Sunday, October 30, 2011

New York Stories (2) - sculpture

If you're a regular reader of this blog you might remember this photo below, which concluded our last installment from New York City. Not only were we quite proud of ourselves for actually making it out to the Broadway station in Queens, on the N Subway line, without a hitch; when we stepped off the train and descended the stairs to be greeted by this sight we two movie buffs were giggling to ourselves about how cool it was to actually be under one of those overhead rail lines that we have seen in so many movies. However, we weren't trainspotting or movie-buffing that day. We were looking for art, as a friend had tipped off Pam that the Noguchi Museum and Sculpture Garden was well worth a visit.

Queens itself turned out to be a multicultural area that felt just a bit, only a teensy bit, like our home suburb of Marrickville back in Sydney. You name an ethnic group, both Queens and Marrickville probably have them. Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese, Korean, North African, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, African, Egyptian, etc etc. After getting off the train it was an easy, shortish 10-block walk down the interesting main street (called Broadway) to the Noguchi.

It was a shame that we'd already had lunch before setting off on the train trip: otherwise our Tummy Time correspondent could have sampled this fine looking diner here in Queens.

However, we were here on a cultural mission to see The Noguchi Museum, which you can read all about here. The short version is that Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese/American artist who worked in many media. Here, the gallery mostly shows his sculptures in stone, steel and timber, but at the Gallery Shop you can also buy his hand-made paper lanterns, for which he is also justly famous in designer homeware stores around the world. The Gallery and Museum itself is set into two very different buildings which seamlessly flow into one another inside, and both in turn can lead you out into a tranquil outdoor sculpture garden. Pictured above is the white-walled, timber-floored building which consists of several large, airy open rooms that display the small- to medium-sized pieces in the collection.

The other building is a less appealing space, built from grey cinder blocks, yet the large, earthy stone sculptures here look as if they belong here and nowhere else.

As I have mentioned several times in this blog, it's the things you've never seen before, didn't imagine ever existed, which so often make the greatest impact as you travel. The Noguchi collection is another case in point. I always seek out sculpture galleries as a traveller, as mere photos in books fall way, way short of doing any sculpture justice. You need to see sculpture in the flesh to fall in love with it.

It's the stone which is always the star in every work here. Noguchi set up his workshop out here in the urban wastelands of Queens in the early 1960s in these very buildings, as they were in the same street as all the specialist stone suppliers who unloaded the ships from the nearby river.

His collection showcases marbles from around the world, plus granites, travertines and other beautiful stones. At times he works them into shapes as if they were children's plasticine.

Several pieces include a 'twist' on the stone, as if it were a licorice stick warped a fraction then plonked on a plinth.

As well as shaping the stones, he explores their inner textures, skilfully combining brilliant polished surfaces with pockmarked roughness in the one piece.

As we walked around the gallery, the garden outside could be seen through every window.

We've been to many superb Japanese gardens where the traditional emphasis has always been on creating a miniature landscape through the careful placement of stones and the clipping of shrubs, as well as the deft layout of sculptures, water, seats and pavilions. Here at the Noguchi, it is a simpler thing, a Japanese sculpture garden, a tranquil place with large, coarse gravel rocks at your feet, and a stimulating mixture of smooth and polished stones in shapes ranging from the geometric to the organic. It's not as precious as the more traditional Japanese garden. I felt more relaxed here, by comparison.

After the Noguchi visit, we stopped off at the Socrates Sculpture Park just down the road on Vernon Boulevard (here's a link to the website for it). Once a derelict riverside headland of weeds, the park is now an open area venue for changing exhibits by local sculptors.

The nearby district isn't flash by any means, but this Park and the Noguchi Museum are in the vanguard of the effort to rejuvenate inner urban lands in every borough of New York City, not just as a venue for art, but more importantly to improve the areas as places for anyone, everyone, to live in.

When we visited, we first came across this artful arrangement of glass doors.

A stainless steel giraffe across the way glowed with good cheer, despite the cloudy afternoon.

A small tree dressed in thousands of bangles looked like a long-necked tribal dancer ready to party.

One fears for the well being of this mortarless wall of bricks on a windy, stormy night, but perhaps the artist has given it inner strength?

And down by the riverside, this member of the Stones is just waiting for his cue to get rolling.

Standing on the edge of the Socrates Sculpture Park, the view here is across towards the many apartments of Uptown Manhattan.

With the first first dark clouds of the cold change forecast for tomorrow looming overhead, and with sunset not so far away, we wandered back up the 10 blocks to the Subway station and headed back for home.

Along the way, not sure at which stop, a young man carrying an accordion, accompanied by his young girlfriend/wife with a one-year-old baby on her hip (plus a baseball cap to collect the tips), asked for the passengers' attention and then started busking a Middle-European tune. It was $2 well spent. Then, when we got off the train at 34th Street, an acapella busker group (five African-American singers with a young white guy on upright acoustic bass) singing a very respectable doo-wop repertoire also loosened another two bucks from our wallet.

As I sit here writing this blog, it's actually snowing in New York around lunchtime Saturday, and it's set to get colder and snowier and windier the more the day drags on. They say it's the first time it has snowed here in October since 1925, so aren't we lucky to be snowed in! Pammy and I are still working on getting a decent photo of it for you (tricky stuff to photograph in the city, falling snow) but right now it's not so much fluttering down, as fluttering sideways in the wind.

While New York is such a marvellous headquarters for so many man-made marvels, it's really wonderful right now to see Mother Nature brushing her cold, snowy hand across the city, just to remind these mere mortals who is boss. Yes, ma'am.

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