Many wouldn’t recognize News (1940), the bas relief over 50 Rockefeller Plaza, as the work of Isamu Noguchi. It’s figurative, for one, and not stone, but steel. In fact, it’s very representative of Noguchi at this chapter of his career. Back in the US from apprenticing with Brancusi in Paris, he was primarily working figuratively, getting by on commissions for portrait busts and plaques.
He was also furiously pursuing civic art at this time. In 1936, he went to Mexico City to work on a sculptural mural, Historia de México, at the Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market, alongside Marion Greenwood and Diego Rivera. Despite having an affair with Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo (who kept a box of butterflies Noguchi gave her inset above her bed, so she could gaze up at it), Noguchi was pretty aligned with Rivera: he shared Rivera’s political convictions, and his view of art as a motor of social change. In the US, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was encouraging artists to talk about and reflect on society. Noguchi proposed several ambitious projects for the WPA, including a monument to farm workers, an anti-war memorial and a Monument to the Plough. We have a copy of the lost design for Monument in our archives: had it been realized, it would have been the largest public artwork in the world.
So there’s a lot at stake for Noguchi in the Rockefeller commission. He’s very conscious of having to really establish his public practice in New York. At the same time, he’s aware of the changing climate for political art — in 1934, Rivera’s fresco Man at the Crossroads (1933) had been removed from the lobby of 30 Rock for its depiction of Lenin. Noguchi toned down his politics in the proposal for News. And it worked: he wins.
The contracts sent by Rockefeller to the artist were very clear: to avoid another errant Lenin, Noguchi had to stick absolutely to what he had put forward. In fact, he had already adapted the brief: while the official callout was for works in bronze, Noguchi decided it should be made in stainless steel — not least, as this would make News the largest sculpture in stainless steel ever at that time.
Noguchi was connected with a big fabricating company, General Alloys, whose CEO saw the potential for touting an historic collaboration between art and industry. Noguchi goes to General Alloys’ Engineering Works in Boston to oversee the work and soon relocates to Boston, full time. He became pretty quickly pissed off by how slowly the fabrication was proceeding. As the months pass, he complains to management and tries to have General Alloys reallocate resources from other jobs to this project. And he succeeds. People love Noguchi. He’s an agitator and a labor person, and the workers can see him grinding away on the factory floor. He makes it into a kind of Noguchi factory. Though arguing he’s losing other jobs by being in Boston, he fails to get any more money from Rockefeller. But Noguchi doesn’t lose motivation. Even when he’s eating ramen to survive, he knows he needs to get this work done on time. When News is eventually unveiled in 1940, it’s to great acclaim.
News is not Noguchi’s last major public work, but it’s the last of its era. Two years later, he chose to join other Japanese-Americans interned at the Poston Camp in Arizona. The neglect he experienced there changed his political thinking: from that point on, heroic ideals rooted in the figure were replaced with deeper, more abstract ideas about consciousness and culture. He became the Noguchi that we know now.
Noguchi’s work depicts the gathering and distribution of news. Though I grew up in New York, and have long been aware of News, I saw it in a new way recently. I was in the Plaza, the day after a stupid Trump press conference; it struck me that News may have more resonance now than at any time over the last two decades. Our current political system says these guys that Noguchi depicted are our enemies.
The dissemination of information, and the reception of images over time, are issues I want to explore in Frieze Sculpture, or at least give a nod to. The speech bubbles and benches by Hank Willis Thomas directly relate to News: Hank is the co-founder of For Freedoms, a platform whose mission is to defend freedom of expression. These works are about expression and communication, and the benches will have a direct sightline to News. Outside the lobby at 45, I’m placing works by Paulo Nazareth showing Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks: political icons whose images largely came to us through the news media. We can get desensitized to their images, but these monumentally scaled works offer a way to reconnect with them.
I’ve been lucky to be able to place works throughout the whole of Rock Center, inside and out. I want visitors to explore it all and experience it as a totality; it is, after all, the finest Art Deco campus in America. Part of that exploration, I hope, will lead them back to Noguchi’s bas relief. If we can put News in dialogue with contemporary art, we’ll find it has a lot to say.
As told to Matthew McLean
Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, curated by Brett Littman, is on view through June 28th
Erratum: The printed version of this article, titled ‘The Shock of the News’, that appeared in Frieze Week New York 2019, incorrectly stated that News was the first and last time Noguchi worked in steel, and that Noguchi was introduced to the CEO of General Alloys by Rockefeller. This version of the article has been corrected.
Main image: Unknown man with the plaster model of News, 1939. Courtesy: © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York