Sculpted the year before Isamu Noguchi’s Venice Biennale exhibition, Olmec & Muse, 1985, is a striking example of the artist’s interest in the abstraction of sculpture and the parallels between art and architecture. Referring both visually and by name to the massive stone carvings of the ancient Olmec civilization in modern day Guatemala and Mexico, Noguchi’s geometric basalt form deconstructs those pre-Columbian megaliths into planes of textural stone. Produced only three years before the artist’s death, this work is a brilliant illustration of his innovative approach to sculpture.
Seated on a base of granite, the commanding form exhibits numerous planar cuts into the natural stone. Alternating rough and smooth surfaces create a visually intriguing arrangement that confuses the three-dimensionality of the work. A central hollow and subtracted angles introduce negative space into the otherwise solid mass and add decisively man-made incisions into the natural stone. By referencing both the physicality of the material and the history of monumental sculpture, Noguchi is able to create a timeless construction that exists outside of the everyday. His deft working of stone and careful attention to the placement of seemingly simple marks results in a sculpture that echoes both the artist’s physical confrontation with the rock and the natural effects of erosion on earthly materials.
Olmec & Muse continues Noguchi’s insistence on the social role of art and design. Having completed many works for parks and other public spaces, this work was coincidentally finished the same year that a museum and sculpture park focusing on his oeuvre was opened in New York. Taking into account the natural setting of his outdoor works, Noguchi sought to seamlessly meld his sculptures with their environs. In one of the more extreme examples of this ideal, his invitation to create a work for the grounds of Storm King Art Center in update New York resulted in the monumental Momo Taro (1978), which sits atop a specially created hillside. Through this harmonious merger of earth and sculpture, viewers are encouraged to contemplate not just the work itself, but also the surrounding landscape. By creating pieces that start a conversation with their setting, Noguchi was able to more completely control the situation and implicate his work into a comprehensive experience.
Having studied with Constantin Brancusi in Paris in the 1920s, Noguchi was inspired to simplify his forms and to turn to abstraction and Modernism. This mode of thought followed him throughout his long career, and is readily seen in the precise but subtle handling of Olmec & Muse. Also known for his architecture and design work, Noguchi was nonetheless a sculptor first, having famously expressed, “Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” His continuing drive to shape the space around him lead to countless projects, and each venture bore the mark of his sculptural practice. His infusion of traditional aesthetics learned during his time in Japan combined with the ethos of the European and American Avant Garde produced some of the most iconic mid-century furniture for the Herman Miller company, as well as a number of well-known public sculptures and spaces. Using every available material, his eye for balance and compositional harmony resulted in artwork and objects that are accompanied by an inborn sense of place. Not simply items or commodities to be arranged or viewed, Noguchi’s works exhibit an aura of care and calm.