The quiet streets of Long Island City in Queens can feel very far away from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, even though they’re just a short subway ride away. Here, among this working-class neighborhood’s houses, brick apartments, and industrial buildings is a museum dedicated to the work of world-renowned artist Isamu Noguchi. A Japanese-American sculptor who spent many years living and working in New York, Noguchi also maintained a studio in a village in Japan during the final decades of his life.
His childhood, too, was divided between the countries of his American mother and his Japanese father. His identity and creativity were shaped by the American metropolis where he first studied sculpture, the seaside town in Japan where he spent much of his childhood, and the many other places around the world where he traveled in his lifetime.
The Noguchi Museum was founded shortly before he died in 1988. It is notable as being the first museum established by a living artist in the United States. At the museum, visitors can experience the impressive works of an artist who was a product of two very different cultures. Built across the street from Noguchi’s former studio in a community where many industrial buildings have been converted to artists’ studios, the Noguchi Museum houses the artist’s archives and the largest collection of his works in the world.
A peaceful oasis designed by the master sculptor himself
Early on a summer Sunday, I visited the museum, a nondescript building on a corner not far from the East River that separates Manhattan from Queens. After entering the first gallery, a high-ceilinged room where rust-colored and grey basalt sculptures are displayed alongside slender trees growing up through openings in the ceiling, I passed through a doorway that leads out into the sculpture garden. A relaxing place to stroll, sit, or admire Noguchi’s stone creations, the garden is also visible through large windows from within the building. Within the museum, I wandered from room to room and enjoyed exploring the building without encountering many other museumgoers, a rare pleasure in New York City. Although many of the individual artworks on display in the galleries are remarkable, the museum experience as a whole is equally impressive.
The museum’s director, Jenny Dixon, notes that the sculpture garden, which was designed by Noguchi himself, “remains the centerpiece of the visitors’ experience, and many people see the museum itself as one of Noguchi’s finest achievements.”
Most of the galleries are bright and spacious. The building was originally used as a photo engraving plant in the 1920s, and is an ideal setting for Noguchi’s work. In addition to sculptures crafted from pink marble, black obsidian, granite, and other materials, the museum features Noguchi’s famous paper lamps, furniture, and various drawings.
After touring the galleries, I returned to the garden. The museum sometimes hosts concerts there, but on this sunny morning it was quite peaceful. As I wandered among the artworks in the garden, the calm was momentarily interrupted by an excited group of Japanese-speaking children and parents who were making their way down the path to participate in an Art for Families program. In addition to Japanese-language programs for families and children, the museum provides tours and information in Japanese, embracing both Japanese and Japanese-American visitors’ interest in Noguchi’s work.
Noguchi’s multicultural influences
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American mother and a Japanese father, who was a successful poet. Noguchi’s parents separated when he was very young, and he had little contact with his father for most of his life, but his mother brought him to Japan when he was a toddler and they eventually settled in Chigasaki. They lived in a small house there until he returned to the United States to attend boarding school at the age of 13. These early years in Japan had a strong influence on his life and art.
Noguchi began studying sculpture in New York City after enrolling in university there, and continued to study in Paris before opening his own studio in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1942. Decades later, he began a long collaboration with a stone carver in Shikoku. Throughout his life, Noguchi traveled the world in search of inspiration for his art.
Noguchi’s international influences are evident in the names of many of his sculptures, such as “Awa Odori” and “Shiva Pentagonal.” Nature, too, is present in many of his pieces, such as “Black Hills” and “Double Red Mountain.” Noguchi’s works are not limited to stone sculpture. His landscape projects include a bank plaza in Manhattan, and a garden at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. His design work includes everyday items such as sofas and tables, stage sets for Martha Graham, an influential modern-dance choreographer with whom he collaborated for thirty years, and his famous Akari Light Sculptures, the washi paper and bamboo lamps he designed when the mayor of a small town in Gifu asked him to help revive the area’s faltering lantern industry.
“Quite often, first-time visitors arrive with some familiarity of a particular aspect of Noguchi’s work, not necessarily realizing that his career spanned over six decades,” Dixon said. “The museum is a culmination of the artist’s lifework.”
A museum experience unlike any other
Exploring the galleries and gardens is an experience quite unlike other museums, even for those who are not familiar with Noguchi’s work. But it is certainly interesting to look at his work while contemplating how he lived his life both in Japan and the United States. He once said that he was “born bearing the burden of two countries.”
By the time Noguchi died in 1988, he had already become a world-renowned and influential artist. This museum is a lovely monument to his life and career. A visit to the peaceful oasis he created on a corner in Queens would be a highlight of any trip to New York, and an excellent opportunity to become more acquainted with Noguchi’s work.
The museum will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in 2015 with special exhibitions and publications.