Homa Taj in Conversation with Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at The Noguchi Museum, Long Island City
Homa Taj – When did you start your position as a curator at the Noguchi Museum?
Dakin Hart – February of 2013.
HT – How has your academic background informed your work as a museum curator?
DH – My academic career is pretty checkered. I still haven’t finished my PhD, although I have a pretty decent collection of excuses. My advisor Robert Rosenblum died just before I took my orals; he hooked me up with Picasso’s biographer John Richardson just before he died, and I spent three busy, wonderful years working with John, which led directly and indirectly to some fun writing and independent curatorial projects; meanwhile, my short, straight degree vector at the IFA (Institute of Fine Arts) became labyrinthine; we had a baby; I took this job; we had another baby. Some day I will finish. My mother did three degrees after she turned forty, so I don’t feel too rushed. The only worry is getting gazumped in my area of research…
Mostly, being buried in books, journals, Xeroxed packets, and two-image PowerPoint presentations made me desperate to get back to working with objects.
HT – I ask, because there is a trend among American modern and contemporary art museums to hire curators and directors without academic qualifications. And, by that, I don’t mean anyone who simply holds an advanced university degree but, really, anyone who has spent extensive periods of time pursuing scholarly research which is slow & time-consuming, and which influence one’s approach to curatorial work … Your thoughts.
DH – I can produce passable scholarship when necessary, but I’m happier recognizing, believing in, relying on, commissioning, and promoting the great scholarship of others. Which I like to think is a worthwhile skill in and of itself in these days of diminishing seriousness on the (still nominally) not for profit side of the art world. But generally speaking I agree that curatorial work informed by deep study is important, and in the aggregate I find it more satisfying than the purely formal, or art fair and gallery leveraged varieties. (How’s that for a couple of straw men.)
The real point for me is that the artworks I tend to be interested in are capable of sustaining, and deserve, the attentions of people with a wide range of skills and approaches. To make the most of art takes a village. I’m just happy to be in the mix.
HT – What are the benefits & challenges of working in a museum whose mission is the preservation of a single artist – albeit a great one like Noguchi?
DH – It’s that great old debate about whether it’s more intellectually desirable to have complete command of one great book or a more superficial understanding of a hundred. From the outside The Noguchi Museum looks like the one book model. Our subject seems an inch wide; but it’s almost infinitely deep. I like to think of the Museum, which as the artist’s estate contains everything he left when he died (including more than 4,000 objects, 200,000 pages of documents and photographs, and a Slip and Slide), as that mythical lake deep in the jungle that may go all the way through the planet and feels like it might connect to another dimension. But the reality is that our scope is not that narrow. There’s almost nowhere you can’t go, at least in the twentieth century, via Noguchi. His social network was a magnificently expansive object in and of itself. Few human beings have ever been more creatively, or broadly, connected.
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HT – What is your favorite museum – that you have visited?
DH – I’m not good at favorites. My favorite work of art is whichever one someone has just asked me to talk about. But a Museum that comes to mind immediately in the context of Noguchi is the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. It teems with magical things in metal, stone, ceramic, and wood: pedimental sculpture, including the great Apollo, votives by the hundreds, bronze battle helmets and a gorgeous battering ram, dozens of gryphon heads (broken off tripods)–a complete material culture representing what Barnett Newman called, forgiving the loaded language and the unreconstructed attitude towards ‘primitive’ cultures, “a plastic language…directed by a ritualistic will towards metaphysical understanding.” Yes, please! Noguchi said that he associated himself with sculpture since the beginning of time. Much of the work feels that way. And his Museum feels that way; there’s an Acropolis sort of vibe here, a sense that human civilization is at stake, which is probably why my mind went to an archaeological museum representing Ancient Greece at its most cosmopolitan.
HT – What museum would you like to visit but haven’t yet had the opportunity to do so?
DH – The new Whitney, right here in our backyard. Very excited by the prospect that one of the Manhattan majors may be reorienting itself away from the market and back towards what matters: the serious, beautiful presentation of meaningful objects–regardless who made them, who gave them, who thinks they can get famous by exhibiting them, and, most importantly, their value in status or dollars.
HT – You worked at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. This year they are introducing the Nasher Sculpture Prize – the first of its kind – … Are you aware of it? If so, what are your thought?
DH – I did. A magical place. And I am. They kindly asked me to be a nominator. Honestly, I’m skeptical of awards, which often seem designed for the aggrandizement of people whose privilege has already rendered them all but superhuman–those giving and those receiving. I hope this one builds a reputation for going to artists for whom the recognition and the money are meaningful, and whose selection somehow contributes to the betterment of the field. I’m thinking of someone like Dan Graham (I did not nominate him), who has made huge contributions to the practice of sculpture but who, because he doesn’t make art world Doritos, hasn’t received the recognition and remuneration he probably deserves. But of course it’s good to raise awareness, recognize achievement, and support artists directly, however it’s done.
(Full disclosure: two years ago The Noguchi Museum inaugurated an Isamu Noguchi Award, non-monetary, given to “kindred spirits in innovation, global consciousness and Japanese/American exchange.” The first four honorees have been Norman Foster, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yoshio Taniguchi, and Jasper Morrison. I have been skeptical of ours too. But the depth and genuineness of the connections it has made and reinforced is indisputably meaningful.)
HT – I saw the Noguchi Museum’s Secret Garden at Collective Design Fair, last weekend. It was a marvelous use of an interior / urban-concrete space. How did that project come about?
DH – Thanks. Our mission here is making Noguchi feel vital and vibrant. I think of Noguchi as a language, our job being to make sure it’s a living language. Which means using it. And not just for talking about talking about Noguchi. Esperanto, in other words, is not the model. Something like Latin, specialized and clique-y but essential, is more like it. That installation was a niche project designed to speak to those who speak the language–whoever they may be.
Noguchi’s work loves a challenge, and as you can see out here at the Museum, it thrives against a rough industrial backdrop. Clement Greenberg took Noguchi seriously and rated him highly, but he criticized him for being sometimes over-refined, which is legitimate. Noguchi knew it, and part of his response was to install refined things in unrefined environments and vice versa. And it works. His reclaimed pine bases–which, ala his teacher Brancusi’s, often end up mind-melding with the works they support–are often the perfect counterweight to the meticulously calculated contrasts in many of his stone sculptures in particular. Likewise, polished Carrara statuario looks great against concrete; basalt loves cinderblock; and ceramics come to life against distressed wood and rough brick.
When we toured Skylight Clarkson Square, Collective Design’s venue this year, that distressed loading dock felt like the perfect place to create a physical analogy for the Museum, an oasis of serene attention, seemingly outside time and space. When you give yourself up to Noguchi, it almost always feels like an airlock has closed behind you. I think of this as the middle gate magic, after the mental shift that’s supposed to happen in a Japanese tea garden when you pass from one zone into another. Specific content aside (the three interlocking rock gardens), that was our sole aim: to make that space–so neglected it appeared that no one could even be othered to demolish it properly–feel like a far-flung outpost in a Noguchi universe.
HT – Tell us a bit about your Offsite Exhibitions program…
DH – The Museum is home base for Noguchi world-wide. Organizing off-site shows and loaning works is a major part of our program. Valerie Fletcher’s Surrealism show for the Hirshhorn in Washington, a exhibition on sublimity at the Centre-Pompidou Metz, and Detroit Institute of Arts’ Art of American Dance are a few of the Museum shows to which we’ll make loans over the course of the next year. We also loan to ‘museum quality’ shows in commercial galleries–most recently Mnuchin, Paul Kasmin, and Joni Weyl-Gemini (this summer). As well as the major retrospective we co-organized this past spring with Pace Gallery called Noguchi Variations, in which all 50+ objects came from the Museum. We also organize travelling exhibitions and site specific installations for institutions all over the world. Noguchi is an international phenomenon as much as an American, or local, one.
In addition to the exhibition program, we regularly make long-term loans of single objects, and groups of objects, to institutions (mostly Museums) here and abroad. Nearly every object on view at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Japan, based in Noguchi’s former studio in Mure on the island of Shikoku, for example, belongs to us. A number of loans have just returned from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Clark Art Institute. And more are on the way out.
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HT – What is your next big project/exhibition?
DH – We have three big projects coming up in New York between now and the middle of 2016. (Our 30th anniversary runs from May 2015 to May 2016.) The first to open (September 8th) is an exhibition of sixteen Noguchis at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Centered on the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden (celebrating its 100th anniversary this year), the idea is to engage the different timescales (e.g. botanic, human, and geologic) and cultural assumptions latent in the Garden in its role as a microcosmic Earth. The second is Museum of Stones (opening October 7), a major temporary exhibition here at The Noguchi Museum that explores rock and stone as indices of culture. The show grew out of the artist Jimmie Durham’s critique of sculpture and architecture as stone denaturing regimes that advance the Western European notion that the purpose of stone is to help us establish impenetrable bulwarks against time, nature, and each other. For the first time, we will be introducing the work of other contemporary artists into the Museum’s main (original, Noguchi-installed) galleries. Which goes back to the point I made earlier that to be vibrant, Noguchi’s world needs other creative minds dinging around in it. The prospect of altering how the Museum feels, even for a limited time, is daunting–but exciting. Life and change are inextricable! The third show, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony (opening March 2016), takes things one step further. It will be the first exhibition at The Noguchi Museum dedicated to a single artist other than Noguchi. Again, slightly terrifying. But we couldn’t have a better partner; Tom’s engagement with Noguchi is long, rich, and deep.The exhibition–site-specific and being developed as a collaboration between Tom and the Museum–will consist of a complete immersive environment, a tea house and tea garden, Tom’s performance of tea ceremonies, a book and a movie. It will also travel, although I can’t say where because contracts are yet to be signed.