Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Stillness in the City: The Raw Grace of Noguchi’s Nimble Constructions

from the article,

A smallish, triangular plot enclosed by high walls, it has benches, shade trees, walkways snaking between areas of loose, rounded stones and elegant abstract sculptures carved from various kinds of rock carefully placed here and there. A basalt polyhedron has water flowing up from its interior and coating its sides like a second skin. Created by the Japanese-American artist and designer Isamu Noguchi, the garden is so beautifully composed and so peaceful that it is sure to soothe even the most harried New Yorker’s soul.

Strolling through the museum’s cool, quiet, evenly lighted galleries is pleasant, too. The current exhibition, “Noguchi ReINstalled,” opened this summer in anticipation of the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2010. It presents about 200 works dating from the 1920s to the 1980s. They include sculptures in stone, wood, metal and clay; maquettes and models for parks and playgrounds; stage set elements for Martha Graham dance productions; and photographs of public monuments in cities around the world. Though unfailingly suave, Noguchi’s work no longer has the urgency it once had, but the museum as a whole is a wonderful time capsule.

Noguchi founded the museum in an industrial building across the street from his Long Island City studio. (Incessantly peripatetic, he had a studio in Japan as well.) When the institution opened in 1985, it was the first such museum to be established by a living artist in America. Noguchi died three years later.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, he was one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and successful sculptors. He is less widely admired today, but some of his public works are still impressive. Standing en pointe in front of 140 Broadway, at Liberty Street, in the financial district, his “Red Cube” (1968) packs a cheery, Pop-Minimalist punch. His gigantic Horace E. Dodge Fountain on the Philip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit (completed 1979) — a big, horizontal ring of stainless-steel pipe supported by a pair of angled tubes — has the eerie look of an extraterrestrial spacecraft from a Steven Spielberg movie. Noguchi had a great feel for large-scale public works.

Nothing at the Noguchi Museum is so thrilling, partly because nothing is so big. Almost everything in the current exhibition is between coffee-table scale and armoire size. Moreover, there is a formulaic sameness about most of the works, which date from the ’60s onward. Over and over Noguchi resorted to the same basic recipe of setting up tension between formal and material opposites. “Black Planet” (1974) is a slab of black basalt with a polished dome emerging from a roughly chiseled surround. In “Night Bird” (1966), a smooth black marble form perches on a vertical plank of stainless steel.

In many cases he made stone do unnatural things. He created large, perfect rings from laminated sections of marble or granite, and fashioned complex, buttery smooth, biomorphic forms from differently colored sections glued together, creating dialogues between regular stripes and irregular volumes. His basic drive was to find different ways of wedding Surrealism and Geometric Constructivism, imparting a subtle spin of Japanese classicism along the way.

His approach produced a gently mystical, metaphorical resonance evoking dualities like the sensuous and the structural; the natural and the cultural; male and female. But with so many pieces based on the same principle made with such expert but anonymous craftsmanship, the museum starts to feel like a design store.


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