Every first Friday is free admission at the Noguchi Museum in Astoria, Queens, so last week I took my three kids with me to wander around. One of my friends joined us with her two-year old.
Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American of mixed ancestry. (His father was a Japanese poet; his mother an American writer.) He was a sculptor, designer, and activist on behalf of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It’s a testament to his influence on modern design that his paper lantern designs look like something you might buy at Ikea.
The museum looks like nothing much from the outside – gray brick, low-slung, industrial, flanked by power lines, the Southern Astoria waterfront, and Costco (which my family visits almost as religiously as church). Inside, it is minimalist and modern: long, spacious rooms with clean lines, white walls, polished wood floors, and impeccable lighting.
As you enter, a mini-lobby leads immediately into the first exhibition space, an open-air high-ceilinged brick room that houses several monumental pieces carved from granite and other stones. It opens into the sculpture garden, a serene, Zen-like space. With its high walls, gentle landscaping, stone sculptures, an abundance of trees, and benches it would make a great place to bring a book or a sketchpad any time you needed to get away from it all without leaving the city. (Presuming that the things you could get away from included your young children, which was not the case on our visit.)
Since we had little ones in tow, the museum was not a leisurely experience — we careened through the museum at a break-neck pace suited to the first-grader and toddler — but it wasn’t stressful either. It’s a kid-friendly place, with family guides and pencils provided for children and small enough to be manageable in an hour or less, although it would absolutely reward several hours of your time and attention. Noguchi’s sculptures are varied and visually and texturally engaging, and they’re not roped off, so kids can get nose-to-nose with them. While I can’t say my brood came away with much intellectual knowledge gained, they had fun identifying sculptures (none of them have identifying plaques, so you have to match them with their photos and names in printed guides) as well as making up their own names based on what they thought each sculpture looked like.
All things considered, I was pleased with their level of imaginative engagement. We also had a brief discussion on the way out about who decides what constitutes “art.” Is it the wealthy who control the art market and dictate taste to the unwashed masses, as my worldly-wise high-schooler asserted, or is there something more transcendent at work? What if you don’t enjoy looking at a painting by Picasso (as my son put it, “that guy who makes the weird faces”) but you have an understanding of what he was trying to do, or vice versa?
(Also: if you are six and you wear a scarf printed with Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” wrapped around you like a sarong and tucked into your underwear, is that a sign of good taste to come or bad?)
This discussion proved prescient as we trooped over to the Socrates Sculpture Park, a free outdoor space just across the street from the Noguchi. Socrates is a hoot because you can never be sure what you’ll find there. On this day, it was goats. Lots and lots of goats. All life-size, except for one gargantuan head-on-a-stick that looked like the world’s most diabolical cake pop.
(Fun fact: Goats and other mammals with hooves are called ungulates. You can read all about them and their unguises on my new favorite website, Ultimate Ungulate.)
The smaller goats all had bizarre appendages – sticks growing out of their back or a mangy coat of hair – and at least one was upside down. It was all quirky, eye-catching, and also vaguely disquieting. I immediately thought of pagan rituals like the Israelites worshipping a golden calf before God literally made them eat it. I was unsure what the exhibition was “about,” so I wandered around taking pictures and considering a few important questions, like a) whether the Billy Goats Gruff got royalties from the exhibition; b) if all the garden gnomes had fled in fear for their lives and sanity; c) whether the giant goat bell (not pictured) really did look suspiciously like gonads or if I had spent too much time reading Freud as a graduate student; and d) if all six us could split a Costco pizza for lunch.*
As we left the park, I picked up a guide that someone had helpfully discarded, and learned that
[Nari Ward’s “G.O.A.T., again”] examines how hubris creates misplaced expectations in American culture. Ward recasts tropes of outdoor structures – the monument, the playground, lawn ornaments, architectural barriers, and the advertising sign – into surreal and playful creations. This expands the artist’s ongoing exploration of cultural identity, social progress, material histories, and our sense of belonging . . .
Before that day, I had not been familiar with Ward or his work. My ignorance didn’t prevent me from appreciating the exhibition in a bemused, visceral way, but I was glad for the framing and the opportunity to learn more later. (This piece in the New Yorker is a brief, light-hearted sketch of the exhibition and the installation process.)
While we were at the park, however, most of our focus was simply on enjoying the last Friday of summer. The kids, whose observational skills and brain power had already been depleted by the Noguchi, shared fig bars, cheese, and crackers and lounged on stadium seats plopped in the middle of the park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning punctuated by a sharp breeze coming off the water. The red and gold “Apollo” sign — several miles from the original in Harlem — stood out against the green grass and shrubs, the backdrop of the river and the Manhattan skyline, and the bright, blue sky.
*For those keeping track, the answers to those questions are: a) no, and it’s a crying shame; b) wouldn’t you?; c) yes, and yes; and d) yes, but we ended up ordering other things too. My son is inexplicably a fan of the baked chicken cheese roll, even though it tastes like someone stuffed microwaved pasta Alfredo into a hot pocket made of cornstarch packing peanuts.
Noguchi Museum(external shot) tribecacitizen.com
Noguchi interior howcreativeswork.files.wordpress.com
Noguchi Museum Garden 1.bp.blogspot.com
Segmented “Worm” sculpture lostfoundremembered.files.wordpress.com