Isamu Noguchi bought the property that would become The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in 1974. He quickly put the space to use: moving much of the sculpture from his studio across the street, and beginning to turn the yard—then full of junk—into a garden. The Sculpture of Spaces, a 1980 exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art (which grew out of Imaginary Landscapes, his most comprehensive and coherent retrospective) got him thinking more concretely about his legacy as a maker of “environmental situations.” His ideas had by then begun to take root in this space and to become a tangible realization of his point of view.
The conversion from private refuge to public space began in early 1982. The resulting “sort of museum,” as he called it, began accepting private visits by appointment in the late spring of 1983. Two years later, on May 11, 1985, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum formally opened to the public on a seasonal basis with limited hours.
To outward appearances, The Noguchi Museum may appear to fit fairly comfortably into the category American art museum. But Noguchi despised categorization, and it really does not—any more than the commonly accepted definition of sculptor fit Noguchi himself. The Museum, which contains not just all of the work and work product that Noguchi left when he died, but also his archive and most all of his worldly possessions, is best understood as a functional analogue simulacrum of his mind. Here the synthetic juxtapositions between seemingly disparate materials, subjects, disciplines, and techniques that animated his extraordinary hybridity—which so often rises, in his hands, to the level of alternative, better seeming futures—continue to fire, as they did in his life, like still-active synapses.
Noguchi intended this garden museum—garden having gradually risen to the top of the list of metaphors he used to explain what he wanted sculpture to achieve—to be a public resource and an enduring empirical testament to the one indispensable thing in its permanent collection: his point of view. To some extent every museum is its own species, but this one is still unusual—a separate genus or even family—museum as total work of art, designed and established by the artist in his lifetime to epitomize and preserve his work and perspective. It is also critically important to understand that it was created, like so much of his work, in direct defiance of what Noguchi regarded as the art world’s overwhelming obsession with money and as an explicit counter to its homogenizing, market-driven, object-oriented consumerism.
The Museum was meant to speak for itself, as an example of what Noguchi described to Patsy and Ray Nasher (Ray Nasher would, not coincidentally, go on to establish a museum of sculpture) as “a sort of transformation of space into a particular place of earth awareness and of our place in it.”
As that characteristically expressive but unpackable description suggests, Noguchi was also more than capable of manifesting his point of view in language. Assembled from interviews, correspondence, and published statements, what follows is a composite view of the development of his understanding of the mission and operative values of this civic, sculptural institution.
Editorial Note: Excerpts from unpublished sources and otherwise unreviewed transcripts have been very lightly edited for accuracy and clarity. We have chosen not to remove most of the verbal tics that appear in raw interview transcripts in order to maintain Noguchi’s voice as completely as possible.