Art

The Postminimal Zen of Boxed-Up Noguchis

Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden in June 2015 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

If you visit the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City this summer, someone at the front desk will let you know that the institution is currently undergoing renovation and they regret that all the art in the garden is temporarily off view. What they won’t tell you is that the garden, even in its current state of construction, is still worth your visit. All of the approximately two dozen outdoor sculptures have either been removed or covered with protective plywood boxes. These measures have transformed this former retreat of high modernism into a space of postminimal excess. This temporary plywood garden contains visually striking sculptural objects intended by no one.

After Hurricane Sandy it was deemed necessary to repair the Noguchi’s garden wall and irrigation system to safeguard against future storms. During this process the original Noguchi outdoor sculptures are being protected by plywood boxes large enough to be lifted over them. Each box was built to fit a specific work, and so they display a variety of constructions. Most are made of untreated plywood topped with bright yellow rain tarps, while others have yellow-painted corners; still others are painted a solid slate gray. There is no indication that these boxes were designed with consideration for anything but the practical matter of protecting the Noguchis, and it seems dubious to assume that any choices about materials were made artistically. Yet these boxes have striking aesthetic qualities.

Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden (click to enlarge)
Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden (click to enlarge)

Consider the box that now covers Noguchi’s “Core.” The original 1978 sculpture is a curved basalt tower with a plate-sized core drilled out of its center, inviting contemplation of the natural landscape. The hole itself acts as a frame through which the rocks and trees of the garden can be viewed. “Core” is now replaced with an enigmatic obelisk. The gray box has a strong formal relationship to the square concrete plinth it rests on, and it echoes many of the dark squares in the facade of the blue warehouse behind it. Rather than the natural landscape, the piece is now in conversation with the industrial one. “Core” and its cover box clearly differ in their emphases, but this new sculpture is similarly arresting in its austerity and geometric simplicity.

The overall aesthetic strength of the renovation boxes may be due to the fact that their arrangement mirrors Noguchi’s original layout for the garden, thus translating the spatial relationship from stone objects to plywood ones. When Isamu Noguchi founded the museum in 1985, he designed this garden so his stone pieces could be seen in a naturalistic setting. He made aesthetic choices regarding size, space, and light. The new boxes roughly share the same spatial relationship as the originals, and because they were built to cover specific artworks each box roughly emulates its work’s proportions. What results is a kind of abstracted Noguchi garden, simplified down to cube forms, but with the same modernist dynamics.

And yet, while these unintentional sculptures draw strength from Noguchi’s arrangement, their surface quality is markedly different from anything Noguchi made. The unnaturalness of the yellow and the sense that they were quickly built to be temporary run at cross-purposes to the connotations of unadulterated nature and permanence that Noguchi aimed for in his work. The garden then is not simply an abstract translation of Noguchi’s spatial layout, but also a poetic inversion of many of the ideas that motivated him. It is now a space for meditating on the aesthetics of impermanence, precariousness, and the slipshod.

Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden
Renovations in the Noguchi Museum garden

Arguably, these objects that I find compelling could be found at another construction site, and enthusiasts for aesthetics of the everyday could be unimpressed. Similarly, one could indulge an interest in cubes with a choice Judd or satisfy a curiosity for plywood with a Hirschhorn monument. But none of these options offers the pleasant and unusual experience of sitting in the shade in the middle of a silent construction site and quietly regarding the objects found there. The Noguchi Museum renovations are unique because the garden atmosphere has remained intact, giving us a restful place to fully enjoy these ephemeral and unintentional works of art.

The Noguchi Museum (9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City, Queens) renovation project was initiated last September and will continue through the summer of 2015. The garden paths and benches will remain open to visitors during museum hours.

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