Lessons in Art History

You knew it was coming: more about Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). My June 21 entry (you can find it under Archives, June in the column to the left) covered the reopening of the Noguchi Museum in Queens and included a lot of his biography that I really don’t need to repeat.

Although the Noguchi Museum has its charms, I wanted to see a more traditionally curatorial view of his sculpture in a white-walled venue, removed from the artist’s personal aura.

This indeed is what we have at the Whitney (945 Madison Ave. to Jan. 16). For another view of this view, the exhibition will be in D.C. at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Washington, D.C. from Feb. 10 to May 8. “Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor” is a collaboration between the two institutions. Given the high cost of mounting serious surveys, collaborations between (or even among?) like-minded institutions is an economic option rapidly becoming an economic necessity. Museums have even taken to joint ownership of artworks.

Viewing Noguchi’s The Sun at Noon (1969) at the Hirshhorn after seeing it at the Noguchi Museum, and then at the Whitney, might be one viewing too many — or just enough. Will it be like seeing a donut inside a donut? The sculpture is an up-ended ring or marble Hula-Hoop; and the Hirshhorn, for better or worse, has been called a donut of a building. The Sun is probably the best of Noguchi’s sculptures after his high point: the biomorphic, interlocking sculptures and the “Lunars” of the ’40s. The carved works really disappoint. For all their so-called Zen austerity, they are inordinately fussy, implying that not every art career is a ladder ending in triumph. Some can be an arc.

That said, this is nevertheless an exhibition long overdue. How would we know that the carved works are wanting if we don’t see them? How else are we able to evaluate the art of the past (and thus the present) unless we see the material in some depth? Single objects or photographs are not enough.

So the Whitney and the Hirshhorn are to be congratulated for living up to this aspect of their responsibilities. It doesn’t really matter that the show is not in any major way critical. When one has to deal with estates and collectors in order to amass the required materials, the situation precludes direct criticality. That is left to us. One hopes for — and in this case, more or less gets — a fair array of examples of an artist’s work, except for most of the design efforts.

The installation at the Whitney is fine: well-paced and airy. You can walk around the free-standing sculptures without any trouble, and they don’t get in the way of each other.

At the Whitney, undistracted by the cinder blocks of the Noguchi Museum, it is particularly clear that, although The Sun is the most minimal of Noguchi’s sculpture, the alternating sections of French red and Spanish Alicante marble preclude any real minimalist presence. These precise segments are the old-fashioned signs that what we are looking at is handmade art of some sort. Art changes as it moves from place to place. The artwork becomes the sum of its placements, and even of its photographs.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

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If we start at the front end of the exhibition, we get a clear story. Paris: Noguchi put in some six months as Constantin Brancusi’s studio assistant; the visible results areBrancusi-esque sculptures, the handsome gouaches I have not seen before, and, I suspect, the privileging of direct carving, taken up later in Noguchi’s life. Japan: In the process of failing to make any satisfactory contact with his Japanese professor-father who had abandoned him and his American mother, Noguchi (who previously used his mother’s name and called himself Sam Gilmour) discovered ceramics, with, I think, mixed results. New York: Interlocking Sculptures, Lumars, Akari Lamp Sculptures. And then the carved things, at first overlapping the Interlocking sculptures, and then supplanting them by the ’60s.

But the most interesting part of the exhibition ultimately may be what for the sake of exhibition clarity has been omitted. We have to search through the catalog for the Earthwork precedents: Drawing for Monument to the Plough (1933) and Model for Sculpture to BeSeen From Mars (1947). 

And, of course, Noguchi’s gardens, playgrounds, and public art, because of their site-specific nature and/or demise, must remain out of sight. A few photographs might have helped, but apparently these works do not fit into a sculpture focus. But even the catalog is of no help, at least in terms of Noguchi’s considerable design output. The Akari paper-lampshade light sculptures (a.k.a. lamps), admittedly masterpieces, are all we get in both the exhibition and the catalog. Where is the iconic coffee table? Where is the sofa?

In this regard, the Noguchi Museum inaugural exhibition, although nearly buried under Robert Wilson’s theatrical darkness and pin-spot lighting, attempted a more balanced and complicated view.

According to curator Valerie Fletcher’s catalogue essay for the Whitney/Hirshhorn exhibition, Noguchi himself favored his “sculpture” over his other efforts, but this was later in his career (in 1973 according to a footnote), when — my addition — he had stopped designing tables, sofas, and lamps.

Perhaps the problem is that of definition. “Sculpture” is here defined as portable, nonutilitarian stuff, as was usually the case in Noguchi’s ’40s and ’50s heyday. Currently sculpture includes a lot more: Earthworks, artist furniture, installations, and in some cases even performance art. The language we grow up with is often the language that traps us.

Are we always to take the artist’s word? No. Noguchi may have thought of his famous, biomorphic coffee table as just a money-maker, but it is one of his best artworks. We can think of it as a multiple, as usable art, as design art, or even as sculpture, but under any name it is art.

Does the artist always know the best way to display the art? No. The Sun, for instance, looks better against the white walls of the Whitney then at “his” Noguchi Museum.

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The exhibition presents a number of surprises, not the least of which is Miss Exploding Universe of 1932, a floating, stylized, aluminum angel, named by Noguchi buddy Buckminster Fuller. Noguchi, the inveterate Bohemian, knew everybody.

Another delightful surprise are the materials used in Remembrance of 1944: string, bone, wood, but all deployed around an ordinary cardboard tube painted black on the outside.

On the negative side, it is a shock to discover how truly ugly the 1934 Death (Lynched Figure) really is. It is not the subject that makes it horrible, but Noguchi’s inability to translate the subject matter into something horrible and perhaps even action-provoking. It is not good agitprop; it is not good sculpture.

This disappointment is balanced by the small room of light sculptures called Lunars (1944-45). They are of the same biomorphic ilk as the Interlockings, but hold the walls and ceiling with light. In short, they are wall and ceiling lamps.

The Interlockings, however, are Noguchi’s masterpieces. I know they are anthropomorphic and thus not totally, religiously abstract. I know they have become textbook ’40s. But is this why Noguchi didn’t continue with them?

The puzzle, brought up in Fletcher’s catalogue essay but not really solved, is why Wifredo Lam and Yves Tanguey in their paintings, and Julio González and Noguchi, came up with such similar forms. Did they see one another’s work? Noguchi could not have seen González’s biomorphic sculptures because he was working under the strictures of the Nazi occupation of Paris. But did he see Tanguey’s paintings? Did he even know Tanguey, who was in New York? Does all this come from Picasso’s paintings of beach damsels or the “Anatomy” drawings of the ’30s? Or Miró and even Dalí?

Even if they might have seen each other’s work, why was the notion of interlocking, biomorphic sections so fervently adopted? It was indeed a way of blending abstraction and figurative surrealism. But to go a little deeper, could it be that the forms resonated with wartime horror and depersonalization? The body falls apart into blobs of meat. The results are rather like the old trick-drawing: are we looking at a beauty queen or a witch? Both. Perversely, the forbidden and hidden text is that in disintegration there can also be liberation, which is why some of these works — particularly Noguchi’s — are oddly joyful.

The Interlockings grew out of dealer Julien Levy’s assignment to various artists to create chess sets. This is the first time Noguchi used construction-paper cutouts that could be interlocked to create free-standing, three-dimensional sculptures. He then made larger forms out of plywood as a stage set for his friend Martha Graham’s 1944 Herodiate.

Slate, since it was cheap, easily cut and polished with a portable tool and, having no possible wartime use, was readily available. Noguchi began to make the Interlockings as nonutilitarian sculptures, working in the courtyard of his MacDougal Alley studio in Greenwich Village. The black construction-paper segments — looking like bones, arms, penises, strange alphabets — were pasted to graph paper, enlarged into patterns, and then cut from slate and other materials. I have never seen these worksheets before. Although they are handsome in themselves and another surprise addition to Noguchiana, they may further clarify the Interlockings process or game.

But even without the worksheets, after a few minutes of puzzlement you can figure out how and why the Interlockings stand up. You can see how the configurations are held together by notching and gravity. One piece of material penetrates another or is hung from another. In your mind you have participated in their making. That they are approximately your own height is a bonus. Mostly placed together in one room on a large central platform, they create a dance of themes-and-variations.

Is it such a closely guarded secret that what many of us like about sculpture and even painting is that, given the right natural signs, we can in our imaginations participate in their making?

This of course also happens, but in a minor way, with the latter-day carvings on which Noguchi lavished so much attention. But, alas, bored holes and/or little notches here and there, all (surprise!) revealing the slate beneath the crust, is just not enough — or, in the light of contemporary and competitive minimalism, is too much — to keep our interest.

Why did Noguchi’s creativity ebb after the Interlockings? Did his success undermine his talent for using unusual materials ? Did he need to rub up against poverty, utility and theater to be at his most creative?

Until we have a full survey of his gardens and other public works (impossibly difficult to pull off), we may never really know if he really did he lose his spark. The sunken Chase Manhattan rock garden/fountain in downtown New York still looks great. Perhaps the late “sculptures” should be seen as garden sculptures or space markers — as may be evident in the Noguchi Garden in Queens — rather than as standalone artworks.

After the Interlockings, Noguchi’s sculptures per se are simply not severe or complicated enough, or sufficiently challenging. He cannot compete with David Smith or later with Anthony Caro or Tony Smith or Donald Judd. In fact, Noguchi’s late sculptures (combined with the lingering stranglehold of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore) are why we had no choice but to turn to minimalism in the ’60s.

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