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 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.
...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.
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.
It 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."