Our environment will always be the main factor that influences on how we feel and act. Easy to ignore or to take it for granted, but the objects that surround us have an immense effect on our well being. Over the weekend, I visited the Noguchi Museum, in Queens. I was excited to finally meet the work of Isamu Noguchi. The museum opened in 1985 and it was both founded and designed by Noguchi himself. The space is a singular industrial looking building and as you walk through its tall grey walls, one will encounter a peaceful Japanese garden along with Noguchi’s pieces sprinkled all over the place. The unique architecture of the museum guides the visitor through the galleries and it’s effortless to navigate through Noguchi’s masterpieces.
Located just a few steps away from Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens, Noguchi Museum is a secret oasis. It is a pioneer institution that truly transformed this area into an art destination, along with MoMA PS1 and the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s safe to say that this museum has an imperative presence in the area and we visitors, are just lucky enough to stumble upon it.
His mother was a writer and his father was a poet. Noguchi grew up in a household of artists, an environment that enabled him to quickly find the artist in himself. He knew what his calling was and by the time he was only 18 years old, Noguchi was the apprentice of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. If this name doesn’t ring any bells, just think of the Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Borglum carved the four presidential faces out of those large rocks, starting in 1927 and completing it in 1941. In 1927, Noguchi left for Paris when he received a grant from the Guggenheim Museum, even though he was three years short of the age requirement for the fellowship. In Paris, he became the studio assistant of Constantin’s Brancusi. This was a crucial time of his life and it was there that he met some important figures such as Alexander Calder and Stuart Davis. Once he returned to New York, Noguchi held his very first solo show at the Eugene Schoen Gallery. Noguchi’s recognition in the art world came precociously almost as if it couldn’t wait any longer: the world needed his work and he was born ready.
After none of his works were sold at the Eugene Schoen Gallery, Noguchi was forced to find other ways to sustain himself financially. It was in 1935 that he produced the first of several stage sets for the one and only Martha Graham. Transitioning from stage set production back to sculptor making, Noguchi spent his time throughout the 40’s in the Greenwich Village making sculptural works. His deep involvement with theater wasn’t entirely left behind as Noguchi continued to produce stage sets for Martha Graham for many years.
Noguchi’s sculptures challenge the space surrounding them and a trip to Noguchi’s museum will certainly confirm that. However, the Akari’s installations caught my attention in a different way. Walking around them I experienced something new: these intricate, so called “modular ecosystems of lightweight, collapsible paper lanterns” – according to the Noguchi Museum’s online description – hold the power to entirely change the surrounding space. The merge of art and everyday life happens right before your eyes. The installations are made of few materials: washi paper, made from mulberry trees and delicate bamboo structures. The paper is highly fibrous, creating a soft glowing atmosphere once lit up. These lamps come in different shapes and sizes, varying from spheres to squares. Each one of them has a life of its own and its calming presence is nothing but mesmerizing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. Ikea. As you should. The Swedish company is known for selling Noguchi-like lamps, in all shapes and sizes. The resemblance is certainly there but they are far from being identical. This is an example of art invading everyday life and sneakily penetrating our psyches. You may ask yourself once inside Noguchi Museum: “why am I seeing Ikea lamps in here?”. In reality, it’s the other way around. Why are Noguchi’s famous Akari lamps at Ikea, for only $9.99? Since the artist couldn’t get a patent on the lamps, they are free to be replicated. However, seeing the original Akari lamps at Noguchi Museum is a singular experience. Their versatility and simplicity is what makes them unique.
If you are ever strolling around the streets of New York City, jump on the subway (you can take the F, 7, N or W trains from Manhattan to Long Island City in Queens) and take yourself to Noguchi Museum. Spend some quiet time in the Japanese garden, discover Noguchi’s attention to detail and allow yourself to forget that you are in New York City, even if just for a brief moment. I guarantee you will leave the place feeling refreshed and with your perspectives adjusted.
The Noguchi Museum is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10AM to 5PM. Saturdays and Sundays from 11AM to 6PM. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
More visitor info here.