22 January 2007

Isamu Noguchi -- To Be Viewed From Mars, 1947

Unrealized proposal for a massive earthwork sculpture where the length of the nose would be one mile. This project draws upon his earlier proposal of 1933, Monument to the Plough, that featured a triangular pyramid of earth.

The message of this proposal seems more ominous and apocalyptic, suggesting that in a hypothetical future aliens from elsewhere in the solar system would have this visible feature on the earth's surface to indicate that at one time the planet was inhabited by humans.

The triangular pyramid for the nose and cones for the eyes are relatively self-explanatory if rigid and mechanical. The flattened oval above the eyes and nose is rather odd, perhaps suggesting the developed, but limited thinking mind or brain. The oval of the mouth with an opening suggesting parted lips suggests that this marker is attempting to speak or communicate.

The two oval forms are clearly related and of the same geometrical origin. This association between the mind and the mouth connects them and possibly indicates that thought and expressions of thought through language were an important characteristic of this ancient, extinct race.

For various personal reasons, Noguchi felt himself to be an alien from his own world. Following the devastation, inhumanity, and destruction brought about by mankind's advances in technology, Noguchi seems to wish to bring attention a viewpoint outside our world to bring attention to the potential apocalypse we had brought upon ourselves.

Perhaps if this work had been realized it could stand as a monumental reminder for humans to consider an earth devoid of life, barren and empty.

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08 January 2007

Isamu Noguchi -- Musical Weather Vane, 1933

Over the course of Noguchi's career, he made many models. In different ways, these models "stand in" for sculptures he was never able to realize. It is unclear how much effort he expended in attempting to realize them, although it seems they were all sincerely intended to be materialized, even those that seem the most theoretical and hypothetical such as his proposed To be Seen from Mars of 1947.

In his proposal for a Musical Weather Vane, Noguchi combines natural forces and phenomena (wind, sound, light, movement) with a mechanical man-made device created with the object of capturing something with certain qualities of living, breathing beings. In his almost desperate desire to realize such an animate sculpture, he gives the primary visual and functional element a distinctly organic shape. It suggests a lung, kidney, gills, ear, or some other body part. The rod and sphere to which it is connected and directly reliant are obviously abstract, non-living material meant to support the action, motion, shine, and sound of this hypothetical Musical Weather Vane.

Later in life when he put down his thoughts in his memoirs, he described his motivation to create this piece thus:

"I wanted other means of communication -- to find a way of sculpture that was humanly meaningful without being realistic, at once abstract and socially relevant. I was not conscious of the terms 'applied design' or 'industrial design'. My thoughts were born in despair, seeking stars in the night.

"In this frame of mind I designed Musical Weather Vane. This was to be made of metal, with fluting that would make sounds like those of an aeolian harp. It was to be wired so as to be luminous at night. The idea may have come from China, where small flutes made of gourds were attached to pigeons, and made a whooing sound as they flew about."
-- Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, 1968.

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Isamu Noguchi -- News, 1938-40

Isamu Noguchi's first major architectural commission was for this bas-relief over the entrance to the Associated Press Building. The building was constructed as part of Rockefeller Center and thus part of a progressive, large-scale architectural project.

Here the relief entitled "News" takes center stage. The stone walls at each side are like stage curtains pulled aside to reveal the main actors in this drama. The entrance simultaneously emphasizes the smallness of the spectator, the heroic figures above are five times our size, while at the same time engages the pedestrian in a away that someone entering the building can feel part of a much grander mode of action. The framing of the entry in stone with the relief and the doors set back in from the facade links the two to create a single monumental portal bridging the human scale with the super-human scale of the skyscraper, a wonder of modern technology in itself and a source of pride and symbol of optimism in the face of the Great Depression and developing war in Europe.

Many of the other reliefs and sculptures around Rockefeller Center feature mythological and/or religious personalities. Here the acts of man become larger than life, while being engaged in the project of recording and transmitting the "news," i.e., the latest goings on in our all too real world. Noguchi elevates the individual working together with others to describe and disseminate information to a higher stature on par with metaphysical and supernatural events.

Photograph by Roving Rube.

Isamu Noguchi -- This Tortured Earth, 1943

Noguchi's cast bronze model for a proposed work entitled This Tortured Earth was intended as a statement about the effects of war. Understanding this work was created shortly after his tragic experiences (as a voluntary detainee) in a Japanese detention facility in Arizona suggests that the proposed scarring and tearing of the earth is not only intended as a kind of anti-monument (in contrast to the sorts of heroic sculpture typically done to commemorate wars), but also as a manifestation of his own internal emotional and psychological scars resulting from a host of rejections. Those rejections include one's from his estranged father, from various women, from Japanese people (Isei), from Japanese-American people (Nisei), and from America itself (his own country).

In describing his concepts for the piece, he describes it as literally being blasted into existence using the very instruments of war to create this massive earthwork.

"The idea of sculpting the earth followed me through the years, with mostly playground models as metaphor, but then there were others. This Tortured Earth was my concept for a large area to memorialize the tragedy of war. There is injury to the earth itself. The war machine, I thought, would be excellent equipment for sculpture, to bomb it into existence."
-- Isamu Noguchi.

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Isamu Noguchi -- I am a Foxhole, 1942

This piece is alternatively known as I am a Foxhole (as it is titled in Noguchi's memoirs A Sculptor's World). The ambivalence regarding its title and its referent is also reflected in its being exhibited both as a wall mounting (like a tragi-comic trophy) and horizontally (like a model for an earthwork).

The mound with a circular depression contains a small, thin abstracted figure. This sort of stripped down image of a person reappears is various works over the years, appearing in guises such as a chess piece, a globular form, a phallic element, or an erect body.

In this particular case, the second title for the piece is sufficient to suggest the existence of an individual (either the author or the viewer) trapped within a depression in the ground (a foxhole) and symbolized by the elongated tall thin element.

That the piece combines the sensibility of a model and suggests modeling of the earth (at least metaphorically) parallels his personal situation at the time. He felt himself isolated and attacked. The U.S. government was suggesting he might be acting as a Japanese spy and the FBI was carrying out extensive surveillance of his mail and activities.

While the piece is perhaps a bit too literal in representing some kind of aerial guided bombardment directed toward the mound of earth and overpowering the fragile figure within, it clearly represents Noguchi's developing vocabulary of materials and forms. Its use of magnesite cement to represent the massiveness of the earth is common to other works of the period. The cork, wire, fabric, and wood are used as contrasting mechanically fabricated elements, not unlike the opposition of organic and manufactured forms in his earlier proposed Musical Weather Vane of 1933.

The tension between the still, heavy mass of the earth is juxtaposed to the light technologically derived elements (cork, wire, fabric, and wood). The form of these elements is clearly dynamic with actual tension evident in the wire, the fabric, and the weight of the cork ball, in addition to the formal dynamism of these elements as they contrast the self-contained, motionless mass of the earth.

These elements representing landscape forms in solid, organic form and lighter instrumental elements carry through many works Noguchi proposed and executed during the 1940s.

Archival image by Rudolph Burkhardt.

Isamu Noguchi -- Hérodiade, 1944

Seeing the stage set with two dancers (left to right: Martha Graham and May O'Donnell) gives a very different impression when compared to the set itself. In his autobiography, A Sculptor's World, Noguchi referred to this stage set as his "most baroque and specifically sculptural." He described the set as follows:

"Within a woman's private world, and intimate space, I was asked to place a mirror, a chair, and a clothes rack. Salome dances before her mirror. What does she see? Her bones, the potential skeleton of her body. The chair is like an extension of her vertebrae; the clothes rack, the circumscribed bones on which is hung her skin. This is the desecration of beauty, the consciousness of time."

The interaction between the dancers' bodies and the sculptural objects creates a much more dynamic relationship, a conversation of forms where the sculptures resemble stiff armatures onto which a body could be constructed. The poses and upward curves of the dancers' arms and the sculptural elements suggest marionettes or mechanical bodies controlled by outside forces, something above and beyond the stage set itself.

The viewpoint of the photograph including the dancers is inherently more dynamic with a strong diagonal composition and thrust, where as the stage set itself is presented in a more static, balanced formation. The confrontation of modern abstract sculpture and modern interpretive dance was apparently a remarkably new and unusually rich and fertile ground for further explorations.

Noguchi and Graham went on the collaborate on more than twenty such productions between 1935 and 1966. In that time, Noguchi also collaborated with Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Ruth Page, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Photograph by Arnold Eagle.

05 January 2007

Isamu Noguchi -- Hérodiade stage set, 1944

Without the direct physical involvement of living figures, Noguchi's stage set seems rather stark and cryptic. It almost appears that there's a face-off between the cross-shaped figure on the right with the complex, overwrought figure on the right. The central element seems to be set back, as if in judgment of the two. The tapering black backdrop creates a compressed, distorted sense of space. The setting seems fixed in stone like a relic of an ancient battle with only bones and basic structural framework of a shelter remaining as remnants of an earlier, more majestic time.

Photograph by Arnold Eagle.

03 January 2007

Isamu Noguchi -- Mirror (Torso), 1944

Noguchi gradually developed a language of biomorphic planes intersecting and interlocking in space. This particular piece, Mirror, was commissioned by Martha Graham for her stage production of Hérodiade. In this instance, some connecting elements are used to join the planes. Later pieces relied solely on the interlocking of the actual planar elements without the use of metal or other fasteners (hidden or visible).

These pieces derive in part from the surrealist abstractions of other artists of the time like Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy. In addition, I believe his three dimensional sculptural work gradually lead him in this direction as well.

Noguchi struggled between the dialectical poles of representational sculpture (such as his portrait busts of the 20s and 30s, done primarily to earn a living) and geometrical abstraction (such as his experiments in Paris following his apprenticeship with Constantin Brancusi). His drawings and sculptures during the course of the 1930s and 1940s exhibit a kind of vacillation between these poles.

His earlier successful bas-relief entitled News for the Associated Press Building (of 1938-40) made use of simplification and abstraction through the use of planes. Three-dimensional figures were broken done using angular planes to effect an Art-Deco cum Cubist conception of positive sculptural objects (generally ignoring the spatial implications of this procedure). That is, the focus is creating an image of the figures as positive, solid bodies within the context of the bas-relief. Representation of the space within which they exist was almost non-existent relying on the abstract diagonal lines of new emerging field of electronic communications.

Noguchi's experimental earthworks developed during this period make use of a similar aesthetic, this time carving and shaping the ground rather than a vertical plane to create large-scale sculpture in the landscape.

It seems reasonable to consider that his inspiration for some of these large-scale earthwork proposals was a countermand the position taken by an earlier American sculptor with whom Noguchi had apprenticed in the early 1920s, Gutzon Borglum who created some monumental sculptural works using industrial equipment and technologies. Within a year of Noguchi's departure, Borglum became involved in a monumental stone carving effort, the creation of Mount Rushmore. This massive sculpture required drilling, blasting, and other advanced methods of creating sculpture in the larger landscape of America.

Borglum was dubious about Noguchi's talent as a sculptor and suggested he should pursue a career as a surgeon instead. Essentially, his suggestion is that Noguchi's talents lie in cutting flesh to remove tumors and correct malformations, rather than in cutting stone to create idealized representations of the human figure.

Perhaps my interpretation is a stretch, almost a kind of joke on Borglum's part. Noguchi did enroll at Columbia University to take up pre-medical studies. Gradually, with the support and persuasion of his mother, Leonie Gilmour (who had returned to New York), he did return to studying sculpture in the classical tradition of clay modeling and bronze casting.

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