Saturday, January 23

Abroad at Home: Where Function Follows Form


The hybrid venues known as sculptors’ museums, which can include—and sometimes consist solely of—the artist’s studio, are illuminating byways on the art trail. Conceived by the sculptors themselves to show their work to best advantage, they offer a unique window into each one’s creative universe. This is particularly true of

Auguste Rodin

and

Isamu Noguchi,

whose imaginative reach was too large and various for the standard museum display. Rodin reinvented the idea of public art and the sculpted portrait; made bronze, marble, clay and plaster do things they had never done before; and continually cannibalized previous works to create variations on the old and provide raw material for the new. Noguchi designed public gardens, theatrical sets, lamps and furniture in addition to making sculptures. Although Covid-19 has shuttered some sculptors’ museums and affected travel to others, it’s possible to visit them all virtually.

Rodin (1840-1917) launched the modern revolution in sculpture by abandoning traditional narrative in favor of more poetic interpretations, and conventional realism for a freer approach to form. All this is discussed in ”Special Programme: Auguste Rodin—The Father of Modern Sculpture,” the English-language video of Paris’s Musée Rodin produced by the France 24 news channel and available on YouTube, where we see works in marble (“The Kiss”), bronze (“The Thinker”) and other media.

Especially valuable is the focus on Rodin’s collection of antiquities. Inspired by these objects, which despite their fragmentary nature he considered sufficient in themselves, he made the partial figure a signature element of his work, thereby influencing later sculptors such as

Constantin Brancusi,

Alberto Giacometti

and

Henry Moore.

Also in the video is the Musée Rodin in Meudon, outside Paris. It’s where he lived and worked on such major commissions as his commemorative statue of

Honoré de Balzac

and the monumental, unfinished “Gates of Hell,” a pair of bronze doors for a never-built Parisian decorative arts museum. Almost everything here is in plaster, which Rodin transformed from a way station in the bronze casting process into a creative medium in its own right. He used it to experiment with combinations of whole figures and body parts on the road to the final result, nowhere more so than in the “Gates,” here in ghostly white. Its genesis and influence are detailed in “Auguste Rodin—The Gates of Hell,” an English-language video by Canal Educatif on YouTube.

Back in Paris, a pavilion adjacent to the Centre Pompidou houses the studio of Brancusi (1876-1957), an artist whose pared-down, simplified forms capture the essence of his subjects. Sculptures, bases (which he created himself and considered aesthetic objects as well as supports) and handmade furniture all compete for our attention, as can be seen in “Brancusi Studio,” a video on YouTube produced by the Birmingham School of Art. The studio has been described as both “a temple and a laboratory of art”—the former because the combination of incoming light, white walls and purified objects creates a sacral mood; the latter because the artist continually rearranged things to achieve the optimal display for his many visitors. Only the sight of his tools returns us to reality, a reminder that these ethereal forms were hard won.

A recurring theme of these museums is the idea of the “total environment,” where the work, its setting and the interaction between the two create an all-encompassing aesthetic experience. Nowhere is this more true than at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, England. It comprises the artist’s home, multiple studios and ample acreage for the display of his work—Moore’s location of choice. “I prefer my sculpture to be seen with trees and the sky and water rather than with architecture,” he says in archival footage included in “Henry Moore’s Vision,” a Heni Talks video on YouTube.

Famous for his reclining female figures, Moore (1898-1986) collected rocks and bone fragments that he used to generate ideas for sculpture. The link between art and context is pinpointed in the video by foundation director

Godfrey Worsdale

while discussing “Locking Piece,” an abstract work. “Moore was playing around with a couple of flints, moving them against themselves, and they kind of locked into a single entity,” he tells us. “Now we see it as a two-meter-high sculpture in the middle of the grounds where those things were picked up.”

A total environment was on

Donald Judd’s

mind when he established the Chinati Foundation on the site of a decommissioned cavalry fort in Marfa, Texas, in 1986. Judd (1928-1994) is known as one of the founders of Minimalism, for sculptures that are fabricated-plywood and -metal boxes. Except that he hated the word “Minimalism,” didn’t consider himself a sculptor, and felt museums and galleries didn’t display his work properly. (Although the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, through Jan. 9, 2021, does so superbly.) “And so he created a place that’s an ideal, a standard of what the experience of the work should be,” explains Chinati Foundation Executive Director

Jenny Moore

in “The Chinati Foundation,” a Houston Public Media video on YouTube.

The arid desert environment couldn’t be more different from Moore’s green and pleasant land, yet it serves Judd’s art well. “I’m a painter,” he told an interviewer toward the end of his life. “I just really love color.” In the video, when you see the bright Texas sunlight irradiating a row of aluminum boxes to transform a plastic experience into an optical one, you understand just what he meant.

Like Brancusi, Noguchi (1904-1988) was a carver, and like Moore he was responsive to nature. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, which offers tours on its YouTube channel, is a former commercial building across from the artist’s studio and home in Long Island City, N.Y. The sculpture garden he designed is an unparalleled oasis of tranquility and contemplation. Inside, the displays are organized in reverse chronological order. On the first floor are monumental late-career granite and basalt sculptures and on the second are earlier and smaller works, utilitarian objects and his set for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s 1944 premiere of

Aaron Copland’s

“Appalachian Spring.”

“Listening to Stone” is the title of a recent biography of the artist and an apt guide to his work. Noguchi didn’t impose his will on his materials like Brancusi but entered into a dialogue with them. The first-floor installation invites us to do the same. We soon discover that we are looking not at inert lumps of mineral matter but embodiments of natural forces whose form seems mutable, not static. There’s a line here separating the actions of nature—erosion, fracturing, etc.—from the interventions of the artist. But it’s the magic of these large stones that you don’t know where it is.

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