words: mary gregory | photo: max flatow
Tucked away at the edge of Long Island City near the bank of the East River is the museum of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most important artists and sculptors of the 20th century. From the sidewalk, the simple brick building gives little idea of what lies inside—and outside. There are no ornate, towering marble columns or sweeping stairways. But walking through the doors changes everything.
Visitors enter an open-air gallery leading to a serene garden filled with dramatic works, which director Jenny Dixon presides over. Over the past 11 years she’s guided what she described as a sanctuary that provides respite from the rest of the city. Noguchi once said, “We are the landscape of all we know.” Nothing expresses that vision more than his garden. Massive sculptures, ranging from primordially rough to exquisitely shaped and polished, coexist with trees, bamboo, vines and fountains. Noguchi, who died in 1988, created, selected and planted every element. “Many people see this as his finest work,” Dixon said.
Noguchi was a master of many forms, which all can be experienced at the museum as works in stone, wood and clay, in set designs, modern furniture and his signature Akari light sculptures. But at this time of year, everything begins at and leads back to the garden. Smooth concrete paths abut a rare swath of natural mulch dotted with smooth stones or angular rocks. The foliage backdrops soften the hard lines of stone sculptures and loose stone flooring.
Though originally from Toronto, Dixon has shaped the cultural landscape of New York. “I was trained as an artist [painter],” she said, admitting, “I didn’t think I was very good and you have to have incredible self-confidence to keep going as an artist.” She found the right fit more than 25 years ago when she became the first director of New York City’s Public Art Fund, a non-profit that puts art on public display. “I was really fulfilled perfectly, helping artists to realize their ideas.”
It was at the Public Art Fund that Dixon first met Noguchi. “I was in my 20s…I had such regard and reverence for who he was.” She directed the placement of his “Unidentified Object,” an eight-ton basalt sculpture, at the southern edge of Central Park (it has since been relocated closer to the Met), his first sculpture on public property in New York. Dixon has been guiding and guarding the work and his legacy because, like Noguchi she believes in bringing the experience of something transcendent into everyday life.
“What’s really interesting and important to me,” she said, is “the power of the artist…People can come into this museum and leave with an understanding of what an individual is capable of…This was the vision of one person who didn’t come from a lot of Jack, and he did all these things…he built this museum so you could come in and see it.”
The Noguchi Museum features hundreds of Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures, drawings, a Japanese garden and two special exhibitions—Noguchi’s Early Drawings through May 25th and Noguchi Archaic/Noguchi Modern through August 31st.