NoguchiSCULPTURE AND DESIGN MUSEUM
THIS JUXTAPOSITION OF DELIBERATE GEOMETRY WITH NATURAL AND ACCIDENTAL IRREGULARITY GIVES THESE WORKS A POWERFUL FORMAL TENSION, SHOWING NOGUCHI AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS CREATIVE POWERS
Located in an industrial section of Long Island City, Queens, far from both the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile and the canyon of white cubes downtown, it is one of the most fully realised, yet most under appreciated art spaces in New York City. Designed and curated by Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi, and first opened in 1985, it is the only museum in the USA conceived of by a single artist and entirely dedicated to that artist’s work. The result is a synthesis of art, design, and architecture, woven together by a singular modernist visionary. A small entrance in the side of the building delivers you into a cool, spare lobby. From there, a pair of unassuming doors take you straight into one of the biggest and most unique spaces in the museum. A large roof looms over a semi open hangar before falling away, allowing a few birch trees to stretch their branches up into the open air. Cutout windows let in natural light, while lamps mounted on the ceiling illuminate the darker corners. Dampened sounds blow in on the breeze from the street above, and rough rock sculptures melt into the concrete walls. In the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum catalogue, a personal tour interspersed with cryptic art koan, Noguchi explains how he conceived of his spaces as gardens, not as sites with objects, but as relationships to a whole. This definition informs the configuration not only of this space, but of the entire building.
Noguchi bought this 2,200 square metre derelict gas station and metal working factory in 1962, converting it into a private studio and warehouse for an increasingly large scale body of work. The entry room is populated with late period sculptures from the 1970s and 1980s. They are ponderous and imposing slabs of granite and basalt, with tactile ridges and valleys that are eminently touchable. Predictably, however, the museum enforces a strictly hands off policy. Polished sections and geometric slices are cut into the remaining swathes of their rough, unaltered surfaces, dubbed by Noguchi the ‘skin’ of the stone. Crowbar chips and dynamite holes are evidence of the quarrying process, embracing found qualities alongside a determination to shape the raw material into art. This juxtaposition of deliberate geometry with natural and accidental irregularity gives these works a powerful formal tension, showing Noguchi at the height of his creative powers. He was a veteran artist by the time he made them, and they evince his lack of interest in notions of perfection – a theme he had pursued diligently in earlier phases of his career.
Inside the museum proper, the full span of Noguchi’s oeuvre is arranged in idiosyncratic, reverse chronology. Highly polished circles, spirals, and biomorphic shapes in marble dominate the back rooms on the ground and first floors, while steel cutouts, Brancusi inspired bronze abstracts, and skeletal wood and stone assemblages from the 1930s and post war period dot the galleries around them. It was these works that brought Noguchi initial acclaim, and eventually shows at MoMA in 1946, and the Whitney in 1968. His catalogue, however, is quick to dismiss some of these still brilliant pieces as examples of unformed juvenilia. On the top floor, models, drawings, and metal work are placed around smaller, multi part sculptures that emerge from the blond wood of the floor like icebergs. Photographs of sets designed for Martha Graham stand alongside diagrams from unrealised projects, providing a fascinating insight into the artistic process of their creator. Among them are dozens of proposed playgrounds resembling the surreal backdrops of Porky in Wackyland, all of which were rejected by the New York’s Parks Department Commissioner. Also preserved are examples of Noguchi’s much lauded industrial design, including a coffee table, Akari lamps, and a couch. Tired museum goers are permitted to drape themselves across this latter, drifting off no doubt into fantasies of filling their apartments with these sexy, low slung pieces of furniture, still produced by Herman Miller, and conveniently sold in the ground floor gift shop.
The heart of Noguchi’s museum is an outdoor rock garden, reached by a staircase descending from the top floor gallery. When standing beneath the crooked limbs of a Japanese pine, or strolling the path winding through this forest of sculptures, trees, and grey stones from the Esai River near Kyoto, New York City recedes into vague memory. Perhaps most enthralling of all the sculptures populating this central courtyard is Tsukubai, or ‘Waterstone’, a boulder of granite cut mirror flat on its top and bottom, out of which spills a continuous plane of water, trickling off the stone’s edges. While Noguchi designed many fountains over the course of his career, including enormous constructions for World’s Fairs and corporate lobbies, some of his most successful works are, like this one, simple and meditative. The black surface of the block shimmers so richly, you could stare into its depths for hours.