The Noguchi Museum

(updated 2016)

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), the prolific Japanese American sculptor and landscape architect, was involved in the most important art movements of the 20th century - modernism, surrealism, social realism, and abstract expressionism, and he was in many places - Paris, Mexico City, Greenwich Village, Tokyo, among them - at just the right time. A special exhibition at the museum illustrates this man of the world. But how he came to this industrial stretch of Queens is an important part of the story.  

The Red Cube, 1967, (as seen from the back side) by Isamu Noguchi, 140 Broadway

Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and American mother, Noguchi was raised in Japan. At the age of 13, he traveled by himself to Indiana to attend boarding school. After a year in Connecticut to serve as an apprentice to a sculptor, he left for college in NYC to study pre-med at Columbia. Meanwhile, he took sculpture classes at night. A major life moment was meeting sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1976-1957). Noguchi lived in Paris from 1927 to 1929 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, working in Brancusi's studio. His big break in the U.S came in 1938, a commission at Rockefeller Center to create a large public sculpture on freedom of the press in the Associated Press building. He collaborated with dancer Martha Graham and designer Buckminster Fuller, and he started to design public art projects and monuments. I'm leaving a lot out, like his sojourn to Mexico City to create the relief mural, History Mexico, befriending Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera while there.

Living in Hollywood at the time of attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was caught in the fury of wartime discrimination against Japanese Americans. He organized Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy and volunteered to spend time in an internment camp in order to improve the living conditions with his art. He left the camp after seven months and returned to New York, opening a studio at 33 MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village in 1942. He worked on abstract sculptures and designed a coffee table manufactured by Herman Miller. After the war he traveled to Japan to work, artistically dealing with issues of postwar trauma and rebuilding.

In the immediate postwar years, Noguchi traveled around the world, creating interlocking sculptures and new furniture designs. His Akari Light Sculptures, handmade paper lamp shades stretched around a bamboo frame, are some of the most influential objects in 20th century interior design. He collaborated with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, designing the sets for the New York City Ballet's production, The Seasons (1947). In Japan he created gardens, worked with lantern makers, and for the rest of his life traveled back and forth from Japan to New York. In 1961-1964 he created a sunken garden for Chase Manhattan Bank, and if you go downtown during banking hours, you can look down on it.

View Noguchi Museum in a larger map

And here we are in Queens, in this rather nondescript industrial stretch of Vernon Boulevard. In 1960 Noguchi moved his studio to this area in order to be close to the stone suppliers. He purchased a building across the street, a structure used for a photoengraving business, and this building would become the foundation building for The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum that opened in 1985. He expanded the museum based on his own designs, and he created a sculpture garden.

The galleries flow like water, streaming around his abstract slab stone sculptures. The ample windows allow sunshine to stream in and play with the artworks. As with abstract work, the form, lines, and textures of Noguchi's sculptures, ones he chose and arranged for these spaces, hint at essences of nature, universal totems for understanding the beauty of our shared world. As he believed that wall text distracted from the experiencing of viewing the work, visitors are left alone with the objects, unmediated by words. For those who would like some context, "walking guides" are available for the various areas of the museum.

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road, at Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY
Website for The Noguchi Museum 

Other works by Isamu Noguchi are included in area museums and in several public spaces in New York.

Images: exterior of The Noguchi Museum, and The Red Cube, 1967. This sculpture is also part of a self-guided walk on this site that maps public art in Lower Manhattan.

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