Carved in Stone: Isamu Noguchi

Saturday, June 9th, 2012


Noguchi Museum, Queens, New York

We recently headed to New York to take in ICFF—the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.  This fair has come a long way since its inception and its one of the few trade shows that we don’t mind going to, in spite of its location at the Jacob Javits Center.  “Javits”–for anyone who hasn’t experienced it–is New York City’s convention center and a pretty humdrum one at that.  The roof at Javits has been leaking for as long as we can remember.  The preposterous band-aid for this particular issue is to string up large scale tarps along the ceiling of the center in order to collect the water.  During heavy rains these have been known to give way, drenching everything below.  All of which makes for a fun and lively atmosphere–you just never know when your number is going to come up at Javits!  After walking the aisles of a trade show all day, we’re typically too wiped out to do much else.  That’s why when our visit allowed us some free time to visit the nearby Noguchi Museum, it was a rare treat.

The museum is located in Long Island City, Queens, an arts and small manufacturing district, which produces everything from fortune cookies to Brooks Brothers neckties.  While the area around the museum is made up of rough and tumble factories and warehouses, all that fades away once you enter the museum complex.  Larger than it looks from the exterior, the complex includes an open air sculpture garden with extensive works by the Japanese- American artist.

While Noguchi’s stone sculptures are for museums and serious collectors, his Akari Lamps make his work available to a much larger audience.  Based on traditional Japanese paper lantern designs, the Akari lamps are icons of 1950s modern design.  Produced in Gifu, Japan by the original manufacturer, the lamps are handmade with washi paper from mulberry bark and bamboo ribbing.  Belying its delicate appearance, washi is surprisingly strong for paper—we have a lamp at home that has taken more than a few tumbles over the years without any damage.  The designs have been endlessly copied in cheap materials like rice paper, but authentic versions display the printed signature of the artist and are well worth the price.  This video shows the painstaking process required to produce the lamps.

On a much different scale, Noguchi is also responsible for an impressive output of public works including plazas, parks, and fountains, in locations as far flung as Japan, Detroit and Jerusalem.  Growing up in the Detroit area, I can still recall the Noguchi-designed Dodge Memorial Fountain at downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza derisively referred to as “The Flying Donut” for its design based on a ring rising up on two symmetrical legs.  So much for bringing art to the masses.  In any case, Noguchi’s multi-disciplinary talent shouldn’t be easily dismissed, and a visit to the Noguchi Museum is a welcome respite from the chaotic energy of NYC.