The world is a sculpture
von Znidaric Amelie | Feb 3, 2011

New York is a city that never sleeps, so they say. 24 hours a day people surge out of the subway, shops are open, police sirens wail. But there are also quiet places in New York. Not in Manhattan, but in Queens, for example. From the closest subway station you walk a good twenty minutes past industrial buildings and small apartment blocks to 33rd Road, on the corner of 9th Street. Long Island City - as this area on the east bank of East River is referred to - is home to some of the most interesting museums in New York, the MoMA offshoot PS1, for example, but the streets are empty. Only the occasional car passes, the asphalt has been softened by the scorching heat. The city that never sleeps seems light years away.

This was probably exactly what led Isamu Noguchi to move into a studio on 33rd Road in 1961. The sculptor, designer, landscape architect and stage designer was a solid and important part of the New York art scene, but also liked to keep some distance to it. The flat brick building still stands there quietly today, unchanged both on the outside and inside, with sliding paper walls, loft-like rooms and large studio windows. The studio is not open to the public, but directly opposite is the "Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum". In 1974 Noguchi himself bought the former photoengraving factory and gas station, and after carefully converting them, opened them as a museum and sculpture garden in 1985.

Design aficionados usually associate the name Noguchi with paper. The Japanese-American designer's Akari lamps are world famous and hang - usually as a cheap version from a particular Swedish furniture store - in homes all around the world. But Isamu Noguchi worked mostly with stone. Some 200 works which he created during his 60-year career from the 1920s to his death in 1988 are currently on show in the Garden Museum, most of them sculptures in basalt, granite and marble. There are also works made from wood, metal and clay, including plans and models of parks and playgrounds, elements from stage designs for the dancer Martha Graham, with whom he worked as of 1935, and photos of art in public spaces around the world. One room is devoted to "California Scenario", a sculpture garden on the Californian Costa Mesa, and includes an exchange of letters with the developer and plans of various design stages. Noguchi's furniture designs can be found in the shop and café.

The stone works not only take up the most space in the 12 exhibition rooms, but also in newspaper reports and reviews. The architecture is usually only mentioned in passing. This is all the more surprising, as Noguchi defined sculpture in a much wider sense than is generally the case: "I think of sculpture as something to be completely experienced, not just looked at. You are an integral part of it. Your environment is your sculpture, your world. It is the world and the world then becomes a sculpture."

So if the whole world is a sculpture to experience, then we can also assume that Noguchi conceived his museum as such. It consists of two old, two-story brick buildings, which were only connected when the complex was renovated in 2004. From the glaring light outside, you enter the shadowy semi-darkness of a partially roofed space, after a brief stop at the ticket desk. From there, visitors either enter the garden or the first of 12 galleries. No two rooms in the museum are on the same level: Stairs, ramps and a bridge get you from one level to the next. A great deal of light enters though the large steel-framed windows, although little sun enters the ground floor due to the large shady trees in the courtyard. The upper floor however is flooded with daylight thanks to skylights. Below are concrete floors and dark wooden beams on the ceiling, whereas on the upper level the floors are a light-colored parquet. The different spatial environments are reflected in the exhibition design. Downstairs exhibits are larger and rougher, mostly stone, while upstairs there are more delicate works, models, photos. Visitors can move unhindered and, given the absence of overseers, also unobserved through all the rooms.

From the upper floor an external staircase leads directly into the garden. The garden, like the entire museum, is rather small, a triangular patch surrounded by high brick walls. It exudes calm, which is only intensified by the twitter of birds and rustle of the trees. It is a Japanese-inspired pebble garden, sparsely furnished with elegant sculptures, simple boulders and two benches. A water sculpture gurgles softly at the back of the garden. It is a peaceful place where your spirit can relax. And the city that never sleeps seems light years away.

Interior Courtyard, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Installation View, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
View of the Noguchi Shop and Café © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Sculpture Garden, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: George Hirose
Exterior of The Noguchi Museum, NY. © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Installation View, © The Noguchi Museum, New York. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Installation View, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Gallery View, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: George Hirose
View of the Noguchi Shop and Café © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella
Exterior detail of The Noguchi Museum, © The Noguchi Museum. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella