On the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary, The Noguchi Museum presents Museum of Stones, an important exhibition that brings to the Museum some fifty works by about thirty artists, including Janine Antoni, Mel Bochner, Dove Bradshaw, Scott Burton, Jimmie Durham, Gabriel Orozco, and Lawrence Weiner, among others. Together, these will illuminate the stunning variety of ways in which artists from the 1970s onward have explored the integral place of rock and stone in human culture throughout time and across the globe. Organized by The Noguchi Museum and curated by Senior Curator Dakin Hart, the exhibition is on view from October 7, 2015, through January 10, 2016.
Noguchi Museum Director Jenny Dixon states, “While The Noguchi Museum is devoted to the work of a single artist, we are committed to showing the broader environment in which he worked, as well as the many ways he may be viewed in the context of later art. Museum of Stones, which has been brilliantly curated by Dakin Hart, takes a central component of Noguchi’s life and work—the exploration of the physical and cultural meanings of stone—and widens the focus to encompass a great diversity of modern and contemporary artists, providing a truly eye-opening picture of the variety of art yielded by a single material. We are deeply grateful to the many artists whose work is on view, and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Maxwell Hearn, chair of Department of Asian Art, and Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, assistant curator, for enabling us to show a superb selection of objects from their collection.”
Mr. Hart adds, “Noguchi was interested in stone not primarily because it can be shaped, but because it is, literally and figuratively, the raw material of civilization. Almost every culture that has used rock, and that is almost every culture in human history, has developed a culture of stone. Noguchi, who shared as much with the dynastic Egyptian pyramid builders as he did with Jean Arp, may be said to have developed his own culture of stone: material, historical, scientific, literary, and artistic. In Museum of Stones, we have tried to tease out some of the threads of that culture in a wide range of artworks and objects in order to get at what Noguchi valued: Earth rootedness, which from his perspective was the site specificity that mattered most.”
The centrality of rock and stone to both the natural processes that shape our world and the constructs of human civilization is undeniable, from the stones that shape the flow of rivers, to the rock that killed Goliath, to the development of mathematics and democracy (one meaning of “calculus” is “pebble,” as in the units used for counting and voting), to the memorials and other structures with which we challenge the insignificance of our biological lifespan on a geological timescale.
From 1927, when Constantin Brancusi taught him how to square a block of marble and transform it into a Modernist abstraction, through his entire career, Isamu Noguchi would work with stone in a constantly shifting amalgamation of traditions: with stone lantern makers in Japan; in a marble laboratorio on the slopes of one of Michelangelo’s Tuscan quarry mountains; in Edison Price’s lighting factory in Long Island City. Over the course of six decades he made “rocks” modeled in plaster and cast in bronze, cut from steel, carved in stone and wood, and even in the form of paper-and-bamboo Akari lamps. By the end of his career he was working almost as a process artist, allowing stones, under the ministrations of the many non-artistic, industrial processes and tools used to shape them commercially, to be the work. He came to see stone, as the Japanese tend to, as a living part of the natural world, with a lifecycle in both natural and cultural contexts, without ever forgetting that it is the original, and among the most universal and enduring, raw resources of technology.
Museum of Stones will be installed throughout the Museum, with a variety of works inserted into the historic ground-floor installation to introduce key themes before proceeding to the second floor, which will be entirely occupied by the exhibition.
In one of the three indoor-outdoor galleries through which visitors enter the Museum, an untitled series of glazed and fired lava rocks by Bosco Sodi (2014) is set among Noguchi’s large stone sculptures. Covered with bright red ceramic paint (with orange and gold accents), the rocks appear to be still-fiery chunks of magma, transforming the space into a kind of Neolithic monument. Moreover, with their ceramic shell obscuring the volcanic rock beneath, they may be seen as the obverse of Noguchi’s works in this gallery, which have been opened, their interiors highlighted through drilling, scoring, and other marks.
The following indoor-outdoor space contains Rock Chair (1982), by Scott Burton, whose work, like Noguchi’s, contravened the traditional boundary between art and design. Straddling the natural and the human-made in form, Rock Chair is at once mountain, boulder, and chair—and reminiscent of the natural “chairs” often seen in mountain ranges. Burton was an assiduous re-thinker of garden traditions, and this work, which is sited in a gallery that opens to the Museum’s sculpture garden, will throw Noguchi’s somewhat Japanese, semi-natural approach to garden design into high relief.
In the garden itself, a suite of pieces by Dove Bradshaw makes visible the processes of natural degradation that inevitably effect all stone, albeit on a glacial—and therefore virtually invisible—timescale. Bradshaw achieves this by nesting different types of stone, or combining a stone with an element like copper and chemically activating them, yielding a “natural” geologic process. The experience of the works as they change over the course of the exhibition will be akin to a time-lapse film of what is happening to the Noguchi works in both the garden and the galleries.
Inside the Museum, Janine Antoni’s and (1996–99) replaces Noguchi’s phallic monument to the summer of love, Ding Dong Bat (1968), with two 800-pound limestone boulders set one atop the other. The artist has ground the boulder on top into the bottom one using the 11-foot-long steel rod that is still embedded in the work. Essentially a millstone, Antoni’s work evokes the processes by which two independent bodies, be they the blocks in a pre-Columbian wall or interlocking humans, can be said to fit themselves to each other.
The largest of the ground-floor galleries includes an untitled work by Stephen Lichty (2014) comprising a 6.5-foot tall basalt column with a taxidermied cat on top. By adopting the classic form of a public monument, this disturbingly calming work pushes the notion of the memorial to a new place.
Other works interspersed in the ground-floor installation include selections from Keith Sonnier’s Modern Relic series (2011), “stones” made of painted, hard-setting plaster; Mitch Epstein’s photographs of glacial “erratics” (rocks deposited by glaciers) in New York City (2014), set off by one of the Uji river rocks that Noguchi collected but did not use for his Sunken Garden, Chase Manhattan Plaza (1961–64); and, in the enclosed area at the foot of the stairwell to the second-floor galleries, a selection of some 200 postcards relating to “famous” rocks, as well as a selection of Noguchi’s own photographs of rocks, pertaining to his search for materials.
On the second floor, Museum of Stones is loosely organized into four sections, reflecting some of the salient roles that stone has played in shaping civilization, and which have informed a variety of art.
The section devoted to structures reflects the universal use of stone as a means of separating us from each other and from nature. Rupert Norfolk’s Wall no. 2 (2006), constructed of stones that have been carved to be bi-laterally symmetrical, appears to be in the process of either being built or falling apart. Also here is Lawrence Weiner’s sculpture WHAT IS SET UPON THE TABLE SITS UPON THE TABLE (1960), of which he has said “That stone on the table could be used to break your bones, or it could be used to build a house.” Stephanie Syjuco’s display of counterfeit pieces of Berlin Wall (2008-) explores how history can be atomized as souvenir, while a partially carved foundation stone from the ancient fortification wall of Jerusalem (41–70 CE), on loan from the Jewish Museum, did not prevent the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome.
If stones are a means of protecting us, they have also been, from time immemorial, a means of killing each other, as Weiner implied. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Biblical story of David and Goliath, brought to mind by Jochen Gerz’ The Stone Will Go Back to the Slingshot (1979, 2015), consisting of a life-sized slingshot on a pedestal and an unremarkable rock weighing about a ton. With the two components placed about forty feet apart, the rock looks like it could fit in the much smaller slingshot. Also in this section, Rock 18 (2003), a charcoal-and-pastel drawing by Howard Rosenthal, looks like an asteroid, which may, after all, be the original rock-weapon.
Stones, along with plants and animals, were among the objects collected, described, and categorized in order to develop the taxonomic systems that are the foundation of the natural sciences. A section of the exhibition highlights this fact with artworks rooted in scientific collection and categorization. Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone (1992), a plasticine ball of approximately the artist’s weight, is intended to be rolled through city streets, picking up debris as it goes. Orozco’s absorbent stone is surely one of the greatest oxymoronic collection-devices ever conceived. Jimmy Durham’s The Dangers of Petrification (1998–2007) is a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek collection of rocks that look like food items: beautifully displayed, they amount to pseudo classification and create the possibility of pseudo knowledge. Tom Sachs also engages in “classification” as a way of creating “knowledge” with his Moon Rock Box, Helpers in Need (2008) and Mars Rocks (2012), collections of rocks gathered during his “space missions,” stored in custom display cabinets. A nearby table holds eight sculptures by Noguchi, displayed as if they were samples of different rocks.
The final group of contemporary works speaks to the fact that stones have proved to be particularly useful as variables in the development of both abstract systems of thought and social organization. In more than four decades of walking around the globe, Richard Long has “organized” a lot of stones in a manner that is perhaps most usefully described as reflecting ancient human practices. Several examples of Long’s books documenting his walks (1978) are included here. So is Mel Bochner’s Five by Four (1972), a highly suggestive, but resolutely ambiguous, group of rocks organized in Venn diagrams suggesting reckoning and calculation. An installation of 41 of Toshiko Takaezu’s ceramic “River Rocks” and “Moons” (ca. 1980) into a “riverbed” reflects a more poetic/metaphoric approach to coaxing meaning from the aggregation of rocks. Related is Wallace Berman’s small box of river rocks (1972), many (or all) painted with Alephs, turning the rocks into a kind of found poem, and language into a highly ambiguous river full of tumbled and eroded linguistic structures (e.g. signs, syntax).
A gallery usually dedicated to Noguchi’s design work houses three examples of rock-based material culture: groups of Andre Cazenave’s rock lamps (1969–) and Ronel Jordaan’s felt boulders (2005), accented by examples of Noguchi’s Akari lamps (1951–).
Finally, the exhibition culminates—or perhaps begins—with a selection of masterpieces of Chinese art spanning five or six centuries, on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and curated in collaboration with Dr. Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, assistant curator in the Museum’s Department of Asian Art. Nowhere has the culture of rock been more fully developed than in China. Displayed here are a group of scholars’ rocks, paintings depicting rock, and examples of decorative arts that focus on the aesthetic appreciation of stones as refracted through the story of Mi Fu, the godfather of Chinese “petromania,” or rock madness. It was Mi Fu who, arrayed in his finest clothing, famously greeted a particularly fine stone with a formal bow, referring to the stone as “Elder Brother.” About eight pieces by Noguchi will be inserted among these works, including three “rocks” that Noguchi carved out of hard wood, but which look as if they were in fact carved by sand, wind, and time, and which were displayed in the artist’s MacDougal Alley studio as if they were scholars rocks.
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About The Noguchi Museum
Occupying a renovated industrial building dating from the 1920s, The Noguchi Museum, located in Long Island City, New York, comprises ten indoor galleries and an internationally celebrated outdoor sculpture garden. Since its founding in 1985, the Museum—itself widely viewed as among the artist’s greatest achievements—has exhibited a comprehensive selection of sculpture in stone, metal, wood, and clay, as well as models for public projects and gardens, dance sets, and Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures. Together, this installation and the Museum’s diverse special exhibitions offer a rich, contextualized view of Noguchi’s work and illuminate his influential legacy of innovation. For more information: www.noguchi.org.