Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - Sunday, January 4, 2015

The proverb "necessity is the mother of invention" comes to mind with regard to Isamu Noguchi's involvement in industrial design beginning in the 1930s. Noguchi's efforts as a designer--he even started a business called Time Design offering a dizzying array of services--were motivated by many factors. His friend, "design scientist" R. Buckminster Fuller, brought an irresistible, missionary zeal to engineering and collaboration with American industry. Noguchi himself was prone to the technological utopianism so prevalent in the late twenties, when it seemed that architects and engineers, working with new materials in a fully mechanized society would be able to cure all the world's ills. When every American, including his early mentor, the educator Edward Rumely, who encouraged him to start Time Design and gave him a clock commission, wanted to be a man of business. Noguchi was also suffering from the limited range of opportunities available to artists during the depression--his proposals for public art being largely too complex and ahead of their time to gain traction from the likes of the Works Project Administration. Finally, in the way which has often been identified as distinctly American, he was fanatically, manically, constitutionally determined to be a Success. So, he channeled his energy into rethinking the design of everyday life.

This exhibition surveys the symbiotic relationship in Noguchi's work between sculpture and design in the years leading up to the 1939 World's Fair. Between 1932 and 1939 he designed cases for an interval clock and a baby monitor, proposed Bolt of Lightning, Memorial for Ben Franklin and Monument to the Plow, a 1,200 ft on a side, tilled and crop-rotated pyramid earthwork surmounted by an abstracted stainless steel plow, invented an internally lighted, musical weather vane, collaborated on several left-leaning architectural projects, designed a swimming pool (unbuilt) for a Richard Neutra house for a famous film director in Los Angeles, helped Fuller shape his Dymaxion Car, and finally created a monumental fountain for Ford Motor Company's World's Fair pavilion, celebrating an abstract assemblage of parts from the company's famous drivetrain. Neither at the time, nor since, has any artist or designer better exemplified the spirit of the 1939 World's Fair, "Building the World of Tomorrow," than Noguchi, who would ultimately hold every recognized intellectual property right (including thirteen US patents) and was among the most versatile designers to walk the planet since the likes of Renaissance do-it-alls like Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Patent Holder was developed in response to a borough-wide call to celebrate the 75th and 50th anniversaries of the two Queens World's Fairs of 1939-40 and 1964. The shape the show has taken owes an enormous amount to original research contained in Deborah A. Goldberg's unpublished dissertation Isamu Noguchi: The Artist as Engineer and Visionary Designer, 1918-1939 (Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, 2000).

An expanded version of Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow will travel to the Dr. M. T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery at St. John's University (1/15/15 – 3/19/15), and add a fully-illustrated catalog, in a continuing celebration of the anniversaries of Queens’ 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.

Images from top:
Study for "Musical Weathervane", 1939
Patent Document USD108837: Design for a radio casing (Radio Nurse), 1938