Noguchi: a civilizer of space

"Isamu Noguchi: The Sculpture of Spaces," on view of the Whitney Museum here through April 6, is a beautifully designed exhibition which illustrates as a whole what Noguchi demonstrates throughout in detail. Clear, concise, and highly informative, its overall tone and quality are sensed immediately upon leaving the elevator, remain with us to illuminate individual works, and linger long afterward as a pleasant and fertile memory.

It is a warm and humanizing show which does honor to one man's continuing attempts to transform and civilize material and space.

Presented as part of the museum's 50th anniversary celebration, and expanded from "Noguchi's Imaginary Landscapes" organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, this exhibition of sculpture, theater sets, and models for realized and unrealized environmental projects, emphasizes Noguchi's creative collaboration with individuals working in architecture and the performing arts.

These objects of bronze, stone, wood, and paper serve as guides to his vision of designed space, and reflect his intentions to "show that it is space itself which gives validity to sculpture. Beyond objects there is always the situation , the time, the performer, and the spectator. All are in re-alignment, in constant flux."

Nowhere in this show is this better demonstrated than in his sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company. And of these, his design for her 1935 production of "Frontier" is the most stunningly simple and effective. Consisting of a single white cotton rope zooming upward in two directions from its anchor-point at floor level, it creates space for the dancers, defines the dimensions of the set, and focuses audience attention as precisely as a spotlight.

Somewhat more static but effective nevertheless is the set for "Appalachian Spring," the first of three sets shown successively for three weeks each. It will remain on view through Feb. 24 and will be followed by "Night Journey" on Feb. 26 and "Acrobats of God" on March 18.

But while these may be the most dramatic elements in the exhibition, the most interesting and poignant to me are the models for four unrealized New York playgrounds: "Play Mountain," "Contoured Playground," "Playground for the United Nations headquarters," and "Riverside Park Playground." Poignant because of what was lost forever by the failure of various officials to give final approval to these projects.

Scattered throughout the show are models and photographs of various gardens and public recreation areas which did actually see the light of day. Among the most interesting of these are the "Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza Garden" and the "Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, Israel Museum, Jerusalem." The former, a sunken circular garden based on concepts derived from traditional Japanese gardens, was designed as a meditation area to be contemplated rather than entered. Stark, simple, and functioning as a fountain in summer, it serves as a refreshing oasis in the midst of a highly concentrated and often hostile urban environment.

The "Billy Rose Sculpture Garden," on the other hand, is an outdoor area for sculpture and for walking, and was designed to serve as a loose framework for sculpture of diverse styles and subjects. The model shown in the exhibition indicates possible extensions to the existing garden.

The only piece which at first seems out of place in this show is a large photograph of a stylized human face. But it proves to be of a scale model for the unrealized "Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars." Created as a "requiem for all of us who live with the atom bomb," it has a projected nose height of one mile.

These models, photographs, and drawings for public projects pinpoint a subtle quality in Noguchi's art which exists in everything he touches: a profound respect for human individuality and dignity.

It is this sense of humanity and of objects and spaces designed to human scale which comes across most clearly in this exhibition. That and multiple evidence of an exquisite sensibility and a clear and open mind. It is a first-rate show.

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