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On the ground, floor, amid Noguchi’s metaphor

Nov 03, 2023

Sculptor Isamu Noguchi's "Subscapes" affirms the lower level spaces around chairs and tables as a mystical zone where often-hidden structures and unseen forces converge to provide information about the landscape beneath the landscape

Lying down on the floor of your house instead of sitting upright in a chair causes ceilings to recede. Things in your line of vision in one position slip out of sight. What you sit on to look at things can become part of the scenery you’re looking at.

"Noguchi Subscapes" is located on the eponymous Long Island City museum's upper level and contains about 40 installations, combining work and photographs from the museum's collection with the artist's archives. The exhibit runs through Sept. 3.

Noguchi worked with mid-century designer and publisher George Nelson, who wrote an essay describing the "shock that comes with seeing familiar objects from a strange point of view," after falling off a couch. As a result, he became inadvertently aware of the creative opportunities normally unconsidered areas, objects and spaces around tables and chairs presented. Nelson called it a "zone of nearly total invisibility." The objects’ low height made them challenging to capture from beneath.

The iconic freeform glass-topped curved-wood coffee table Noguchi designed for Herman Miller in 1944 showcased foundational, constructional elements of the table as visible aesthetic features. Displayed above eye level, the table evokes the feeling of being a child again, providing the altered perspective of looking up at what we normally stand above, as shown in Life magazine in 1948.

This was an especially profound victory for Noguchi as he had earlier discovered a company he’d pitched an earlier table design to was running an ad selling the mass-produced piece and refusing to pay him for it. He was in a U.S. Japanese detention camp he had voluntarily entered at the time, though he was exempt, to work with the government to improve camp conditions.

Rounding out "Subscapes" are pieces that seem to bend the laws of weight-bearing capacity. A heavy millstone with curved stone edges appears to float atop a slender wooden pedestal ("Variation on a Millstone #2," 1962). "Zig-Zag Table" (1984), rendered in hot-dipped galvanized steel, has a distinctive, folding, narrowed then flared durable shape that carves itself into space while giving it extra strength.

Noguchi delighted in his sculpture function in theatrical performances. For the Balanchine-choreographed ballet "Orpheus," he designed sets and costumes ("Sets for Orpheus," 1948). He also infused visual motion into structural stillness. In "Nightwind" (1970), a piece of the block twists gently upward at the top at one side, as if tugged by a breeze. "Downward Pulling #2" (1972) and the limblike interlocking components of "Seed" embody a similar effect.

Noguchi considered the floor a sacred space ("Infant" (1971) and "Origin" (1967-8)). He said: "Ultimately, the floor as a metaphor for earth is the basic base beyond all others. Gravity holds us there. The floor is our platform of humanity, as the Japanese well know. The floor in its entirety graces all who enter. They partake in the experience of being sculpture."

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