The Modern Art Factory

John Haber
in New York City

The Noguchi Garden Museum

In one of the quietest corners of Isamu Noguchi's garden museum, in one of the most reclusive corners of New York City, for just one slow summer, hangs a photograph of a woman. Caught from behind, her turbaned hair and bare body bathe in a soft light. She could be kneeling in the sunlit air that even now fills the former studio and workshop. Like the museum itself, she promises an experience that no New Yorker should miss.

Nope, I do not mean Man Ray's classic, doctored photo—those two f-curves outlined on a naked torso. His pun still surprises and challenges a viewer. Cylinder Lamp (Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, 1944)Man Ray crosses the limits of the arts and of representation, not to mention propriety. This woman has just enough sex appeal to tease and capture the eye, just enough purity and calm to lull and appease it. She seems well at home beside the museum's polished and rippled stone.

In fact, I had not seen a work of art at all. I had seen an ad. It comes amid memorabilia, in a temporary exhibition of Japanese lanterns by Isamu Noguchi. Two other photographs show the floor displays at (ready?) Bloomingdales. If a trifle overcrowded and showily out of focus, they look gorgeous to this day. The display in real life looks even better. A postscript returns in time of need more than ten years later, for two exhibitions of Noguchi's connections to calligraphy, costumes, and dance.

From factory to museum

What does that say about the artist's fabled serenity as he dealt with reality—including the reality of the marketplace? What does it say about Modernism's fabled optimism? At least while asking, one might as well head out for one of the city's most neglected treats. By the very nature of utopias, one might well start to miss it. (A separate article looks at the Noghuchi Museum's renovation and 2009 reopening.)

It makes sense, really. While I shall incorporate insights learned from a Whitney retrospective in late 2004, not to mention from Man Ray, this story truly belongs to the Noguchi Garden Museum—further restored and renamed a few years after this 2001 review as simply the Noguchi Museum. Everything about the place speaks at once of the avant-garde's twin poles, gritty reality and a world to itself. Start with the museum's location.

It stands well apart, a long stroll down Broadway (or a short ride by bus) from Astoria's increasingly multiethnic community. A block away, I had the East River waterfront almost to myself. Even then, I had trouble finding my way as I left the struggling Socrates Sculpture Park only a block away. With art along the Brooklyn waterfront down for a year of park restoration in Dumbo, I felt lost. I looked right past the Noguchi Museum's factory façade, failing to spot the attractive entrance wall around the corner. Yet Noguchi chose the spot for a practical reason as well as the joys of solitude—for suppliers of stone nearby.

He must have liked Vernon Boulevard, too, for commerce of his own—his deliveries to clients. Now a tour bus uses the traffic-free streets to hit the borough's art attractions, starting with P.S. 1.

Inside, one could phrase the dilemma as upstairs and downstairs. Think of it as servant's quarters versus a great man's independent means, only no one has hidden the hard work upstairs. No one would dream of trying.

One enters through sleek, late-modern architecture. Noguchi added its bareness, rich materials, asymmetries, and open spaces as he transformed the 1927 building into workspace—and then workspace into museum. An opening room holds a second, summer 2001 exhibition besides the lanterns. Two dozen works, on loan from Japan, show the artist at his most assured. They extend the course of other late work on display, both elsewhere on the ground floor and in the enclosed, airy garden outside.

From servant to artist

At the very end of his career, Noguchi worked on a large, roughly human scale. Like living animals, too, the sculpture sprawls oddly without losing stability. It rests on the ground without stands or supports—except where the base transforms the art object itself. Moving around the room's central partition made me think of wandering in a zoo as a child. Yet the late work has become almost completely abstract. Dark materials suggest the monochromes of late-modern painting, in Noguchi's contemporaries from Mark Rothko through abstraction today. Arbitrary changes in texturing echo and subdue a painter's more extravagant gestures.

The layout upstairs becomes only slightly more prosaic, like a maze of numbered boxes. It could represent a deliberate shift backward, to the architecture of an earlier Modernism. Noguchi's career shifts with it. Its twin poles of art and urban reality do not.

Upstairs, one gets a brief tour of the sculptor's early career in Paris, under Constantin Brancusi. He learns effortlessly Brancusi's imagery and materials. One meets again those bronze skulls and slim, towering birds. Noguchi also has his fling with Surrealism, in tight arrangements of small objects. He then grows more abstract, but also more at home in the conscious, the familiar, and the prosaic. He is finding his way to a personal style, but also away from early Modernism's dark interiority.

Elsewhere upstairs, the California-born artist struggles in his role as public servant. He returns to Japan, where he grew up, to commemorate victims of the atomic bomb. Later on, he worked alone and with Louis Kahn, the architect, on playgrounds along the Hudson River that would have made Sanford Robinson Gifford proud. Not one plan got built, in Japan or New York, but the artist never lost his utter self-confidence. For Manhattan, Noguchi submitted his projects again and again and again. A room devoted to the Japan project makes a fitting memorial quite by itself—only now, to an artist holding true to himself.

And then I remember those lanterns. I had faced work for reproduction and retail, blatantly decorative and functional, and I had fallen in love. One sees Noguchi paring Japanese tradition and its cheapened offshoots, building complexity anew. First the wooden rims go, and then the designs get trickier. The ample show takes care to show the construction. I could imagine myself taking a lamp out of its box, where it lies collapsed. I wanted to assemble it piece by piece for my own living room.

I liked especially some large boxes, bound only by freely hanging curtains. Peeking within the vertical, one discovers a surprise—not a bare bulb, but a second geometric structure. Imagine an enclosed ceiling lamp for the imagination's private chamber. In the play of light and form, along with its unapologetic marketing, I felt again the agony of late Modern art. I stood again between outside and inside, public and private, the institution and the imagination.

From utopia to earth

I thought of a play just on the edge of limits, too, as I walked again in the garden downstairs. I started by following the garden path, in its careful course past each work. Yet I could not resist breaking off to the small, loose stones for a closer look. I could not help running my hand through a slim sheet of water that trickles off the fountain. If art here tumbles on the edge of nature, so did I.

Isamu Noguchi's Octetra (Noguchi Museum, 1968)The factory versus the museum, the loan exhibition versus the career history, the market versus the product—each tells a similar story. Noguchi speaks to a modern artist's difficult identity as source for a richer art. As an American high modernist, with roots in three countries not long ago at war, he may well define the puzzle.

Noguchi settled in New York, heading more and more for abstraction, but he never fully outgrew the School of Paris. He kept that opposition of fragmentation and studied elegance. He relished both the escape into the unconscious and an ostentatious public persona. He looks back to early Modernism in its newfound purity, but also in its readiness to reshape every detail of modern life, right on down to furniture design. Yet he also looks ahead to Modernism's dissolution, in a newly burgeoning art marketplace. And it works—for art's one remarkable moment.

Modernism has taken on the burden of utopia. Like utopias since at least Candide, it has had to face Voltaire's original charges—escapism and failure. For progressive critics of today's art world, that translates into self-involvement and selling out. It reminds conservative critics of their hated government arts funding, from Soviet projects once to sacrilege now.

A fuller retrospective in late 2004 makes Noguchi's choices seem almost tragic. Pieces nestle into the Whitney Museum's classic spaces all too much like works of art. Even in his most formal sculpture, the carefully designed bases should erode the distinction between an art object and its surroundings, much as for Brancusi. Where Jacques Derrida spoke of an artwork's frame as a supplement that undermined art's claim to finality, at the Whitney the base appears as just one more effort to remove a beautiful object from this world. The retrospective's small rooms for those lamps look like a name designer's section of a department store. At Nogchi's own museum, however, Noguchi's choices set his work free again to enter the world.

Optimism and escapism, commercialism and failure, they could easily sum up, too, this artist without a country. Only Noguchi's history suggests some complications that this postmodern picture leaves out. Not everything succeeds in Queens, but so much does all the same, and modern art itself can, too. Think of the Modern and its collection, if only in brief, coming to MoMA QNS. Noguchi's work may hang onto dreams of pure art, thoughts for the war dead, or care for children at play. Each time, it accepts strong, positive moral commitments.

Modernism's ground zero

Perhaps most of all, Noguchi never rests on his pedestal. Like the avant-garde's self-questioning, his identity crisis keeps evolving. He gets rid of pedestals anyway or, like Gonzalo Fonseca, makes them one with the work.

He sticks close to the ground, shaping it with rises, arches, sunken areas, and enclosures. For his Ground Zero, he takes a memorial arch and bell from Japanese traditions. However, he also planned a tomblike underground for the names of the fallen. For New York, he may have picked up on the layering of levels, walks, highway, and riverbank already found in Riverside Park. The playful dips also remind the curators of Minimalism and earthworks, just then entering art.

The artist never got his way. The curators suspect that an American stood a poor chance in Japan, given who dropped the bomb. Certainly Noguchi raised unsettling issues of imperialism and guilt for a war's devastation. Then, too, the park plans could simply have died in a decade of urban neglect. They could hardly compete with Robert Moses's determination to level much of the city.

However, I suspect that he came off just a bit too arty for that public—and also not quite close enough to the comforts of a textbook. He stood further than I often remember from Surrealism's shattering of earth and sky. He stood further, too, than the curator's think from the fuss of later European sculpture, like that of Jorge Oteiza, from Minimalism's theater, or from mass-marketing. He really did want to sink into the earth. His calmness of spirit could not anticipate modern art's breakdown.

Escapism and failure, perhaps Modernism always needed them to succeed. No wonder the opposite mistakes, illustration and stardom, nurture Postmodernism now. In the anti-utopia of today—in the politics of New York's Ground Zero and a National September 11 Memorial, in its High Line and High Line extension, or in installations like those of Phoebe Washburn—one sees the same problem as in facing corporate empires, only intensified.

How long will the play of Modernism and Postmodernism last in the face of all that? For now, as in the garden, I can only cherish my memories and accept the risk.

A postscript: from calligraphy to dance

There are places in New York where one goes to be alone. And then there are places one goes when one cannot bear to be alone. The Noguchi Museum is that rarity, as both. It is still outside the reach of guidebooks and critics, a healthy walk from the subway to the waterfront, and immeasurably far mentally even from Socrates Sculpture Park barely across the street. One enters around the block, rather than facing Costco. And the museum is still a built environment—one that Isamu Noguchi designed to the smallest detail to preserve his studio, his work, and his expressive repose.

Noguchi did not worry whether mass would be too monumental, a vertical too masculine, or a cavity too feminine. It would be like worrying whether the rocks in Central Park are too grand a memorial to planet earth. He did not worry whether smooth surfaces are too polished, in stone sometimes imported all the way from Japan, or cut surfaces too close to expressionism. He did not worry whether a base is part of the work or even a base. He did not worry whether the walled garden—like the birch trees in a corner open to the sky—is inside the museum or out. All the Do Not Touch signs suggest that visitors have trouble distinguishing the benches from the arts, but also that they feel at home with both.

I knew I had to go there on an October day, nursing the pain and despair of a broken shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, surgery, and too many setbacks. I could neither work nor write, but I knew that I would not have to review the collection again, just take it in. I would not have to explain it even to myself. Noguchi thrives on contradictions, because he could trust in himself. By comparison, MoMA's atrium and sculpture garden are central plazas in a shopping mall. And two temporary exhibitions in Noguchi's garden museum anticipate something in his sculpture, that expressive repose.

A boy from Japan who spent much of his teens in Indiana learned to deal with contradictions. While the museum describes him as mostly self-taught, he studied at a rather conservative New York school, assisted Brancusi in Paris, and thrived on collaborations. The two exhibitions make the most of them. Noguchi displays considerable stylistic consistency, and one tires of his supposed turning points. Still, anyone trying to make sense of his place between East and West will know that he went to Japan in 1931, while touring Asia with a friend, Buckminster Fuller. These two shows make the most of encounters just before and after.

On his way east, Noguchi stopped in Beijing, where a Japanese businessman and collector introduced him to a truly self-taught artist. Qi Baishi's adherence to tradition, along with Chinese tradition's esteem for copying and calligraphy, made him something between a guru, a folk artist, and a master. One artist knew no English, the other no Chinese, but Noguchi knew diplomacy, and somehow they got along. The museum's habit of using lists rather than wall labels makes the results look even more like a collaboration. In practice, Qi painted villages and nature, with a fair amount of writing, while the younger man focused on figure studies—curving in on themselves as dancers, warriors, lovers, or mother and child. He took away a renewed appreciation of drawing, a line's breadth and weight, and the human form.

He exhibited the "Peking drawings" on his return to the United States in 1932, when he started an even less-heralded collaboration, with Ruth Page. Noguchi worked with other choreographers, such as Martha Graham, but this brief encounter also involved a torrid affair. And it allowed him to apply his newfound interplay of brush and line to dance. Page looks somewhere between ghostly and silly in his all-encompassing "sack dress," for Miss Expanding Universe. Noguchi and his bag lady also tackled the darkness in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells," but one might hardly notice the darkness. In their "tintinnabulation that so musically swells," the sketches are as mercurial as Poe's syncopated rhymes.

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The loan exhibition from Japan of late works and the display of lanterns ran at the Isamu Noguchi Museum through the summer of 2001, the exhibitions of collaboration through January 26, 2014. The Socrates Sculpture Park remains open summers as well. I mention briefly "Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor," a retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art through January 16, 2005.


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