Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Noguchi Museum

Core (Cored Sculpture), Isamu Noguchi 1978
9/25/2010, Saturday
MUSEUMS: Noguchi Museum (1.5 hrs) ……………………..…… $10

This day marked our first exploration into Queens, the largest of New York City’s boroughs.  Queens doesn’t have the upscale attitude of Manhattan and seems a bit shabby next to its hip neighbor Brooklyn, but at least it doesn't have the "running gun-battle" reputation of the Bronx.  Most tourists in Queens are just passing through on their way to the two gigantic airports in this borough, but Paul and I have really enjoyed our subsequent visits here.  In Queens we’ve discovered great ethnic food and our favorite museums outside of Manhattan to date, such as the newly renovated high tech Museum of the Moving Image and the Louis Armstrong Museum (great tour).

Today we visited the Northwest-most corner of Queens, just across the river from Manhattan, consisting of the neighborhoods Long Island City and Astoria.  This area was once very industrial and it’s full of old factories and warehouses.  Some of these are still in use, like the old Steinway & Sons piano factory and the Brooks Brothers tie factory.  Others have been repurposed into the kinds of businesses that thrive in areas with low land values like Silvercup Studios where "Sex and the City" is filmed, and of course old warehouses make excellent (and cheap) artist studios.  Thus this region has the largest concentration of museums, art galleries and studios outside of Manhattan, you can see the highlights at the Long Island City Cultural Alliance.

Probably due to its limited residential space, this corner of Queens seems a particular favorite of the types of artists who need lots of room and very tolerant/non-existent neighbors (i.e. sculptors) and nearly all of NYC’s museums devoted to sculpture are located here: the Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park and the SculptureCenter.  The Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park are across the street from each other on the banks of the East River and made a good paring today.

Red Cube, Isamu Noguchi 1968 (in NYC)
Without a doubt, the Noguchi Museum is the best regarded of the Queens sculpture museums.  Maybe you’ve never heard of Isamu Noguchi, but chances are good that you’ve seen his work.  His gigantic abstract sculptures were popular public works around the globe from the 1930’s until his death in 1988.  His most recognizable New York sculpture is probably the huge “Red Cube” in front of the HSBC building on Broadway but there are Noguchi sculptures in many of the world’s major cities, like Paris, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Bologna and Munich.  Even Seattle, where Paul and I recently moved from, has a famous Noguchi sculpture.  Called “Black Sun,” it’s a giant flat black basalt circle with a hole in the center that frames a nice view of the Space Needle, but the source of its fame is the popular song “Black Hole Sun” by the Seattle band Soundgarden, reputed to be inspired by the sculpture.
Black Sun, Isamu Noguchi 1969 (in Seattle, WA)

Death (Lynched Figure), Noguchi 1934
One of the things that make the Noguchi museum stand out is that it was actually designed by the artist it exhibits.  In 1974 Noguchi bought a gas station across the street from his studio and gradually converted it into an exhibition space with a Japanese style walled garden at its center.  He even chose much of the work presented in the museum and determined how it was displayed.  Paul thought this very egocentric of Noguchi, and maybe it is, but I loved the way the intentions of the artist showed through in every part of his museum. 

Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing Noguchi 1976-82
As an example, apparently Noguchi didn’t like to bias people with the names of his sculptures before they formed their own impression, so all of the names of art in his museum are displayed in small print on tiny white cards several feet away.  As the sculptures are fairly abstract, this made for some fun guessing games.  On the tour we were on the guide asked us to say what a particular sculpture looked like to us before reading the title.  Looking at the sculpture below, I thought it was a duck’s head, Paul saw a sideways letter S and another person guessed a baseball cap.  Noguchi’s intention?  The title was “Slowly Slowly,” in reference to a snail.  (Once it was pointed out it seemed obvious.)
Slowly Slowly, Isamu Noguchi 1966

The tour also went into detail on Isamu Noguchi’s life and his inspirations.  Born in 1904 as the illegitimate son of the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and his American editor Léonie Gilmour, Noguchi was a brought up partly in Japan and partly in the U.S., but in the early 1900’s there was no way a half-Japanese half-American boy could fit in either culture and he was a lifetime misfit where ever he went.  
Floor Frame, Isamu Noguchi 1962

To me, his alienation came through in his work and I loved the shapes and textures of Noguchi’s stone sculptures in the museum’s elegant walled sculpture garden, but Paul was not a fan.  According to Paul, being a great artist is at least 50% self-promotion and he felt that the museum was the pinnacle of Noguchi’s showmanship and ego, and it left Paul cold.  Feel free to weigh in on the debate in the comments.

Pauline: 9 out of 10.  Great modern sculpture in a beautiful setting.
Paul: 3 out of 10.  Art and ego left me cold.

Gallery in the Noguchi Museum
Images in this post, from the top:  Core (Cored Sculpture) Isamu Noguchi 1978, basalt, in the sculpture garden at the Noguchi Museum.  Exterior of the Noguchi Museum.  Red Cube Isamu Noguchi, 1968 site specific sculpture in painted steel.  Black Sun Isamu Noguchi 1969, basalt.  Death (Lynched Figure) Isamu Noguchi 1934, monel, steel, wood and rope.  Slowly Slowly Isamu Noguchi 1966, basalt.  Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing Isamu Noguchi 1976-1982, basalt.  Floor Frame Isamu Noguchi 1962, bronze. Gallery in the Noguchi Museum.

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