On a dismal, rainy Saturday in Manhattan, as dirty snow slowly melted to reveal winter’s detritus outside, the cheerful, humorous, and ever approachable Fred Wilson led a group of gallerygoers through Isamu Noguchi’s Variations. The exhibition is currently on view in one of Pace Gallery’s Chelsea spaces, where wide-open rooms and church-like skylights give Noguchi’s iconic works a calming and magical feel. Wilson began his tour by telling us what first drew him to Noguchi. “There was no one who looked like me in art school,” the self-described “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” artist explained, “and there was no one who looked like Noguchi.” It was the Japanese American’s bicultural identity that laid the foundation for a cross-generational connection between these two aesthetically different artists.
In a decade full of retro revivals that have inspired more than a few sarcastic blogs about 21st-century modernist décor, it’s easy to forget how abstract and modernist work should be viewed. Under Wilson’s care our crowd of about 50 was pleasantly reminded. Entering the first gallery full of sculptures, Wilson commented, “In this room time slows down.” He noted how Noguchi challenges our notions of space by making us gaze down upon smooth and horizontal objects. Contemplating carefully carved, cracked and chiseled stone, “time, space, age, and stuff” — as Wilson eloquently put it — does indeed come to the forefront of the mind, as do the thin lines between art, design, and functionality.
In the presence of Noguchi, words like “flatness,” “object,” and “base” take on meaning and relevance that sound neither forced nor pretentious — his vacillation between landscape and sculpture, surface and edge, is almost meditative. Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, who was also in attendance, said of the second room, “This gallery is about tables trying to be landscape and about landscape trying to get into your house.” I never thought a day would come when the dated terms used to describe art in the 20th century felt like fresh, new ways to think about objects, but Noguchi proved me wrong. Nonrepresentational art demands, almost by default, that we speak to what is in front of us, rather than what might or could be there instead.
The most engaging aspect of the show comes from the decision to highlight the great diversity of Noguchi’s work rather than simply showing his most famous decorative or functional pieces. Variations lives up to its title by including everything from early drawings, in the style of the Russian Constructivists, and cement playground sculptures to the skeleton-like sets he designed for modern dance icon Martha Graham. Though Wilson did acknowledge that artists tend to return to the “forms” they feel most comfortable making — and here I can see form acting as a stand-in for subject matter, materiality, or particular techniques — he also addressed the misconceptions and criticisms successful artists face when it comes to expanding their processes and aesthetics.
Like Noguchi did, Wilson himself works in a variety of media, exploring concepts that include analyzing race and politics and questioning how art and artifacts are traditionally displayed in museums, while critiquing the assumptions and power structures such presentations uphold. Wilson is familiar with the expectations that viewers, collectors, and critics have when it comes to an artist’s work, and he understands the expectation of sameness Noguchi faced throughout his career. “It can’t be a Noguchi” or “that isn’t really what you make,” Wilson said, are expressions similar to the ones he has heard and rightly finds limiting. A way of pigeonholing artists into making a single type of work, this view also affirms core misconceptions about the artistic process. To assume that some part of an artist’s repertoire is somehow truer than another is something Wilson rails against, and in retrospect he admires Noguchi’s ability to “create a less-than-seamless body of work.” Diversity, to Wilson, is the name of the game, and lord knows it’s something we could use more of.
Isamu Noguchi: Variations continues at Pace Gallery (508 & 510 W 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 21.