Isamu Noguchi’s Museum of Stones
By Ann Binlot
It was shortly after Isamu Noguchi arrived in Paris in 1927 that he discovered the medium that would come to define his career, thanks to the artist Constantin Brancusi, who hired Noguchi as his assistant although he could barely speak French while Brancusi couldn’t speak English. During their seven months together, Brancusi taught Noguchi about working with stone: how to transform a block of marble into a piece of sculpture. Noguchi would carry the lessons with him, especially to Shikoku, Japan, where he created works of art from the local basalt, making notable sculptures like the 1986 Water Stone and the Japanese garden at UNESCO in Paris.
For its thirtieth anniversary, Noguchi’s eponymous New York museum is celebrating with an exhibition called Museum of Stones, on view through January 10, 2016. The title references artist Jimmie Durham’s piece that served as a tongue-in-cheek effort to critique sculpture and architecture, and redefine stone as a form with the ability to have new meanings depending on its form. The exhibition features 129 works by approximately 30 artists (no relation to the museum’s anniversary), including Durham, Scott Burton, Lawrence Weiner, Janine Antoni, Mel Bochner, Dove Bradshaw, and Gabriel Orozco.
The exhibition organizers weren’t seeking to simply celebrate the form that Noguchi came to be associated with; they were trying to give viewers a new way of looking at it. “The whole point of the show is to undo the oversimplification of Noguchi’s career,” says senior curator Dakin Hart. “We are trying to open it, and blow it apart, and stone is a really good way to do that because he saw it in such a complicated way, was interested in so many points of view, one of which was working with it in that direct carving mode that he picked up in Brancusi’s studio. By showing him along with contemporary artists as well a lot of archeological artifacts, I think we’re trying to show the full range of his engagement.”
According to Hart, the distinction between rock and stone is quite simple. Rocks are made by nature, while stones have received a human touch. Hart tried to avoid the typical postwar artists who worked in stone, instead seeking to assemble a mix that lets viewers think about stone’s role throughout history. The pieces in the show range from an ancient Qing dynasty sculpture to two 2014 pieces by Stephen Lichty and Bosco Sodi. At the entrance, Sodi’s glazed and fired lava rocks that are covered with bright red paint are juxtaposed with Noguchi’s large stone sculptures.
Through the next room is Scott Burton’s 1982 Rock Chair, which, like much of Noguchi’s work, blurs the line between art and design. “The chair is made by taking the boulder and making a ninety-degree seat, but because it’s beautifully made it also feels a lot like a mountain, and we’re showing it in a place with Noguchi’s Mountain Breaking Theater, which is doing similar things,” says Hart. Lichty’s sculpture is comprised of a taxidermied cat atop a basalt column. “It engages a thousands-year-old tradition of monument and memorial,” says Hart. Mel Bochner’s 1972 work Five by Four shows groups of stones with circles drawn around them in chalk. “It implies that there’s a system of knowledge behind it,” explains Hart. “It looks like a version of mathematics.”
One gallery is dedicated to walls, and features a foundation stone from the fortification that the Israelites built to protect themselves from the Romans, and just near that is a piece inscribed with texts about philosophers and their ideas, who Hart says, if they’re lucky, are providing individual stones. “It’s setting up a metaphor with rocks and buildings being a way to think of the structure of knowledge,” he says. “That’s really what the show is about, and that’s really how Noguchi engaged with stone.”
Museum of Stones is on view at the Noguchi Museum through January 10, 2016.