- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
Noguchi: Useless Architecture is an exhibition of around fifty works mostly drawn from the Noguchi Museum’s collection and occupying its second floor galleries. In 1949 and again in 1960, Isamu Noguchi visited India’s Jantar Mantar in Delhi and Jaipur, two of the original five campuses of astronomical devices created on a grand architectural scale by the 18th-century Maharaja Jai Singh II. Noguchi described the conglomeration of instruments at each site—so large as to be more recognizable as monumental sculpture or architecture than as functioning devices—as “useless architecture, useful sculpture.” The exhibition was directly inspired by this phrase.
“Jai Singh’s structures are mystical sculptures that define space,” Isamu Noguchi is quoted in a brief essay accompanying his photographs of the Jantar Mantar in “Astronomical City,” Portfolio: A Magazine for the Graphic Arts, 1, no. 3 (1951): 115. “You might call them useless architecture or useful sculpture. They imply a use—much sculpture does that. Whether or not they were intended so, Jai Singh’s works have turned out to be an expression of wanting to be one with the universe. They contain an appreciation of measured time and the shortness of life and the vastness of the universe.”
In this context, the phrase “useless architecture, useful sculpture” represents an alternative to an architecture that is alienating in its totalitarian self-containment, and to sculpture irrelevant to life and time’s passage. It speaks to Noguchi’s ambition to sculpt spaces free from the specific responsibilities of architecture and to create sculptures imbued with more than purely theoretical, aesthetic purpose.
Arranged in thematic installations – Ruins, Theater Space, Architectural Metaphors, Terraces and Panorama, Postmodern Akari, Ends – the exhibition explores how Noguchi drew on architecture to supercharge his efforts to make sculpture civic, communal, and environmental. He had a contentious but phenomenally productive relationship with architects and architecture (see, for example, the digital feature Ten Architects). He stated in an interview in 1957, “I always prefer gardens, because I can work there without pressure from anyone. You know how selfishly architects claim the most important role in a building project for themselves. They see our contribution as secondary and they limit our freedom. Which is why landscaping a garden is a solution of sorts.” (Catherine Frantzeskakis, “The American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi talks about Greece,” Zygos no. 17 [March 1957]: 20.) Focusing on often overlooked public spaces adjacent to architecture such as courtyards, patios, atria, and landscaping, he was able to create timeless, humanistic spaces in a way that would not have been possible had he needed to assume architecture’s programmatic responsibilities.
An assemblage of abstract sculptures that imply ancient worlds, such as Ziggurat (c. 1968), Wrapped Figure (1962), Sentry (1958), and Small Torso (1958–62), evokes an alternate, modern, futuristic Delphi; a temple complex-like agglomeration of semi-ruins. Capital (1939), a special loan from The Museum of Modern Art (gifted to MoMA by Noguchi’s longtime friend and sometime collaborator, artist Jeanne Reynal), imagines what a biomorphic, surrealist order of architecture might look like if developed in the manner of the classical orders represented by Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian capitals.
Noguchi’s first design for Martha Graham, for her ballet Frontier (1935), employed a single length of rope to “throw the entire volume of air straight over the heads of the audience” (Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World: 125) and create “an outburst into space and at the same time an influx toward infinity.” (The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum: 212). In all subsequent sets for Graham—who wanted structure not scenery—Noguchi distilled environments into objects in order to create imaginary spaces. In Seraphic Dialogue (1955) he captured the whole majesty of France in a simple drawing of Chartres cathedral in space, while Embattled Garden (1958) both literalizes and analogizes life in and outside the precinct of Eden.
Noguchi did not believe that it was the job of sculpture to decorate buildings, but was extremely interested in deconstructing and appropriating architecture’s space defining authority. In sculptures such as The Opening (1970), Roof Frame (1974–75), and Shaft & Root (1982–83), Noguchi explores material combinations, structural systems, and architectural features almost as an architectural studio would in doing the basic research required to prepare for a major building project. He also greatly expands the architectural palette by returning, as he always did, to nature, the “better craftsman.”
Terraces and Panorama
Terraces were one of Noguchi’s simplest and most powerful semi-architectural play concepts. (All they do is to change your perspective.) A viewing platform derived from the form of a 1961 maquette for Isamu Noguchi and Louis Kahn’s unrealized Riverside Playground offers a panoramic overlook onto various small maquettes such as those for play sculptures (c. 1960s), an element study for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza (c. 1961–64), and a model for Pylon for Detroit’s Philip A. Hart Plaza (c. 1972–79).
For Isamu Noguchi’s Space of Akari and Stone at Yurakucho Art Forum, Tokyo (organized by the Seibu Museum) in 1985, collaborating architect Arata Isozaki worked from a cryptic poem that Noguchi gave him to inspire and guide a juxtaposition of contrasts through a series of miniature environments. In the Museum’s original Akari light sculpture gallery space known as Area 13, an installation directly inspired by one of Isozaki’s exhibition settings demonstrates the versatile ability of Noguchi’s lanterns to shape space. The warmth and humanizing power of Akari is emphasized by placing them in various geometric enclosures and display niches of chain-link and corrugated metal.
End Pieces (1974), a closed house of cards made from massive waste slabs of black granite, is temporarily relocated from the Museum’s garden and installed in a square interior gallery. In spring 2022, End Pieces will be incorporated into architect–designer Miwako Kurashima’s peripatetic, microcosmic tea space project *folding cosmos (an announcement with confirmed details is forthcoming later in 2021).