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Noguchi's Commission for Idlewild Airport

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 20, 2020

In 1956, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was invited by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to submit a design for a monumental sculpture for the new International Arrivals Building they were designing for Idlewild Airport [now JFK], the world's first large-scale international airport. The totemic column he proposed (above, front) suggests human aspiration for the cosmos and was envisioned as carved from granite and topped by an uprising bird-like abstraction. 

The proposed 25-foot-tall work is described by senior curator Dakin Hart as “a bioarchitectonic column suggesting an alien order of architecture and topped by an upturned crescent featuring a three-dimenionalized version of the parabolic, cometary swoop that would soon become a trope of aerospace logos.” The monument was to be lit from below—as the scale model on view is—suggesting the lift-off of a rocket. The commission, however, was awarded to Noguchi’s close competitor, Alexander Calder, for a massive ceiling-mounted mobile.

For this exhibition, Hart (above) drew upon the museum’s vast collection, selecting works created before and after the monument to offer an expansive view onto Noguchi’s work and process. The presentation demonstrates the ways in which the sculptor made further use of ideas that may have been rejected as commissions but nevertheless remained part of his evolving process. For a work carved from Greek marble in 1958 (top, right), he adapted the totem section of the monument. While the carving and its indentations are similar, and the piece is made from two connected shafts of marble, the slight difference in scale—and the material—give it a uniquely forceful presence. 

The beauty of this exhibition arises from the sense of scale you get if you simply stand still for a while near the model for the monument and look around the small room that contains a multitude of related pieces. In a wall-mounted vitrine at my elbow was the Model for Challenger Memorial (below, left: 1985-87). Diagonally across the room was First Proposal for Lever Brothers Building, New York (below, right: 1952), in which the work Bird Song, an homage to Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918), first occurs. Bird Song subsequently became a standing work cast in bronze—thirty years later; both can be seen as contiguous emanations from the mind that created the Lever model.

Models for Challenger Memorial (left: 1985-87);  Lever Brothers Building, New York (right: 1952)

The ways in which the bird figure that tops the monument were previously and further studied are seen in various iterations. A second bird-like piece that was probably presented to the commission for the monument lies beneath a vitrine containing some of Noguchi’s sketchbooks (ca. 1955-60). A piece called Bird B, made from Greek marble two years later, stands to the left of the monument; Bird Song (1952); Double Bird (1958) and three untitled studies, in plaster, hover nearby. The evolution of a form that, in 1956, was forever labeled “swoop”, becomes evident across Noguchi’s timeline.

The architect/futurist R. Buckminster("Bucky") Fuller, described his friend Noguchi as a protean globalist, even comparing him to the airplanes on which he constantly traveled. Identifying him as “the unpremeditated prototype artist of a one-world-town cosmos,” he wrote, “Isamu has to-and-froed in his great back and front yards whose eastward and westward extensions finally merged in world encirclement….it is safe to say that Isamu Noguchi is history’s most traveled artist.” Curator Hart continues along these lines as he writes, “Noguchi’s proposal for Idlewild, however, with its man-in-the-moon face, appears to aim a bit higher than horizontal, atmospheric flight. It more clearly resembles a symbolic abstraction of a rocket set to carry man into space.”

Isamu Noguchi: Composition for Idlewild Airport, continues through August 23, together with a second special exhibition, The Sculptor and the Ashtray. Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City, New York, Info  Save the date: Sunday, March 8: Gallery talk, 3:30-4:30 pm. Weekend programs and performance schedule here The DART Board will resume next week. Photos ©Peggy Roalf @peggy.roalf sculpture2019.19

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