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Useful Noguchi.

WHEN NOGUCHI represented the United States at the 1986 Venice Biennale, two years before his death, the centerpiece of his exhibition was a large, abstract, Carrara marble sculpture that functioned as a playground slide. Although originally conceived in the '60s when Noguchi created two wonderful tabletop sculptures depicting its general form, the full-scale version, Slide Mantra, was not realized until Venice, where it dominated the courtyard of the US pavilion. A second version was completed posthumously in shining black stone, effectively his final work. Today both versions of the slide are installed in parks, where they exist simultaneously as immense, elegant artworks and as actors in the secular world of play.

For me these works represent what is most compelling about Noguchi, that is, how he engaged the subject of use in relation to art. Here I am defining usefulness not simply in terms of functionality. Rather, I am interested in exploring how our experience of the use of things in the everyday world might become a subject for art, as well as how art can be used in ways apart from visual contemplation alone. Noguchi was an early proponent of the idea that sculpture can involve the viewer in ways other than confronting him or her with a monolithic image; he suggested instead that the experience behind our interaction with the functional forms around us could be absorbed into the sphere of art. His famous Akari lamps, for example, still effectively argue for the possibility of an overlap between sculpture that is looked at and sculpture that functions. This back-and-forth between the forms of art and those of the world is what is most "useful" about Noguchi, especially in light of today's dialogue around the interconnectedness of art, design, and social space.

Noguchi's forays into the issue of use laid important groundwork for recent investigations in the field of art. Over the past decade and a half, many noteworthy artists have created bodies of work that appear to come from the world of industrial, interior, or architectural design, just as they have explored modes of interacting with the art audience directly, even physically. Artists from Franz West and Joe Scanlan to Andrea Zittel and Carsten Holler have made works that are meant to be used as well as displayed. Gabriel Orozco's Ping Pond Table, 1998, carries on Noguchi's engagement with play, as seen in his 1944 chess table for Julien Levy. Meanwhile, figures like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster have pursued an art that, while not actually meant to be used, literally embodies forms of domestic space, such as a modern apartment. Jorge Pardo's work has argued that all constructed forms--even those originally derived from a deeply functionalist methodology, like a house or a sailboat--have the possibility of being understood in terms of the experience of art, an experience that may or may not include their "functions." On a related note, Pardo actually employed a Noguchi work in one of his own sculptural environments, just as he has done with a Volkswagen car model and the work of Alvar Aalto.


With a retrospective of Noguchi's sculptures now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I began to think about how I would curate an exhibition of his work that does not emphasize his mastery of modernist forms but, alternatively, reveals him to be an important antecedent to these contemporary concerns. The show would break down easily into four types of work: sculptures that look like furniture; sculptures that function architecturally in space; sculptures that look like or originally served as models for a landscape one could imagine inhabiting; and designs produced for industry. I would show virtually none of the contemplative and soothing sculptures for which Noguchi is known within the annals of art history. There, he is most often remembered as an artist whose work united the aesthetic traditions of East and West, borrowing the "natural" forms of Zen gardens, or creating vaguely anthropomorphic sculptures reminiscent of Constantin Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, and even Alexander Calder. But these aspects of Noguchi's work seem to me to be of minor importance--or even a distraction--in comparison to the Useful Noguchi. In other words, instead of the pedestal-based objects, my exhibition would include mostly works that suggest they can be things other than sculpture, even if that's what they are.


I would deploy my selections the way contemporary sculptures by the likes of Roni Horn and Thomas Schutte are usually displayed, in bright unadorned rooms with lots of space around them. There would be none of the dim atmosphere, stagy spotlighting, or garden path motifs that Robert Wilson recently used in his installation for the reopening of the Noguchi Museum in New York, which emphasized the "spiritual," Eastern view of the artist. I would show Noguchi's actual furniture (not the original production models, but current reissues) in rooms where they could be used, as many artists have recently constructed reading rooms or conversation "platforms." All of the lamps in this room would be the Akari lamp-sculptures, which you could turn on or off at will. I might even display some of his tabletop sculptures--"domestic" works that look like vases but aren't--on top of his own furniture. Another bright room would hold a labyrinth of the sculptures that Noguchi regularly created from the plaster models of his many unrealized landscape and garden designs, transforming them into bronze casts of stone carvings. The show's grand finale would be the marble slide. And even if the museum's director wouldn't permit sliding sessions, you'd still get the idea.


A few highlights from this exhibition follow. Contoured Playground, 1941, is a design for a playground in New York that eventually became a sculpture. Welded into a tablelike structure, the work begs one to envision traversing its hypothetical spaces. Pierced Table and Pierced Seat, both 1982, are obviously not functional, yet one experiences them by imagining what it might be like to sit at them. Lessons of Musokokushi, 1962, seems to grow directly out of the floor, making us aware that we are already negotiating a constructed landscape outside of the object itself. Bench, 1966, is a modernist sculpture that one happens to be able to sit on. But it is Slide that serves as the best summation of the Useful Noguchi. Although its use of Carrara marble connects it to a long sculptural tradition, the piece signals its contemporary vintage through its distorted classical proportions and sweeping curves. Slide has a grandeur and fascination deriving from its technically challenging method of construction and use of material, but, most important, one can instantly see that the sculpture is about use. Even if you never actually climb its steps or plunge down its spiral incline, you still recognize that the artwork is inviting you to relate to it, not as a fixed, implacable image, but as something that exists only in relation to you and your use of it--whatever that might be. Even at a smaller scale, the "model" versions of the sculpture also have this effect, because it's still easy to imagine sliding down the ramp. These tabletop sculptures seem to oscillate between the world of art and the everyday, because they can be appreciated as abstract forms without denying their connection to another function. All of the works mentioned here describe a space outside themselves; they exist not only visually, but through what they imply the viewer can do. Their temporal and tactile qualities suggest that the life of art is in what happens to it. And it is this powerful model for exploring the purposes and methodologies of art and its uses that has been taken up by so many artists of late.

The hypothetical Noguchi exhibition that I have described emphasizes his primary contribution to art: an expansion into the truly secular and profane material world inhabited by us. Recently I went to see Noguchi's work at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, and it was striking to see how different his work is from the rest of the modernist sculptures there. Noguchi's contribution is virtually the only one that has any meaningful relationship to the viewer, while all the other works, notably the numerous Mark di Suveros, dominate both the landscape and the viewer in their static monumentality. Noguchi's Momo Taro, 1977-78, fits snugly into the landscape and even provides a cozy cleft or two to sit in. In fact, on my visit, two small children were happily nestled in its cauldronlike nook, literally animating the sculpture, unwittingly contributing to the art experience.

If it is easy to observe how some of Noguchi's sculptures can be used (or at least look like they can), at this point we might ask: What of the works that were "designed" for the world of everyday use? Or better, what makes an Akari lamp a sculpture?

Noguchi's famous lamps are probably the ultimate example of his conflation of art and function within a manufactured object. They are a result of his intimate interaction with the manufacturing process, an intimacy like that he had with the sculptures he made himself. Amazingly successful commercial products, they evoke a specific era and class of people interested in design, but they survive today as a viable aesthetic proposition--an extraordinary feat considering the vagaries of fashion). With these works, he wanted to create a new kind of art that provided a space of consideration within the domestic realm. Tellingly, Noguchi fought, but in some ways failed, to present them as "sculptures." In 1968, he exhibited them at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery in New York, but in 1969, he was asked to display them at Bloomingdale's. At first he resisted, but then a year later he relented, a fateful decision. Soon thereafter they became fully part of the world of design. Perhaps now that the are of artists dealing with everyday forms, from Duchamp to Pardo, is firmly established, one can see them again as the complex and resonant sculptures that they are.

An Akari lamp is a sculpture simply because it is an object created within the same parameters in which Noguchi created his other works. Why should their practical use detract from their value as art? Noguchi's myriad interests in shape, scale, materials, and lighting effects were applied to traditional lamp-making techniques in a factory in Japan. He made them in a highly varied series of shapes informed by his work with abstract modernist forms, while their translucency and structure relate to many twentieth-century architectural concerns. They do not echo a particular set of fashion trends, status symbols, or a political philosophy of design. They do reflect Noguchi's artistic practices. They are not separate from those practices, and if they appear different from his other works, it only makes clear that their very function resulted from specific artistic decisions. Noguchi didn't design a lamp; he saw that he could make a lamp into a sculpture, a sculpture that by its very nature was about light.





Noguchi's manufactured works for Knoll and others reverse this process. Instead of turning a lamp into a sculpture, he turned a sculpture into a table. These works propose that everyday experiences are worth being considered, that your experience of a table can be as considered as your experience of a sculpture. Much has been made of the overlap between art and functionality in the twentieth century, but few artists ever made this a focus of their work. Many made functional designs in the postwar era, whether John Chamberlain or Donald Judd, but it was largely a side project, not a focus. Noguchi, it is fair to say, often did focus on how to inject the concerns of art into functional and manufacturable objects. His interiors and furniture, such as the recently rereleased 1944 "Fin" tables, have a lively, distinct individuality that leaves images in the mind the way "sculptures" do. As a side note, I would argue that they lay the foundation for the quality of "image" that recently reentered the world of design, as in the work of Philippe Starck and, of course, the lighting designer Ingo Maurer, not forgetting the historical contributions of Achille Castiglione. Noguchi has always been important to designers and architects, and there is now a resurgence of interest in his efforts involving architectural space and furniture design, as seen in recent exhibitions and books, such as the Vitra Design Museum's Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design, Monacelli Press's Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space, and a volume on his garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Here it might be useful to compare Noguchi's "design" work with that contemporaneously produced by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller. For while their work remains distinctive still, it clearly does not have the same sculptural resonance as Noguchi's. The Eameses' fantastic products were based on a disciplined, almost scientific inquiry into the use of objects. Noguchi did no such thing. He made tables that look like sculpture or arguably are sculpture. They are functional, even practical, but they were certainly not premised on a study of how people might use them. The Eameses' designs are relatively impersonal and free from the designer's own subjectivity, apart from the inherent blind spots that any researcher into use might have. In contrast, Noguchi's furniture is the result of the myopic, obsessive, egoistic processes that inherently form the basis of all art made by a single artist. They are, for better or for worse, an expression of Noguchi's greater exploration, in all its idiosyncrasy and singularity. Noguchi's genius was to realize that the objects produced by the process called sculpture could be lamps or tables, or at the very least look like them.

None of this debases the idea of abstraction, which is usually defined in terms of its functionless "autonomy." In fact, paying attention to the impure questions of use and viewer interaction does precisely the opposite. Such investigations add to the pool of what abstraction can be and what our experience of it is. For me this is the most important contribution of Duchamp--not that anything can be art, but rather that art can consider anything. And to this Noguchi added the very subject of use, again not necessarily being useful, but involving or referring directly to usefulness. This concern raises questions about the possible interactions between a work of art and the person encountering it, and it also asks how that experience might end up influencing the way we relate to the ordinarily nonabstract, everyday world. The group of works that constitute the Useful Noguchi might now coalesce into an inherently abstract, secular image of both an interior domestic world and an exterior world of landscape. And we are an integral part of the picture, welcome to explore, interact, and play around.

Josiah McElheny, a New York-based artist, is currently artist-in-residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio.
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Author:McElheny, Josiah
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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