Saturday, February 12, 2005

Gopnik Doesn't Like Noguchi

Tomorrow's WaPo Sunday Arts has a review by Blake Gopnik of the new Isamu Noguchi exhibition at the Hirshhorn.

Gopnik makes some strong but perhaps unfair points about Noguchi, and tips his card early when he writes:

Noguchi was not one of the great innovators of the 20th century. Most of his work built on ideas that others had before him. But he had a wonderful hand and eye. "Deft" is the word that springs to mind in looking at Noguchi's art, rather than "inspired."
And this thread of Noguchi being a follower, rather than an innovator (if it's not new, then it can't be good), is the backbone of tomorrow's review.

I disagree. Gopnik's art history knowledge has been challenged in the past, and I respectfully submit a new challenge.

Before I submit my evidence, let me reaffirm that I completely disagree with the premise that art has to be new to be good. That is just silly and pompous, and even old fashioned. And Gopnik sort of punches a hole in his own argument when in discussing a series of illuminated works that Noguchi made between 1943 and 1944 (and for the first time since they were made brought together in one place in this exhibit) he admits that
The biomorphic shapes on view in "Lunar Fist" come out of earlier works by Jean Arp; the aggressive id the sculpture seems to flaunt had been a staple of surrealism for years already. But the simple gesture of making the whole work light up gives it an energy that wasn't in its static sources.

...But put a light bulb in a blob of cast cement and colored plastic hanging on the wall, as Noguchi did in "Lunar Fist," and you get somewhere distinctly new. Make a work of art recall the lamps that light the modern world, and it gets a novel kind of leverage.
Noguchi's Lunar LandscapeBut let's give more credit where credit is due, and if we are to judge Noguchi solely on "What did you do that's new Isamu?" - then I submit two facts as evidence that both a young Noguchi and an elder Noguchi accomplished this overrated achievement.

Fact one: In my TV interview (which will air next Thursday) with Dr. Valerie Fletcher, the Hirshhorn's Curator of Sculpture and the curator of the Noguchi exhibition, she made a point of discussing that as early as 1929, a 25-year old Isamu Noguchi was creating sculptures made of neon (none of them are in the show). This fact was new to me, and perhaps Gopnik is not aware of it, but it is evidence of a young artist with something new to offer.

So we'll forgive that Gopnik may not be aware of this fact.


Fact two: There's a burnished stainless steel freestanding sculpture in the exhibition (It is titled "Solar" and I'll see if I can get an image of it), that most people would not associate with a "Noguchi style" but more akin to the sculptures of Noguchi's well-known friend David Smith.

Becca by David SmithIt looks so much like a David Smith, that it could be a brother to all these Smith sculptures, which at the time were something "new" as a result of both composition and material and the treatment of the material. The first of these Smith pieces is from the early 60s; the Noguchi piece is from 1958.

Unless someone that I am not aware of was making large, geometrical, highly burnished steel sculptures en masse prior to 1958 (in which case Smith unfairly got the "credit of the new"), it appears that Noguchi again brings something new to this hackneyed dialogue about the importance of the "new."

Case closed.

Washington Post Photographers Sweep Awards

Congratulations to Washington Post photographers Andrea Bruce Woodall, Jahi Chikwendiu, Michael Robinson-Chavez, and Carol Guzy. They had images that won all four top spots in the overall portfolio category of the 2004 White House News Photographers' Association awards -- as well as photographer of the year for first-place winner Andrea Bruce Woodall.

See the photos here. See all other award winners and their photos here.

The award for the political photo of the year went to Liz O. Baylen of the Washington Times for a picture of John Kerry awaiting the start of President Bush's inauguration.


Paul Richard, who used to be the Chief Art Critic for the WaPo (he retired a few years ago and was replaced by Blake Gopnik), still does the random freelance piece for the Post once in a while.

And a couple of days ago he wrote a really beautiful piece about the new Andy Goldsworthy sculpture "Roof" being built at the National Gallery of Art.

"Roof" is the largest work of art commissioned by the gallery in a quarter-century. Its designer is an art star who, unusual for art stars, is as much admired by the broad art public as he is by the pros. The English wallers he has hired to build his dry stone sculpture are more than mere assistants. "Roof" pays homage to their muscles, their steadfastness, their history. To watch them is to know that they are core to what it is."
I lived in Scotland between 1989-1992, and my home was a large farmhouse near the village of Brechin in Angus. The farmhouse had been built in 1681. It was called Little Keithock Farmhouse, and the dovecot next to it was even older by a couple of centuries, meriting an entry in the Scottish Ordnance Map as an "antiquity," not an easy thing in Europe's most ancient nation.

Little Keithock Farmhouse
Anyway, the farmhouse (to the left is a drawing I did of it in 1990 or 1991) had a beautiful garden, which was surrounded by a tall stone wall.

One day, one of the trucks that used the dirt road that ran in front of the house, and led to the nearby potato and turnip fields, lost control, and slammed into the wall, destroying a couple of feet of wall.

A couple of days later, another truck dumped a small pile of new rocks, and soon afterwards an elderly gent showed up, and using nothing but a small hammer, began to rebuild the wall. He re-used the old rocks that had been disturbed by the accident, as well as some of the new ones.

Slowly but surely, over a few days, the wall was rebuilt before my eyes. When it was done, other than the fact that the moss on the stones had been re-arranged, it was impossible to tell that an accident had happened. A year later, the moss was back everywhere and no visual evidence that a chunk of the wall was "new" existed.