The social Noguchi

by December 8, 2010

Isamu Noguchi's artistic network (illustration from the exhibition)

Before social media made staying in touch with acquaintances on a mass scale a trivially easy exercise, human beings had to do sordid-sounding things like “meeting for drinks” and “working together” in order to achieve the same end. For all their lack of technological sophistication, the social networks they built were often highly functional, few more so than those constructed by creative artists and designers who sought out the new energies and sparks of serendipitous fire that talking and collaborating with other artists could produce.

American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a superb example of the type. Eclectic, very well travelled, and constantly experimenting, Noguchi collaborated with a wide range of fellow artists: designing stage sets for choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine, a playground with architect Louis Kahn. Alexandra Lange, co-author of Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, writes on a new exhibition at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY, that focuses on the sculptor’s relationships with prominent artists, architects, dancers, and designers. These links are depicted in the interesting network diagram shown above, about which Lange comments:

Charts like these are a bit of an obsession for mid-century design historians. There’s one on the cover of Gordon Bruce’s monograph on Eliot Noyes. Metropolis published this chart of Philip Johnson’s many tentacles. Charles Eames even doodled one of his own. They are a quick and pseudo-scientific way to make an important point: the worlds of art, design and architecture at mid-century were small, and all the players closely entwined. We think of Noguchi as a sort of Zen genius, Gordon Bunshaft as a pushy corporate pawn, but the two worked together for years. Bunshaft may have given Noguchi his best commissions, like Connecticut General, below, and even had a Noguchi at his lovely Hamptons house (you know, the one Martha Stewart tore down). Our idea of the personalities breaks down in the face of data.

Read the rest of Lange’s perceptive essay here. “On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and his Contemporaries, 1922-1960” runs until April 24, 2011. Details are available here.