New Exhibitions Dive Deep Into Previously Unexplored Isamu Noguchi Projects

The twin shows at the Noguchi museum in Queens, New York, look at the designer’s work toward a “perfect” ashtray and for Idlewild Airport.
5 The Sculptor And The Ashtray Noguchi Museum Photo By Nicholas Knight Infgm Ars

A display at the Noguchi museum re-creates the studio of the artist-designer, who was an avid smoker. Courtesy Nicholas Knight

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Queens, New York, has mounted two new exhibitions that shed new light on previously unexplored midcentury Modern projects of the artist-architect: Noguchi’s attempt to design a “perfect” ashtray and his unrealized design for a monumental sculpture for the main hall of what was then the new International Arrivals Building (IAB) at Idlewild Airport, today John F. Kennedy International Airport.

According to the museum’s senior curator Dakin Hart, the ashtray exhibition was inspired by dummy layouts and an unpublished article, “The Sculptor and the Ashtray,” written around 1944 by Mary Mix, who worked with George Nelson, then an editor at Architectural Forum and Fortune. Likely written for a new publication that never came to fruition, the article discusses Noguchi’s endeavors to design a so-called perfect ashtray.

Noguchi himself was an avid smoker. In fact, the center of the exhibition features a re-creation of the kitchen/dining area on the first floor of Noguchi’s studio (which sat across the street from the foundation and museum’s location). The staging features an Akari 120A paper lantern hanging above a round table, on which sits a clamshell ashtray and Bruno Munari’s 1957 plastic-and-steel “Cubo” ashtray produced by Danese.

2 The Sculptor And The Ashtray Noguchi Museum Photo By Nicholas Knight Infgm Ars

Noguchi worked to create a “perfect” ashtray, examining features like upward projections that could both hold and extinguish cigarettes. Courtesy Nicholas Knight

In Mix’s article, Noguchi’s ashtray concept is described as a modular design, to be industrially manufactured, and made up of standing projections—which Noguchi called “bullets”—that could either hold or extinguish cigarettes. Noguchi prepared drawings for patent applications for three ashtray variations based on this concept; all are on display in the exhibition, as is a metal prototype of the original design.

According to the exhibitions’ brochure, the ashtray conceptually complements Noguchi’s light sculptures and is a precursor to his Akari lanterns: It says the ashtray also gave him the opportunity to create a “global modern hearth… Noguchi thought to reshape the then near-universal social ritual of smoking into something more like the Japanese tea ceremony.”

The fact that smoking is no longer a “near-universal” social ritual and is actually one that is outlawed in many contexts makes this exhibition both surprising and thought-provoking.

1 Isamu Noguchi Composition For Idlewild Airport Model 1956 1958 Plaster The Noguchi Museum Archive

The museum also presents Noguchi’s unrealized sculpture for Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in Queens, New York. Pictured: a model of the design Courtesy The Noguchi Museum Archive

The Idlewild Airport exhibition features an original plaster model of Noguchi’s sculpture proposal for the airport’s IAB and a marble column derived from it, which the museum calls “examples of Noguchi’s search for metaphors for connective aspiration.” In 1956, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which designed the building, invited Noguchi to propose a sculptural centerpiece for its main arrivals hall. The exhibition includes archival photographs and documents, as well as a model of SOM’s Lever Brothers Building (now Lever House) in Manhattan, for which Noguchi designed an unrealized courtyard. Ultimately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey selected a mobile by Noguchi’s rival, sculptor Alexander Calder, for the IAB. (Calder’s 45-foot mobile from 1957, .125, named after the gauge of its aluminum, today hangs in the departures hall of Terminal 4, the building at the airport that replaced the IAB, which was demolished in the late 1990s.)

“The open-ended, non-hierarchical, all-encompassing scale of Noguchi’s determination to sculpt the way we interact with the world and each other—represented in these two shows by the relatively sublime and ridiculous poles of a Statue of Liberty for the modern age and an ashtray—is a never-ending source of amazement, even to those of us who chase him down the rabbit hole every day,” Hart tells Metropolis.

The Sculptor and the Ashtray and Composition for Idlewild Airport are both on display at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum through August 23. (The museum is closed through the end of March.)

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Categories: Arts + Culture, Industrial Design