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  • Writer's pictureIris Chen

The Artist’s Playground

Isamu Noguchi’s unrealized vision. 

By Iris Chen


Illustration by Selin Ho

Last summer I read John Berger’s essay “How to Live with Stones” and it led me to what I still consider to be the quietest corner of New York. It takes an hour to get to the Noguchi Museum from Columbia. Make the trip yourself, and you will encounter caverns of rock and art of prehistoric dimensions engulfed in a silence that does not feel like the absence of sound, but rather, the addition of something quite physical.


You will likely have come across Isamu Noguchi before. It is his sunken garden that is carved into the middle of the Financial District, his costumes that Martha Graham wore onto the dance stage. His light still shines through the Akari lamps that are tucked within corners of tasteful celebrity homes, and a recent catalog of Ralph Ellison’s photographs reveals a Noguchi metal statue standing in the middle of his living room. Everywhere, Noguchi has planted gardens and raised totem poles.


For this reason, his absence from Columbia University’s vicinity feels like a kind of willful omission. Upon pulling out my Columbia ID my first time at the Noguchi Museum, a staff member exclaimed, with what felt to me then to be an outsized enthusiasm, that “Noguchi went to Columbia too!” Perhaps it was my desire to achieve this kind of familiarity—to speak for an artist as a friend speaks for a friend—that marked the beginning of my own kinship with Noguchi. 


During his two brief years at Columbia College from 1922 to 1924, Noguchi began and then abandoned his pre-medical studies. He established himself in Paris alongside Constantin Brançusi as a sculptor and well-traveled artist then returned in 1960 to Morningside Heights. For the next six years, he worked on his design for a Riverside Park playground. 


Had it been realized, one could now walk down Riverside Drive and see his pyramids, volcanic domes, and key-shaped outlines scooped out of the hillside. Noguchi was one of those rare artists for whom art and life were inextricable (inside his museum, the man and the art are different only insofar as that art is displayed inside, whereas Noguchi’s ashes lie in the garden soil nearby) and his spirit would therefore be, quite literally, on display: one would be able to climb on it, slide down it, grow up and old around it.


The Parks Department seemed to think otherwise: the ostentatious modernism was too playful. “Wonderful! They don’t want it,” Louis Khan, Noguchi’s architectural collaborator, reportedly said after one of the five times their design was rejected. “Now we can start all over again. We can make something better.” 


Some haranguing may be in order. One could blame the Parks Department for dragging the process on for so long, the Republican Mayor John Lindsay for making the park the scapegoat of his fiscal responsibility platform, and all involved for a general lack of imagination. But failure is often more interesting for what it can reveal. 


After producing twelve models, Noguchi lamented, “The idea of playgrounds as sculptural landscape, natural to children, had never been realized. How sad, I felt, that the possibility of actually building one presented itself when it was past my age of interest.” Noguchi conceived of this park as a work of art, but in line with his Modernist tendencies, “sculpture needs a quality of enduring freshness, as an antidote to impermanence.” Curated landscapes are, however, meant to last. The “freshness” that dignifies art ruins a landscape, for which permanence is achieved not through innovation, but maintenance. By placing a premium on newness, modern art relegates itself behind museum walls, where it can both embrace and live out its claim of ‘art for art’s sake’.


In 2019, the Noguchi Museum displayed his park models in an exhibition titled, “In Search of a Contoured Playground.” One could go see it, one could marvel at it, but one was told: Do not touch.

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