Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures are monuments of Zen Modernism. Although the collection of work spans six decades, there are consistent themes embodied within each sculpture. There are no leaps of faith or sudden corners that veer the artist’s playful explorations into strange or questionable territories. Noguchi’s work examines the same constructs of time, balance, and freedom that impact society today as they did for ancient civilizations. Eternal knobs of basalt are uplifted on pedestals of aluminum, gracefully interlocking in their mythic tale of form and space. On the shores of Astoria, we are briefly transported into a stoic corner of the mid-twentieth century.
The Noguchi Museum is the only single-artist museum in New York City. Initially, the exhibition space resembles the Dia Beacon due to the spacious concrete interiors and industrious windows. However, the garden and the upper level, with its peaceful skylights, brought a level of intimacy that the Dia Beacon lacks. At the Dia Beacon, questions I have about Robert Morris can be answered by Robert Smithson in the next room. A conversation is prompted not only between the viewer and the artist, but between artist to artist as well. The museum’s dedication to a single artist causes the viewer to quickly establish a relationship with Noguchi that is unavoidably personal. The viewer cannot project their energy or inquiries towards anyone else besides Noguchi. In turn, Noguchi’s sculptures hold their conversation exclusively with you: what do you think? How do we inhabit each other’s space? The absence
of museum labels also allow for a fluid viewing experience. There is a limited display of written information in smaller, tucked-away galleries reminiscent of coffee break rooms. A few blueprints, prototype models, and typed letters of grueling back-and-forth formalities address the agenda for the production (or rejection) of Noguchi’s designs. The viewer is surrounded by the same model of “magazine bullet” ash trays cast in plaster, stone, or glass. The repetition of this model conveys to us a form that is utilitarian, balanced, and dedicated to the simplicity of the material.
These themes continue as you enter the larger exhibition areas, greeted by gigantic stone sculptures. They are elongated, faceted, and unembarrassed by their cruder surfaces. Their bodies do not protrude, but invite you to investigate the recesses. The surface is interrupted by the artist’s methodical marks: a chip here and there, a deep gouge that resembles a hip. The clean sweeps upon the rough, bare surface of unpolished granite create contrast in both surface texture and gesture. The marks are sometimes rigid with intention as they are perfectly executed with undetectable seams and symmetry, effortless like cutting into a stick of butter. In Geode (1974), a perfect rectangle tunnels the smooth exterior. The planet has been interrupted by a meteor skidding across the surface. Yet the crudeness of the joints in the blocky wooden pedestals, complete with pencil marks and all,
is unexpectedly candid.
His relationship to the material is not one of a lion tamer and a lion, but of two friends who seek peace in sharing the same space. His craftsmanship does not overpower the material, even in large scale works such as Sun at Noon (1969). Their weightiness and demanding presence is respected. The stone may be polished and brought into the undulating, biomorphic style of modernity, but we never forget that we are looking at stone (as opposed to the flesh-like quality of Bernini’s figures, or Nicolás Guagnini’s ceramic tiles formatted as canvases).
The black-painted aluminum pieces emphasize negative space. Unlike piercing through cubic feet of stone, the thinner sheets of aluminum offer a more immediate arrangement of planes. In Solar (1958), a circle is bent out like a moon while another circle becomes an ear. According to how you walk around the piece, you begin to see positive space become negative, and negative space become positive. The punctured geometry that was once lurking from behind makes its way out to greet the viewer like a hand extending out of a shirt sleeve, as seen in Gregory (1945). There is a sense of push and pull, sinking and emerging. The playground models are excellent examples of using these spatial values creatively for utilitarian use. Stairs lead downward into pits, while soft hills become a child’s vantage point for hide and seek.
Let us compare Noguchi’s plaster model for Contoured Playground (1941) with Giacometti’s No More Play (1931-1932). Giacometti has created a landscape on a clean slab of marble. Miniature wooden figures stand in concave spherical dips in the land, while some figures appear to be lying in coffins. These cavities are repeated in the same shape and size on one flat plane surrounding the figures, creating an ominous sense of confinement. The sterile, cut forms transform Giacometti’s landscape into a necropolis, whereas Noguchi captures a sense of innocence and playfulness in the soft dunes. The contour of Noguchi’s playground varies in height and scale, and includes unique apparatuses for playing. His innovative approach breaks the conformity of ‘traditional’ play, presenting a utopian freedom in which there is no sense of threat, consequence, confinement, or ‘rules’ of the playground. Model for Contoured Playground (1941): https://www.noguchi.org/museum/exhibitions/view/in-search-of-contoured-playground/
Many of Noguchi’s sculptures address the continuum of time, but more importantly, the things that interrupt it. For example, we have Origin (1968) , Childhood (1970), and Black Planet (1973). Large, round masses take shape among a smattering of small gouges on the surface. When the hundreds of gouge marks accumulate, they reveal the pale color and rough texture of the stone. Contrasted against the glossy blackness of the polished areas, they become constellations in outer space. In Childhood, the marks blanket the entire piece which is perfectly round like a steamed bun; a tabula rasa. The forms and textures are analogies for the fundamental seasons of life, ancient processes that have existed since the beginning of time. They are the very embodiment of time. But what happens when the continuity is broken?
Origin (1968) : https://archive.noguchi.org/Detail/artwork/978
Your eyes follow the curvature of the pink and black marble in Downward Pulling #2 (c. 1972). You are expecting the loop to be completed: an affirmation of a closed circuit, that tail will meet head and roll away forever, so on and so forth. Instead, the two ends don’t meet at all. They stack up. The cycle has been broken and has introduced something new to the table: freedom. Perhaps it is freedom gained from breaking away from the constructs of time and expectation, or perhaps freedom of choice. While philosophers bicker amongst themselves about whether or not freedom is an illusion, Noguchi has set the stone free.
Downward Pulling #2 (1972): https://archive.noguchi.org/Detail/artwork/8718
Around the room, heavy-looking stones stand suspended by a single sheet of metal. The balance of the composition persuades you that the metal cutting into the stone is pain-free. It is a world in which two forms can meet and coexist, interrupting each other without disturbing each other. Pristine pedestals of silvery, stainless steel contrast with the bulky wooden pedestals by presenting a sense of weightlessness and refinement. The tension is stored in the point where they meet, the area where the viewer takes a closer look to examine the physics that made this interruption not only possible, but beautiful.
A personal favorite of mine is Night Wind (1970). It is a black rectangular slab of basalt that has a finished surface on the faces lengthwise but unfinished ends, balanced at the fulcrum on a wooden base. There is a subtle warp in the beam that gives it a torque, like something bent out of shape by powerful gusts. It reminded me of how slabs of clay can warp after being fired in the kiln if it retains too much ‘memory’ from warping during handling, or how planks of wood warp from absorbing moisture. However, Night Wind is not defective. It is not something that warped due to an accident; instead, it naturally assumed a shape that would help it adapt harmoniously to a particular circumstance.
As with all great artists in history, the impact of their legacy inspires more than fine art. Noguchi’s process reflected industrial and architectural strides of the twentieth century, influencing how production, industry, and design were integrated into modern art and vice versa. His patents have become recognized household objects: light sculptures, chairs, and the infamous glass-topped table. Walking through the Noguchi Museum, viewers develop a spatial relationship with his sculptures. Our awareness of their presence as we try to walk around them without disturbing their peace makes us another component of the Zen garden that is the exhibition gallery. The relationship between the viewer and the art is further emphasized in his public art. The massive pieces invite you to touch, play, stand on, and run through them, allowing us to be their missing counterparts.
Isamu Noguchi, who created innovative art and design in a time of post-war tensions and expanding technology, is a champion of modernity. The commissioned stainless steel sculpture News (1938) at the Associated Press Building in Rockefeller Center symbolizes freedom of the press, and is a particularly fitting representation of the idea ‘to be modern is to be free.’
Links for images are from the Noguchi Museum website.
Photo for News (1938) from Rockefeller Center website: https://www.rockefellercenter.com/blog/2017/01/24/real-news/