Isamu Noguchi is one of the most important and underrated sculptors of the twentieth century. He was the product of two separate worlds, spending his life and work trying to reconcile his Japanese and Western heritage and influences. He also spent much of his life traveling across the world while creating public artworks that redefined sculpture and what it could do in a very real sense. Today, you can go to many countries and see important and riveting artworks by Noguchi and be in some sense brought into the serene and appealing world he created.
Here are three of Noguchi’s most famous and beautiful large-scale and public artworks and spaces:
1. The Noguchi Museum, Queens, NY
New York City is a major hub of modern and contemporary art. The city boasts such major collections as the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1 the Guggenheim, The Whitney, The New Museum, The International Center of Photography, not to mention the modern art collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn and the Queens Museums annual and semi-annual art fairs, public spaces, and countless galleries.
There are, however, places a little off the beaten track, gems that people visiting New York really should check out. One of these is the Noguchi Museum, nestled in an industrial area of Long Island City in Queens. You wander into the unassuming building and are suddenly transported into another world, an oasis, of beautiful, simple, and austere sculptures, ranging in size and scope.
Moving through the space of the galleries, you feel calm, a meditative ease comes over you. The sculptures and the space seem to interact in a synergistic manner, perfectly imbuing each other with a kind of sublime energy. Suddenly, the idea most art critics thought was long dead, that art could be morally improving, doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Noguchi wanted to create something that integrated the elements of form and space into a unified whole. The sculptures inhabit the space in such a way as to convey a sense of both delicacy and strength. There are all sizes of sculptures from small to large, as well as abstract models for landscape architecture projects and large works for public spaces, industrial and furniture design from radios to his famous tables and paper lamps, early figurative works to his groundbreaking late monumental works.
The outdoor courtyard conveys both a sense of a Japanese Zen garden with its strict simplicity and natural elements and of the neighborhood of Queens in which it sits. The Noguchi museum is a triumph by an artist who truly understood the importance of a work of art’s effect on the human psyche and wanted to share this gift with others. It is, in a way, the museum is Noguchi’s most all-encompassing work of art, perfectly integrating the artworks with the space they inhabit and having an actual positive psychological impact on its visitors.
2. Sunken Garden for the Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, NY
For many, the idea of a work of art built as decoration by a corporation can seem a little perverse. And often, works that corporate entities put outside their headquarters are ugly, vainglorious, or a ‘decorative ashtray,’ as the late art critic Robert Hughes described one such work. But every once and a while you get a sculpture or installation which actually uplifts the space, making it more beautiful, and creating a kind of parentheses of calm in a bustling metropolis.
Noguchi’s Sunken Garden is one such work. Walking up to the bank via concrete steps, the space at first looks like a typical entrance to late twentieth century skyscraper, a kind of blank slate. But soon you see a giant hole cut out of the middle of the space. You are drawn to it to see what lies within the well-like structure and are suddenly brought face to face with an usual sight. A sunken Japanese Zen garden set within this corporate architectural structure, which is accompanied during the warm months by a flowing fountain. The artwork plays off of a series of emotional responses valuable in art and extremely potent: curiosity and surprise followed by delight.
The garden has a different feel from below ground level within the Chase building, where the garden is can be seen at human scale via windows completely surrounding the physical space. This combination of two completely different perspectives is part of what makes the work so successful. It is continuously unfolding, different from every angle and at every season of the year. Like much of Noguchi’s work, it has a kind of spiritual element, simultaneously calming and re-energizing its viewers.
3. Expo ’70 Fountains, Osaka, Japan
Japan, the birthplace of Noguchi’s father and the sculptor’s spiritual homeland, boasts several important public artworks by the sculptor including Two Bridges for Peace Park in memory of the Hiroshima bombing. But the somberness he conveys on one extreme in the bridges could be matched by the sense of fun and excitement he created in other works.
For example, Noguchi designed and created many public parks that used sculptural elements in the designs of playgrounds and landscape architecture. The other area Noguchi explored with enthusiasm was fountains, as seen in the Chase sunken garden, but he also found new and innovative uses for fountains outside of how they had traditionally been conceived.
The Expo ’70 fountains in Osaka Japan are probably the most rich and beautiful example of this experimentation as well as of the sense of childlike excitement and fun that Noguchi was capable of injecting into his works. Noguchi says that he tackled the project with an interest in literally upturning the idea that of what a fountain had traditionally been conceived of, meaning a physical structure that propelled water upwards. Instead, he created towers that would propel water downwards from a great height of 100 feet, giving the sense of a kind of waterfall.
In addition, water would be manipulated in new ways, spraying, rotating, and swirling. As he put it, the water also ‘disappeared and reappeared as mist.’ The concept of a fountain gave Noguchi the opportunity to play with the natural element of water while exploring ideas of kinetics in sculpture in new ways and inventing a new kind of space for viewers to inhabit.
The Importance of Noguchi:
Noguchi’s importance as a creator of large scale sculptural works should not be underestimated. He used his works as a way to redefine form and space in new and interesting ways while at the same time bringing in elements of both Western and Eastern sculpture, architecture, and landscape design. His works, while managing to be both understated and apolitical, bring joy and peace to a lot of people around the world. That is no small feat.