Noguchi’s Playscapes

Shotgun Review

Noguchi’s Playscapes

By Shotgun Reviews October 16, 2017

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Sarah Hwang reviews Noguchi's Playscapes at SFMOMA.


Noguchi’s Playscapes, on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, presents models, sketches, and photographs of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi’s playgrounds, playground equipment, and set designs. Noguchi believed that sculpture was a medium for sustainable design and could be applied to all aspects of living; his works are manifestations of this ideology.1 While his set designs exemplify his ability to demonstrate sculpture as an interdisciplinary form, Noguchi’s playground landscapes, or “playscapes,” best represent his intention to integrate sculpture into everyday living.

Isamu Noguchi. Slide Mantra Maquette, c. 1985. © the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Noble.

Originally conceived as a playground model for Central Park, Noguchi’s Model for Contoured Playground (1941, bronze-cast in 1964) looks more like a skate park than a playground. The tabletop-size model is in the shape of an amorphous circle. At one end is a hill with a slide carved into its side, and at the other is a contoured basin. Smaller curves, hills, and slides emerge from the landscape within and around the perimeter; it is reminiscent of Charles Jencks’s Landform (2001). Noguchi’s playground could be considered a precursor to Land Art. The artist’s model indicates the use of land as his material to design the playground, leaving no distinction between play sets and the land itself.

Noguchi also delved into creating play sets along with his playgrounds, most of which resembled military training equipment from his lifetime.2 His Models for Play Equipment (1966–1976) uses bright colors—red, marigold yellow, green, cobalt blue, and black—and geometric shapes, both angular and curvilinear, that recall Tetris blocks and complement his Miró-esque playscapes. On the SFMOMA gallery walls, photographs of his realized playgrounds in Japan and Atlanta show the works’ true scale as well as children’s enjoyment. 

Isamu Noguchi. U.S. Pavilion Expo ’70, 1968. © the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Noble.

Slide Mantra Maquette (ca. 1985) is the most sculptural of his play structures. Made from marble, it forms a spiral that gradually elevates to an apex with carved steps from one end, and descends back to the ground as a slide at the opposite end. Though this was modeled for his debut work at the 1986 Venice Biennale, it was still intended to be used as a slide, elevating playground architecture from functional object to high art. In an age when art education is constantly under threat of being defunded, Noguchi’s playscapes remind us of art’s value as a pedagogical tool that sparks creative learning and integrates easily with other disciplines.


Sarah Hwang is an arts professional based in the Bay Area and has an MA in art history. She is also on the advisory board of the Portland Street Art Alliance.

Noguchi's Playscapes is on view at SFMOMA in San Francisco through November 26, 2017.


  1. Wall text, Noguchi’s Playscapes, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA.
  2. Wall text, Models for Play Equipment, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA.

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