Please note that the correct exhibition dates for the traveling show in Japan are March 7, 1996 to October 20, 1996.
THE PROPERTY OF BLAKE THORSON
666 Fifth Avenue Model
Both sculpture and architectural model, this piece exemplifies two central features of the work of Isamu Noguchi. In addition to creating elegant modernist forms, Noguchi expanded the notion of sculpture to encompass what he called "the sculpture of spaces," a conception that was realized in his playgrounds, gardens, stage sets, and sculptural interiors. Among his most striking interiors was the elevator lobby ceiling and waterfall wall at 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, set in a pedestrian walkway between 52nd and 53rd Streets just up the block from the Museum of Modern Art. Although the architectural setting of Noguchi's work was radically altered by renovation in the late 1990's, his undulating white aluminum ceiling and stainless steel louvered wall remain in their original locations in the 1956-58 Carson and Lundin Building. This model seems to have been the origin of both designs.
First created in 1952 for an unrealized bank wall in Texas, the model was kept by the architect Robert Carson. Carson proposed modifying the design a few years later for the ceiling of the 666 Fifth Avenue elevator lobby, and he asked Noguchi to create a waterfall in the pedestrian walkway to accompany it. As Noguchi wrote in his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor's World, "I was horrified at the idea of such arbitrary use, and wishing to save my reputation, offered to redesign the ceiling for the cost of the waterfall alone."
The model, like the ceiling and waterfall, displays the biomorphic imagery of abstract Surrealism that characterized Noguchi's sculpture of the 1940's. In addition to the interlocking thin slab stone sculptures for which he is well-known, during 1947-48 Noguchi created three dramatic biomorphic interiors using the self-illuminated sculptural forms he called "Lunars." (Only one of these Lunar interiors survives, hidden by a dropped ceiling in the former American Stove Company Building in Saint Louis. Noguchi's Lunar ceiling in a reception area in the old Time-Life Building in New York, and his Lunar stairwell on the art filled S.S. Argentina, have been destroyed.) But Noguchi continued to employ biomorphic imagery both outdoors and indoors well into the 1950's, as in his garden at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and at 666 Fifth Avenue.
The model for 666 Fifth Avenue exemplifies the moment when Noguchi was able to create sculptural spaces that bridged the gap between freestanding works and the gardens and ritual environments that had so impressed him in his world travels. Frustrated in the 1930's, his desire to sculpturally transform public space finally would be funded by the booming postwar economy. In such public sculptures Noguchi united the apparent contraries that formed the poles of his creative work--modernist and archaic imagery, traditional and innovative techniques and materials, Asian and Western aesthetic principles, fine and functional art forms. And in the model for 666 Fifth Avenue we see these creative forces take physical shape, pointing the way to two of his most successful public sculptures.
Director, Program in Museum Studies, New York University
Author of Isamu Noguchi, Abbeville Press, 1994
caption: Isamu Noguchi, c. 1951, photographed by Domon Ken. Published with the permission of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Inc.