My encounter with Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural legacy

detail of a work at the Noguchi Museum

After my trip to the Noguchi Museum, I could only wonder why I had not known his name before. How many times do we pass a work of art in a public space without really thinking about where it came from? From which stage of an artist’s practice did this evolve? Why was this particular artist selected over others to produce a work for a specific space? How does this art change the space?

I had to leave Manhattan to get to the museum. Queens felt ten degrees colder than the city. I bumbled around for several disconcerting minutes on exiting the train, before I could tell north from south and east from west. I eventually chose a ‘likely’ direction and began to walk. A smiling woman with a foreign accent confirmed that I was heading in the right direction. My surroundings did not distract me from the slightly uncomfortable temperature. I could see to the very ends of each road I met since the buildings were essentially flat and their faceless, unremarkable presence taunted me from both sides of the road. Traffic lights were as limited as the traffic and I crossed the streets without a sense of urgency. This was the ambition, drive and ‘big city’ speed of New York diluted to a point of blandness and it was unpalatable to me. I could not get to the museum fast enough.

The Noguchi Museum made my uninspired stroll from the subway an insubstantial price to pay for what I would eventually behold. The works were like individuals, each inviting the viewer to know a unique and compelling story; each saying that a prolonged gaze was worth more than a brief glance; that a caress would yield more than a visual inquiry. Of course it was strictly forbidden to touch, and I had to settle for doing a 360, top-to-bottom scan of each structure. I wondered out of the “late works” that populated the first few galleries and a rock garden, and into an earlier and more colourful period. Italian marble in brilliant hues and ambrosial patterns grew twisted, polished and tubular out of metal bases. Smooth, flawless planes merged into raw, glittering facets. Stone spouted water and turned into glass. A black sun, flamed at midnight. Obsidian, basalt, white marble, galvanized aluminium, cedar – just a few of the materials whose voices sang at the hands of a genius.

How many hours I spent there, I can’t be sure. By the time that hunger had gotten the better of me, I devoured a turkey salad and joined a free tour, legs aching, and brain bursting with the splendor of it all. How could something as still and immutable as stone appear to be in a state of emergence, or motion?

Still in a pleasant daze, I followed my newly acquired group to the second floor of the museum, where yet more diverse and stunning work awaited me.  I listened in on the group discussions about a couple of pieces and began making my way back to the city.

 

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