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Before Buckyballs

John Haber
in New York City

Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi

I have trouble imagining Buckminster Fuller in the Noguchi Museum for long. I can see him in the garden, restless in its tranquility, with not a tower or "buckyball" in sight. I can see him chafing at the museum's measured asymmetry and at so much one-of-a-kind sculpture in polished stone. I can see him dying to upgrade the low-lying, industrial building for the twenty-first century. I can see him crossing the street to the Queens waterfront, studying the Manhattan skyline and ready to join in the city's constant transformation.

I have trouble imagining him there for another reason: it means thinking of Fuller as not just a visionary, but an artist. Yet he survives just fine alongside Isamu Noguchi. He may not have to stay for more than a few months, but a quite small exhibition describes a fifty-year friendship, a sometime collaboration, and a largely one-way influence. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House (Noguchi Museum, 1927-1928)

At least it seems that way at first. Using documents, photographs, and models, "Best of Friends" briefly charts the influence of Fuller's early work on a sculptor, architect, and designer nine years his junior. However, the museum allows Noguchi the last word, not to mention a large sculpture or two. (A 2001 review of the Noguchi Museum introduces the setting in depth.) It also places Fuller in the context of Modern art and a lovely permanent collection—and then the story gets to proceed in all sorts of directions. It offers insight into Modernism's heady mix of art, design, science, modernity, and utopia.

A companion article continues the story to "Starting with the Universe, a 2008 Buckminster Fuller retrospective. It elucidates the visionary's particularly American vision.

Advertising the future

Actually, credit for their meeting goes to Noguchi's more obvious mentor, Constantin Brancusi, who directed him to Romany Marie's. Her Greenwich Village tavern served as a hangout for artists, intellectuals, and, as the curator puts it, other misfits. Noguchi, then twenty-five, had already had enough influences for a lifetime—from birth in Los Angeles to childhood in Japan and the Midwest, premed classes at Columbia, academic sculpture on the Lower East Side, and Brancusi's circle in Paris. Now his exposure to Modernism and "the American century" received a decidedly New York twist.

Only two years before, on the brink of suicide, Buckminster Fuller had decided to remake his life and the world. Why not begin on Minetta Street? In 1929, he was shopping around his first major design, plans for an inexpensive, modular home that others air-lift right where desired. Now, in exchange for meals, he took on the interior decoration and chairs for Marie's new location. He must have stood out in person, too, ever the talkative, handsome visionary in tie and starched collar.

Noguchi liked Fuller's features enough to create a portrait bust, and the home design won him over completely. It summed up everything in the sculptor's experience and then some. Dymaxion House rests on a single one-story pillar, much as Brancusi's sculpture incorporates its base, although a bit unsettlingly like a tree house in need of a tree. Windows extend the full width of the building's circle or, in one version, octahedron—like a glass box thrusting out in all directions. A central steeple tops off its slightly pointed, almost gabled roof.

Le Corbusier had combined pillars and rigid floors. However, the Frenchman's two-story Villa Savoye came only in 1929, and his towering communities belonged as yet to his writings. Frank Lloyd Wright had developed the combination of pillars, glass fronts, decorative touches, and breadth relative to ceiling height. Wright had plans, too, for the city. Yet the cantilevered vistas of Fallingwater still lay seven years away.

Geometry had become a byword, but Fuller's symmetric outlines promised mathematically efficient use of space and materials—and, he claimed, an embodiment of Einstein's spacetime. The very name Dymaxion—combining dynamic, maximum, and tension—sounds right out of a Futurist manifesto or Russian Constructivism. For Fuller, however, it conveys the spirit of science beyond the limits of human vision.

A telegram to Noguchi purports to explain E = mc2. Einstein himself supported Fuller's book-length exposition in 1936. To me, though, the telegram reads less like physics than like an advertising campaign for the future. Bob Dylan sung about "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood." In Fuller's plans for mass production, Robin Hood comes in four-dimensional disguise.

Tension, integrity, and friendship

By 1929, Fuller had moved on to his next makeover of mere reality and the two friend's first collaboration. He asked Noguchi to produce a clay model for the Dymaxion Car, a vehicle designed with just three wheels for greater fuel efficiency—if not, as it happened, greater stability. The front wheels carried it forward, while the rear wheel steered. Again with an eye to efficiency, it held enough passengers for a small bus. Since a prototype rolled over, killing the driver, perhaps I should say a Modernist SUV.

Like Modernist design movements and art of the machine everywhere, Fuller's utopia quickly ran aground on commercial realities. No one picked up the Dymaxion House, and designs for prefabricated homes have looked elsewhere. Builders may have balked at the unusual look, the strange doctrines behind it, or an economics favoring the masses. The car's embarrassing rear-ender sealed matters, although Fuller continued to revise its design. By the 1940s, the house, too, had come down off its pole. His finances deteriorated rapidly regardless, and his current reputation began to build only in the 1950s, with his geodesic domes.

The car also ended his collaboration with Noguchi, and the two grew further apart. They worked together only one last time, in 1976, and the project again never reached completion. In their model for the Martha Graham Dance Theater in Los Angeles, a geodesic dome unites stage and audience. So, too, do twinned staircases, which ascend from below to the midpoint between all these. The low-rise seating area adds further to the intimacy. As so often with Noguchi's late work, it belongs fully to its time, assimilating Minimalism's close encounter between art and the viewer.

"Best of Friends" implies an intimate relationship between artists, too. Yet the exhibition really argues for Fuller as the true innovator. The older man discovers spacetime, and his friend responds with a 1932 suspended sculpture called Miss Expanding Universe. Fuller produces Tensegrity Mast, a structure in steel rods and taut wires for display at the Museum of Modern Art. Noguchi is still working with Fuller's "tensegrity" principle in his Challenger Memorial of the 1980s. Maybe every friendship depends on a mix of tension and integrity.

"Best of Friends" also claims Fuller for modern art. One hardly knows where to place him. I think of him as the architect and inventor who never formally studied engineering, the designer mostly bored by art history, the philosopher who preferred to surround himself with artists, and the man with no special interest in biology whose buckyballs appear everywhere in nature. He can belong to science-fiction cultists and artist dreamers like Tomás Saraceno—or to the vocabulary of everyday life.

The exhibition makes it harder to escape how Modernism influenced him and how he worked within its idioms. If I want to deride him as utopian, like visions of Long Island City itself, I have to remember that critics level the same charge against Modernism. Critics note how much of real life those utopias exclude—and how often the market has co-opted its design movements for luxury goods, museum displays, and cheap knockoffs. But these people wanted knockoffs, available to anyone, just as Fuller associated efficiency with lower costs and modular production. Fuller helps me remember how Modernism, like the Dymaxion Car, refuses simply to roll over and die. With appropriation art now, the critique and embrace of co-optation just continues in a new guise.

Expanding the universe

The exhibition, then, does not exactly add Fuller to modern art so much as help rethink its legacy, just as it helps rethink the influences on Noguchi. It also supplies a fresh example of the interplay between art and science, so evident in galleries today. All that accounts for the interest of such a small show. It occupies only two rooms and a windowed alcove. Much amounts to documentation, such as the telegram. A time line, weaving together two careers, takes up a whole wall. Displays of design and architecture always depend on photos and scale models anyway.

For all that, I noticed the paucity of work only well after I had left. It helps that the museum alone encourages rethinking more of art. By the time I reached the back rooms on the second floor, I had had a long, fresh encounter with Noguchi's career. Isamu Noguchi's Octetra (Noguchi Museum, 1968)I had sat in the garden, which remains meditative even filled with visitors—and outside of opening events, you may still have it largely to yourself. I learned again that Noguchi had more than his share as well of incomplete proposals and lost commissions. The Noguchi architecture and collection, too, raise the place of Modernism between grit and elegance, commerce and utopia, and often both sides win.

In the long run, Noguchi wins even in the temporary exhibition, curated by Shoji Sadao, an architect and former director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. I can see after all why I shall remember Noguchi as the show's dedicated artist. He does not look to the scale of the universe, but he always looks to the work at hand and to still larger contexts. His model for the car gives it a smoother, almost biomorphic shape. His steel-and-wire frame may start to spiral gracefully or leave the ground altogether. Miss Expanding Universe has no geometry at all, in three or four dimensions.

A video shows the two men outdoors, talking and at ease, while seated on Noguchi's Octetra. The 1968 red sculpture combines Fuller's octahedral and triangular units into three-dimensional modules that in turn fit efficiently together. However, by mixing the two basic shapes, Noguchi undermines Fuller's almost Minimalist logic. He also leaves open circles at the center of each face, so that the modules appear to enclose spheres—not of steel, but of space and air.

That does not make Fuller's utopias irrelevant again. From any number of Modernist movements, he embraced the union of art and the practical sphere, its vision of remaking entire cities, and cutting-edge design accessible to all. However, he places these terms within traditions that Noguchi had to recognize as his own. Consider the Dymaxion House one last time.

The open ground floor may have made him think of Midwestern plains or California's proverbial nowhere. Certainly the roof reminded him of Japanese parasols. Its steeple also looks back to the churches of Fuller's New England ancestors—including Margaret Fuller, the writer and activist for women's rights. Perhaps Noguchi sensed an affinity between Transcendentalism and his own idealism, which included a growing interest in Romantic spiritualist movements. In any event, Fuller had shown him a way to bridge East and West, Europe and America, past and present, engineering and the imagination. Then Noguchi just got down to work.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Best of Friends: Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi" ran at the Noguchi Museum through October 15, 2006. A 2001 review of the Noguchi Museum introduces it in depth. A companion article continues the story of Buckminster Fuller to his 2008 retrospective.

 

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