Noguchi: The Space Behind the Art
The Noguchi Museum, Garden View
Tucked away in Long Island City lies a museum rarely included on tourists’ itineraries and even unvisited by many locals. And inside lies the work of a man also often dismissed by his contemporaries and shunned for his controversial designs, radical sculptures, and dual identity. The Noguchi Museum is home to the work of half-Irish-American, half-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Born in Los Angeles, Noguchi’s unique ethnicity inspired the major themes of his work: contrasting pieces, odd appearances, harmony integrated in disjointed components, and unconventional, even deemed “unsafe” concepts. As his pieces were met with criticism and praise, Noguchi also strained to understand his relationship to the world, particularly during the World Wars when his home countries attempted to annihilate one another. With residents of both countries ostracizing him for his dual ethnicity, Noguchi’s sense of belonging was further lost, and only in his artwork could he properly express this frustration. Originally, Noguchi planned to enter medicine and was enrolled at Columbia University. When his mother encouraged him to take an evening sculpting class, he discovered his talent and true passion. Within three months, Noguchi had his own show. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and went on to study with legendary Italian abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose futurist, absurdist style inspired Noguchi to break away from his traditional-style training in New York.
Isamu Noguchi, Globular, 1928, polished brass
Brancusi was a heavy influence. After the apprenticeship, Noguchi returned to New York and met pioneering inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller, whose passion for the humanistic benefits of technology also appeared in Noguchi’s work. Fuller encouraged Noguchi to create public works like memorials, playgrounds, monuments, and bridges. Noguchi submitted several public work and playground designs to then-New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who quickly dismissed them.
Isamu Noguchi, Model of Riverside Drive Playground, mid-1960s, plaster original
Above you can see Noguchi’s rejected model for a playground on Riverside Drive, New York City. Eventually, Noguchi expanded his portfolio to include furniture, play sets, and interior design. During WWII, his work reflected themes of death and torture.
Isamu Noguchi, Remembrance, 1944, mahogany.
Toward the end of his career, he shifted his focus and created Zen-inspired stone sculptures while working out of his studio in Japan. The Long Island museum features the largest collection of his stone work, set up in a lovely garden among rocks and pools. In their simplicity, curves, and smooth surfaces, these works express incredible beauty and harmony in contrast to the discordance evident in Noguchi’s earlier work.
Isamu Noguchi, detail of stone garden
Overall, the museum houses a vast amount of Noguchi’s work from each period of his career, revealing the artist’s daring ambition. In a video loop playing in the back of the museum, Noguchi says he chooses to focus on the space behind the work rather than the material. Like Noguchi, we too should be observant of lesser-known spaces such as this museum. Noguchi sees the subtle, the strange, and the discordant–fortunately for us, it’s harmoniously beautiful.
Victoria Cho writes articles for social and environmental organizations, as well as essays and short fiction. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Victoria fled the South and received a Bachelor’s in Film from Boston University. She worked on various independent film projects in New York, then left the business to write and travel. Victoria recently returned from teaching English in Thailand. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.