The abstract sculpture of Isamu Noguchi graces public spaces around the world, but the museum he designed to showcase his best works occupies a former photogravure plant in Long Island City, Queens. After the crowds of the Met and MoMA, it was a treat to enter the Noguchi Museum’s quiet spaces. I can think of no better way to spend a few hours on a hot summer day than meandering through the museum’s galleries and garden.
A prolific creator
Noguchi, born in 1904 to a free-spirited Irish-American mother and a Japanese poet, worked in stone, wood, metal and more. Known for his sculpture and public art, Noguchi also designed stage sets for Martha Graham dance productions, and for mass-produced lamps and furniture pieces, some of which are still manufactured. His creation of public spaces through sculpture established him as a critical figure in post-war art, architecture and design.
The museum presents a documentary film that follows Noguchi’s life and work through most of the 20th century. I found it helpful to view the film before visiting the galleries, as it provides valuable context to the works on display.
An artist’s design
The Noguchi Museum opened in 1985, under the watchful eye of the artist. His sculptures and commercial creations (tables, lamps of paper and wire, even cutlery) are displayed exactly as he wished them to be.
It is easy to linger here, to appreciate the texture, color and composition of cuts in the stone of larger works. Some rooms are infused with a play of natural light and shadow, while in others, individual pieces are spot-lit. A gallery housing larger-than-life pieces of worked stone shares real estate with living trees. The effect is soothing, contemplative and thought-provoking.
The outdoor sculpture garden was designed around a large tree of heaven the artist left in place when the building was converted. When the tree was dying several years ago, museum curators decided to take it down, and commissioned benches to be made from the wood and placed around the garden space. Today, those benches make for an idyllic rest stop. The museum’s small shop sells an array of Noguchi pieces, such as lamps, as well as a small selection of art and design books.
Inspiration for artists and scholars
The museum is officially part of a foundation occupying two locations. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan is located in the village of Mure on the island of Shikoku. The museum there is housed in a studio compound where the artist worked half of each year over the last decades of his life.
There is plenty of Noguchi art to be found elsewhere in the city, from Red Cube in lower Manhattan to a large basalt piece, Unidentified Object, in Central Park. I’m on the lookout for these and other works in my wanderings here. In the meantime, here are some images from my walk through the museum in Queens.
A virtual tour through the Noguchi Museum
Want to know more about Isamu Noguchi and his impact on contemporary art and design? To view a number of the artist’s works and for up-to-date Noguchi exhibition listings, visit Arty’s Isamu Noguchi page!