Living Sculpture: Isamu Noguchi’s Spider Dress Springs to Life

The artist’s collaborations with dancer Martha Graham brings new meaning to the work of both.

Martha Graham with Spider Dress and Serpent for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart, 1946. Photo: Cris Alexander. © INFGM / ARS – DACS

Sculpture and the human body become one in this shot of Martha Graham, the ground-breaking modern dancer who was known for testing the boundaries of expression in a quest to “reveal the inner man.” She collaborated with artist and architect Isamu Noguchi on numerous occasions, and is pictured here wearing his Spider Dress, while balancing on another sculpture known as Serpent. These artworks are among those created for Graham’s 1946 production Cave of the Heart, a retelling of the Greek myth of Medea, in which she plays the central character.

“Graham slides into the dress and dances, in a twisted explosion of metal and limbs”

The classical tale focuses on a gendered portrayal of jealously, in which a scorned woman is so consumed by her husband’s betrayal that she murders her own children. In Graham’s version, it moved beyond a parable for monstrous and unnatural female behaviour and becomes an allegory for the transformative power of human nature.

The spider dress, which could seem like a cage, spends most of the performance on stage as a menacing inanimate object. However, as the final scene reaches its climax, Graham slides into the dress and dances, seemingly revelling in the horror of her actions, in a twisted explosion of metal and limbs. For Noguchi, the sculpture was a “dress of transformation”, while Graham dubbed it “a chariot of flames”.

Holly Black is Elephant’s managing editor



Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 9 January 2022