Dual exhibitions explore two mid-century designs by Isamu Noguchi

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Dual exhibitions explore two mid-century designs by Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, Ashtray Prototypes, c. 1944. Plaster. Photocollage pictured in the unpublished draft of Mary Mix’s “The Sculptor and the Ashtray.” The Noguchi Museum Archives. ©INFGM / ARS.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Noguchi Museum delves into two forgotten projects by Isamu Noguchi, conceived at the height of American modernism. The Sculptor and the Ashtray explores Noguchi’s efforts to design the perfect ashtray (a near-universal tabletop accessory in that era), and Composition for Idlewild Airport traces the story of Noguchi’s unrealized design for a monumental sculpture for the new International Arrivals Building at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now the John F. Kennedy International Airport). Both exhibitions will be on view February 12 – August 23, 2020.

Noguchi was profoundly in sync with America’s mid-century obsession with the power of design to shape the modern world. These side-by-side exhibitions testify to his interest in making sculpture everywhere out of everything. Most notable in his career, and in the contrast between the two projects, is his distinctly nonhierarchical perspective on what constituted a meaningful use of his time. In the mid-1940s, the ashtray, quotidien and ubiquitous—even more than the martini shaker, the radio, or the barbeque—was an example of an object at the center of an existing, predominant social ritual, the shaping of which was then becoming central to Noguchi’s conception of how to make socially relevant modern sculpture. In the late 1950s, air travel was a still-developing ritual of modernity, in the process of becoming synonymous with one-world culture.

The Sculptor and the Ashtray
The Sculptor and the Ashtray was inspired by an unpublished article written around 1944 by Mary Mix (Foley). Mix was an architecture and design writer who worked with George Nelson, then an editor at Architectural Forum and Fortune. It chronicles Noguchi’s efforts to design the perfect ashtray. Mix noted that this “commonplace gadget” was made and used across the full spectrum of material culture, from tacky novelty items and marketing swag designed by unknown “hacks” to solid-gold objets d’art conceived by the great artisans of the day for the coffee tables of monarchs.

Mix’s article documents Noguchi’s creation of two families of ashtray concepts. The first, handcrafted and biomorphic, was developed through a process of progressive refinement over nine modelled plaster prototypes. These are known from Mix’s account, and two images in the article’s layouts show them grouped together. Of the ninth iteration, which Noguchi seems to have considered the finished design in that line of thinking, Mix wrote that the ashtray appeared “not as a clever design, but as a natural object which grew inevitably and could be no other way.”

The other concept was a modular design conceived for industrial manufacture—to be produced “cheaply by the million” according to Noguchi. It consisted of arrays of standing bullet-shaped projections, to be produced in glass or metal, that could be set into other ashtrays as an accessory, and around which Noguchi designed two complete ashtrays, each with a slightly different scheme for facilitating easy cleaning. Noguchi referred to this version—which he viewed as the result of invention rather than craft—as “an American expression of the machine age.” He told Mix that “an artist who doesn’t take advantage” of America’s “facilities for machine manufacture…is just a fool!” It turned out, however, that the ashtray design was too complex for existing industrial techniques.

The exhibition includes design drawings for patent applications, replicas of the designs contained within them, letters between Noguchi and his close friend R. Buckminster Fuller and artist Anne Matta relating to the concept, recently produced exhibition copies of Noguchi (inextant) ashtray prototypes, and the original typescript of Mix’s article and two mockup layouts.

Composition for Idlewild Airport
In 1956, Noguchi was invited by the architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to submit a design for a monumental sculpture for the new International Arrivals Building they were designing for New York’s Idlewild Airport, the first large-scale international airport in the world. Four years later, in a 1960 magazine profile of Noguchi written for The Palette, Fuller seemed to acknowledge the appropriateness of Noguchi working in the context of an airport, stating, “...Isamu has always been inherently at home—everywhere. He has to-and-froed in his great back and front yards whose eastward and westward extensions finally merged in world encirclement. ... World airlines pilots ... hold history’s travel records. But it is safe to say that Isamu Noguchi is history’s most traveled artist.”

Noguchi’s proposed design, a large, sky-gazing column, was not selected, and the commission went to his contemporary and long-time rival Alexander Calder, who proposed a massive mobile.

Composition for Idlewild Airport explores Noguchi’s design with a variety of related models, maquettes, architectural plans, and archival photographs and documents. A highlight is the recently restored competition model Noguchi executed in plaster, as well as a derivative column he made in Greek marble, which was exhibited in his 1959 exhibition at Stable Gallery in New York. That piece, which remained in Noguchi’s collection but was broken at some point and left unrepaired in his lifetime, has also recently been conserved. The exhibition will also feature an exhibition copy of a model of the SOMdesigned Lever Brothers Building, now known as Lever House, for which Noguchi designed an unrealized courtyard. That project was the seedbed for the idea Noguchi presented for the Idlewild commission and the inspiration for many stand-alone sculptures, including his variations on Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, one of which, Bird B, is also included in the exhibition.

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