this, he is typical of artists in New York and London in the 1920s and 30s – the real edge of modern art was in continental Europe. You might be hoping to see Noguchi brilliantly blend western and Japanese ideas in a global modernism all of his own.
I think that’s what the curators want to believe he’s doing. But instead, he emerges as the New York equivalent of Henry Moore or Ben Nicholson, producing beautiful but completely tame abstractions derived in a muted way from hardcore European originals. Thus a roomful of biomorphic, surrealistic figures are timid imitations of much more disturbing sculptures by Picasso and Giacometti.
What struck me most is how nice these objects would look in a smart luxury house or apartment. Noguchi makes you see the history of modern art in a new, and disappointing, way. We love to picture modernism in the 20th century as a story of revolution and resistance, from the dadaists defying the first world war to Picasso throwing paint in fascism’s face. But Noguchi reveals the cosier side of modern art: producing a new kind of abstract elegance to decorate the homes of the rich.
Some will see his readiness to move from pure to applied art, his facility for beautifying a room, as radical. That’s probably why this exhibition is on now: because Noguchi can be seen as a “utopian” and “progressive” artist who sought to give sculpture a social function. But was the Bakelite baby monitor he designed in 1937 really radical? I can’t imagine the starving sharecroppers were hungry for stylish tech. And they probably didn’t need the streamlined car he modelled for Fuller, either.
Noguchi’s heart was in the right place: he campaigned against racism and fascism in the 30s. But his love of a nice shape in a well-structured space made him helplessly aesthetic and high-class. His stuff just can’t communicate anger or pain. Out of his experience of an Arizona internment camp for Japanese Americans during the second world war came his 1945 wall relief My Arizona, with a jolly red plastic panel over part of its ridged yet harmonious white surface. It would be great in a high-end kitchen. It certainly isn’t anxious. Even his design for a memorial to the Hiroshima dead strikes me as too graceful.
After the war, he spent more time in Japan, and hit on his most ingenious connection of traditions when he worked with a lantern-making firm to create his Akari light sculptures. They’re probably his biggest legacy but a design classic is not the same thing as a great work of art. I found myself staring instead at the rugged columns of the Barbican, which at least have some brutal poetry.
• At the Barbican from 30 September.