Plaster model with tall column element, short bird-like element, and human figure for scale

Composition for Idlewild Airport

February 12, 2020 – August 23, 2020

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was profoundly in sync with America’s mid-century obsession with the power of design to shape the modern world. Dual exhibitions Composition for Idlewild Airport and The Sculptor and the Ashtray testify to his interest in making sculpture everywhere out of everything. In the mid-1940s, the ashtray—even more than the martini shaker, the radio, or the barbeque—was an example of an object at the center of an existing, predominant social ritual, the shaping of which was then becoming central to Noguchi’s conception of how to make socially relevant modern sculpture. In the late 1950s, air travel was a still-developing ritual of modernity, in the process of becoming synonymous with one-world culture.

In 1956, Noguchi was invited by the architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to submit a design for a monumental sculpture for the new International Arrivals Building they were designing for New York’s Idlewild Airport, the first large-scale international airport in the world. Four years later, in a 1960 magazine profile of Noguchi written for The Palette, R. Buckminster Fuller seemed to acknowledge the appropriateness of Noguchi working in the context of an airport, stating, “… Isamu has always been inherently at home—everywhere. He has to-and-froed in his great back and front yards whose eastward and westward extensions finally merged in world encirclement … World airlines pilots … hold history’s travel records. But it is safe to say that Isamu Noguchi is history’s most traveled artist.”

Noguchi’s proposed design, a large, sky-gazing column, was not selected, and the commission went to his contemporary and long-time rival Alexander Calder, who proposed a massive mobile.

Composition for Idlewild Airport will explore Noguchi’s design with a variety of related models, maquettes, architectural plans, and archival photographs and documents. A highlight is the recently restored competition model Noguchi executed in plaster, as well as a derivative column he made in Greek marble, which was exhibited in his 1959 exhibition at Stable Gallery in New York. That piece, which remained in Noguchi’s collection but was broken at some point and left unrepaired in his lifetime, has also recently been conserved. The exhibition will also feature an exhibition copy of a model of the SOM-designed Lever Brothers Building, now known as Lever House, for which Noguchi designed an unrealized courtyard. That project was the seedbed for the idea Noguchi presented for the Idlewild commission and the inspiration for many stand-alone sculptures, including his variations on Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, one of which, Bird B, is also included in the exhibition.

  • Isamu Noguchi, Bird Song (element from model for Lever Brothers Building), 1952. Plaster, metal. Collection of The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS

Composition for Idlewild Airport is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council and from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.