Spring Exhibits: Noguchi, Photography

April 22nd, 2017 · 7 Comments · Explore New York

In the middle of extreme inhumanity, some of us go more deeply and courageously into our humanity and act from this place. The Japanese-American artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi brought the best of his humanity, dignity, and a sense of the capacity of beauty and art to elevate people during a horrendous time. He did so during World War II, when the United States federal government uprooted thousands of Japanese citizens and American citizens of Japanese descent living in the western states and forced them into internment camps. His example shines today, and one can see the fruits of his stance and art in a current exhibit at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens.

While I am a walker in any season, spring in New York City seems to jump-start an opportunity to see new, or relatively new, exhibits. It’s also a season in which many simply look up and around more in the warmer weather and notice street sightings of architecture and art. A great setting-off point to inspire that are the Noguchi exhibit examining the works of an artist dealing with World War II and three photography exhibits that portray New York in the immediate years after the war.

The title of the Noguchi museum’s exhibit tells a startling fact as a place to begin: “Self-Interned, 1942.” Noguchi made an extraordinary decision in 1942 as he saw the government displacing others. He decided to place himself into one of the internment camps, the Poston War Relocation Center, situated in the Arizona desert. He did so despite being exempt from internment as a New York State resident. As Noguchi put it, “Thus I willfully became part of humanity uprooted.”

In a situation that took away the basic human rights of those of Japanese heritage, Noguchi believed that through his art and his ideas, he could elevate the existence and spirits of those so mistreated. As the Noguchi Museum notes, he hoped “to contribute something positive to this forcibly displaced community, to which he had never felt more connected.”

To this undertaking, Noguchi brought not only hope but much imagination. For the Poston camp, he proposed and drew up blueprints for a Japanese garden, a botanical garden, an arts center, and a zoo, among other amenities, according to a Hyperallergic story on the exhibit. Meticulous and ambitious, he even researched various flowers that would beautify the surroundings, down to which would do better in each season.

Moreover, Noguchi held a vision not only of the present but a better future beyond the camp. In the middle of the harshness and the stifling of human freedom and stimulation that the camp established, he suggested arts and crafts activities, training, and lectures. He believed that these programs would not only enrich the detainees’ daily lives but lead to future exhibits and opportunities for them.

Poston officials made some promises, but ultimately Noguchi received no support from them, or from officials from the U.S. War Relocation Authority or War Department. Those in authority never embraced Noguchi’s ideas and blueprints, and none came to fruition. Noguchi’s proposals personify a single man’s endeavor to bring light in the face of darkness, to ameliorate the evil of intolerance and stereotyping, and instead create a life-enriching place.

As Noguchi courageously volunteered for internment and sought to influence the Poston environment for the good, so it shaped him as an artist and person. The exhibit, which Noguchi Museum Senior Curator Dakin Hart curates, captures this development and the evolution and transformation of Noguchi’s work. The exhibit encompasses works from the early 1940s to the mid-1980s. it opens with about a dozen sculptures from 1941 to 1944, covering the time from a year before Noguchi entered the camp until a year after he returned home to New York City. It’s a key period in Noguchi’s art, as the sculptural pieces together demonstrate Noguchi’s transition from early figurative work to the modernist style for which the artist became known.

Isamu Noguchi, "Yellow Landscape," 1943

Isamu Noguchi, “Yellow Landscape,” 1943

Photo Credit: Kevin Noble – © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum

Noguchi was in the internment camp for just seven months, yet its impact stayed with him. The exhibit includes Noguchi’s Yellow Landscape, which he sculpted of magnesite, wood, string, and metal fishing weight in 1943, reflects the artist’s mockery of rampant anti-Asian stereotyping that fueled the deportation program. Rounding out the exhibit are the “Gateways” and “Deserts” sections, which the museum drew from Noguchi’s works of the 1950s to the 1980s. These artworks attest to the enduring effect wartime experiences had on him, such as Cactus Wind (1982-83), a sculpture of low-slung galvanized steel, which is austere and flat in a shape that personifies a wind-scoured physical space.

“Self-Interned, 1942” would be worthwhile to see anytime, but in a year when the campaign and administration of President Donald Trump have fed the targeting and stereotyping of immigrants, it is especially so. So many are reflecting about uprooting, displacement, and the threatened sense of belonging, and taking collective action. The special exhibit will be on view until January 7, 2018.

Spring Photography Exhibits

For many who love New York, it’s not just a city of today, but a place that lives deeply in the mind and in sensations of the city’s past. Many have favorite eras, in experiences, memories, images, and an aura. It may vary neighborhood to neighborhood, block to block. It may be a time that someone lived through or not.

For those who love the New York of the years following World War II, three photography exhibits during this spring are likely to speak to their senses, if not their souls as well. One just opened, another is on view now until early summer, and a third is set to close toward the end of April. One could be forgiven if, emerging from one of these photography exhibits, you might expect to see a World War II GI on a corner, get hungry for a piece of pie from a Horn and Hardart automat, or hear an Ella Fitzgerald song in your head.

The City Via Magnum

Early Magnum: On & In New York” showcases the early work of the Magnum agency photographers in the late 1940s and 1950s, in an exhibit at The National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South. Founded in 1947, Magnum Photos has launched its 70th anniversary programs with this exhibition, which runs until April 28. It’s complemented by on online exhibit at the Magnum site.

The agency played an instrumental role in the early years as photographers sought and obtained more autonomy in their relationships with magazines and claimed copyright for their own benefit, according to Magnum exhibit notes. Moreover, the creative juices this peacetime era unleashed stood in contrast to the scenes of devastation photographers took during World War II. The exhibit reveals a high-spirited city that comes through in raw emotions, whether playful, dark, moody, feisty, beautiful, depressing, or edgy. It includes Bruce Davidson’s photos of a Brooklyn gang, which evoke teen coolness and cockiness; Dennis Stock’s iconic picture of James Dean walking in a rainy Times Square, cigarette dangling from his mouth; and Eve Arnold’s intimate photographs of a fashion show at Harlem’s Abyssinian Church.

A Teen’s Fascination

New York is a city that constantly builds up, rips down, and redefines itself, in certain ways. Such changes became accelerated in the years just after World War II. Sid Kaplan was fascinated with this transformation. As a teen, Kaplan, who later became a photographer and master printer, documented the dismantling of the Third Avenue Elevated line in 1955 and 1956. An exhibition at the Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex, “Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El,” features the photographs Kaplan took of the dismantling from June, 1955, to May, 1956. The exhibit opened March 24 and is on view until July 9 of this year.

The Third Avenue Elevated had a long history. A railway company first opened the Third Avenue El in 1878, from South Ferry in Lower Manhattan to the Grand Central Depot at East 42nd Street. In 1902. the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) leased the elevated line, which had been extended to the Bronx. With the opening of the IRT Lexington Avenue subway line in 1904, more riders opted for that option and decade by decade the elevated line fell out of disfavor, ultimately looked on as an obsolete eyesore, according to Transit Museum history.

The Deconstruction of the Third Avenue Elevated Line - Sid Kaplan Photography

Photo Credit: Sid Kaplan © – The Transit Museum

With the closing of the Manhattan segments by 1955 and amid a building boom and the frowns of a real estate community over its presence, the elevated line was dismantled. Kaplan – who first took to photography as a 10-year-old amazed at the magic that took place in a darkroom – began to record the careful deconstruction through his camera. He perched atop apartment buildings or leaned out of office windows, as the Transit Museum literature explains. Forty of Kaplan’s photos render workers on steel girders and the streetscape evolving change as the workers tear down the hulking structure.

Getting To Know You

Photographer Todd Webb had a keen eye and boundless energy in seeking to get to know New York, when he arrived after World War II. He committed to do so for a year, in 1945-1946, through his lens. His rich images render many neighborhoods, buildings, shapes, signs, and an infinite variety of people. Many have compared Webb’s photography to that of Berenice Abbott, Harry Calahan, and Walker Evans, among others, though Webb hasn’t been as well-known to the wider public. Abbott, Callahan, and Alfred Stieglitz were among his circle of friends, and Webb’s portraits of them, as well as others such as Helen Levitt and Lisette Model, are part of the show.

Beyond his initial goal, he proceeded to photograph the city for many years. One-hundred images, plus entries from Webb’s journal and other items, are the subject of an exhibit, “A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945-1960,” which opened two days ago, April 20, at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit is on view through Sept. 4 of this year. It’s the museum’s first major exhibition of his work since it had Webb’s first solo show in 1946. (The Curator Gallery, at 520 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, has simultaneously opened a showing of Webb’s photographs, “Down Any Street,” which will be up for a month until May 20.)

Webb walked many streets, toting his large, heavy format camera and tripod. He caught a city straddling eras, the metropolis of an older world in the ethnic neighborhoods and the classic, glorious early 20th century New York skyline in black-and-white (which he loved), and yet a postwar city rapidly changing. The former is seen in a ring of children dancing around a sprinkling spout at La Salle Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, a whisk broom salesman on 125th Street, and two women in housedresses seated along Mott Street. The latter is found in the demolition of tenements on 113th Street, between Third and Lexington avenues, for new housing projects. The war’s end is in evidence, for example, in a photograph of a dark door on Third Avenue with “Welcome Home Nickie and Sal” and “Welcome Home Joie” signs atop the entrance. The captivating images, though seemingly simple, are layered historical evidence.

Each exhibit delves into the times and qualities of the mid-20th century and while showing the timeless impact of a single artist. From Noguchi to Webb, the works we see in these exhibits signify the power of art to tell and elevate human experience. In his journal, Webb once recalled a friend reminding him to forget story angles and concentrate on taking photographs in his own way, as Fortune magazine recounts. “Life goes on about me and I am a living breathing part of it. I feel things, the people, the buildings, the streets, and I have something to say about them and my medium is photography.”

Online Viewing

The New York Times has slide shows on the Magnum and Todd Webb exhibits:

Magnum: Capturing Postwar New York

Todd Webb: Vintage Photos of What Made Postwar New York City Tick

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Bob Stover

    Just out of curiosity. If my wife and I were to want to visit the Noguchi Museum on a weekend in the City, (we’d probably come via Amtrak from Philly), what is the best way to travel to Long Island City? My limited knowledge of NYC is confined to Manhattan, the sports stadiums and the airports.

    • Susan DeMark


      Going to the Noguchi Museum and Long Island City would be excellent, and easy from Penn Station. Long Island City is terrific to walk around!

      One really good way, on a weekend day from Penn Station, is to grab the N train from the Herald Square station at 34th Street (about a 5 minute walk from Penn Station). Take the N toward Queens and get off at the Broadway stop (Broadway in Queens that is).

      The Noguchi Museum is about a 15-20 minute walk from that subway station. You’re walking west toward the Manhattan skyline, which you can see in the distance, and the East River. This Noguchi Museum page explains the directions well, and note that if you are coming on a weekday, you can take the W train.


      Also, if the weather is conducive, you can amble over to the Socrates Sculpture Park, which is great for exploring and gazing at the Manhattan skyline.

      And, as I say, Long Island City is just fun!

      As always, enjoy!

      • Justine Valinotti

        If it’s raining or you don’t feel like walking, you can take the Q104 bus (in front of the Parisi Bakery) from the Broadway Station to Noguchi. Get off at the Costco store; the Noguchi Museum is across the street.

        By the way, Socrates Sculpture Park is next door. From there, if the weather is nice, you might want to walk down to 36th Avenue and over the bridge to Roosevelt Island.

        I highly recommend two places to eat in the area. One is the Arepas Grill in the mini-mall on 21st and Broadway. Another is Fatima Halal Chinese Restaurant on Broadway between Crescent and 29th Streets. A couple of doors down from Fatima is Bakeway, which is like Starbucks but it isn’t Starbuck’s. And, yes, you can get some good bread at Parisi!

        • Susan DeMark

          Perfect! These are very good suggestions, and the bus is a good alternative. When I go to the Noguchi Museum next, I’m going to eat at the Arepas Grill. In fact, I wish I were there as we speak. Great suggestions for Bob. Thank you, Justine!

          • Justine Valinotti

            Hey, it’s my neighborhood. Glad to help!

          • Susan DeMark

            Very appreciated! I’ve read about your neighborhood on your great blog.

            The term “my neighborhood” is one of the heart and experience, in my book, as well as a physical reality. I don’t live in Hell’s Kitchen now, but I lived there for a good bit of time (17 years) and still love it, and it will always be “my neighborhood.”

            Again, I’m grateful for your suggestions and tips, Justine.

        • Bob Stover


          Thank you so much for your information. Unfortunately, my wife is in a wheelchair so the bus is a much better option than walking.

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