Red Cube, 1968
140 Broadway
Broadway at Cedar Street
Sunken Garden, 1961–64
28 Liberty Plaza (formerly Chase Manhattan Plaza)

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Just a few blocks apart, Isamu Noguchi’s two large-scale sculptural works in Lower Manhattan occupy central places in association with two buildings designated as landmarks by New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission: One Chase Manhattan Plaza and the former Marine Midland Bank Building, now 140 Broadway. At both locations, Noguchi’s sculptures provide a physically incised perspective for contemplating the buildings they complement. Sunken Garden (1961–64) opens up a space for reflection as one peers downward into Chase Manhattan Plaza’s recessed alcove, while Red Cube (1968) facilitates an upward vantage point onto the towering building behind. Noguchi’s consideration of both sites, and site in general, in his sculptural practice is evident when he noted in 1968: “a sculptor is not merely a decorator of buildings but a serious collaborator with the architect in the creation of significant space and of significant shapes which define this space.”*

Noguchi’s Sunken Garden gestures playfully towards natural elements in the space of Chase Manhattan Plaza. Sunken Garden’s sloped ground is composed of 27,000 four-inch-square light-colored granite stones from Vermont whose patterning evokes both the raked drybed “karesansui” Zen gardens of Japan and the fanned pathways of Europe’s cobblestoned plazas.

Noguchi paired these stones with seven black basalt boulders from the Uji River in Japan. The circular environment of Sunken Garden functions as a fountain in the summer, and remains dry in the winter. One cannot enter the garden itself, a quality that reflects tenets of Zen gardens that Noguchi studied carefully and that were close-to-home for the Japanese-American sculptor. Noguchi’s “garden” resonates organically with Jean Dubuffet’s Group of Four Trees (1972) on the ground-level of Chase Manhattan Plaza as well. In speaking of the energy that emanates from Sunken Garden, Noguchi commented, “the rocks I found in Japan for this garden contain a levitating as well as a gravitating quality. Some of them will seem to soar, others, remain close to the earth.”**

Noguchi’s Red Cube similarly appears to defy gravity as it tilts upwards to a height reaching 28 feet. The steel sculpture is cast in aluminum in a similar manner to the cladding of the 140 Broadway building itself, protecting it from harsh winds. The deceptive steel object appears solid from afar, but upon approach contains a cylindrical hole that burrows through the piece, revealing a controlled view of its associated building. Evoking a rolling die on its side, Red Cube subtly alludes to the “gambling” and high stakes of the surrounding omnipresent financial markets. The years that bracket these two sculptures, 1961 and 1968, mark significant moments in Noguchi’s career: in 1961, Noguchi moved to Long Island City, where he established his studio (and later, the Noguchi Museum), while in 1968 the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted his first United States retrospective.

The imperative on behalf of New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission to designate these sites as landmarks ensures they will not meet the unfortunate fate of one of Noguchi’s first site-specific environments. Shin Banraisha (1951–52) was a contemplative study at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan for over 50 years until the site-specific work was “relocated” in 2003 to another location on campus. Due to the landmark designation of these sites in New York City, however, Noguchi’s sculptures, Sunken Garden and Red Cube, will remain protected in Lower Manhattan, where they have offered new perspectives for a half-century.

– Alex Fialho

 

*Isamu Noguchi, “The Sculptor and the Architect” (1968) reprinted in Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations (Harry N. Abrams, 1994), pp. 52-53.
**“Japanese Garden for Wall Street,” Herald Tribune, September 13, 1963.

 

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):

Red Cube, 1968 Photos by Michio Noguchi (both images)
© The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York

Sunken Garden for Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, 1961–1964 (both images)
Photo Credit: Arthur Lavine
© The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York