One of the more revolutionary works of art on display in New York right now is a four-minute-long film nearly 80 years old. Called “Visual Variations on Noguchi,” it was shot in Isamu Noguchi’s Greenwich Village studio sometime in 1945 or ’46. Wielding the camera was Marie Menken, a Brooklyn-born daughter of Lithuanian immigrants who had, until this studio visit, chiefly been a painter.
She’s now known as an avant-garde film pioneer, and the jagged, hand-held camera work of this film in particular influenced everyone from Jonas Mekas to Stan Brakhage, who called it his “open sesame” moment. But “A Glorious Bewilderment: Marie Menken’s ‘Visual Variations on Noguchi,’” a jewel of a show that includes other Menken shorts and ephemera as well as a full complement of sculptures, is the first time the Noguchi Museum itself has ever screened it.
It’s not hard to see why. Using a hand-held 16-millimeter Bolex, Menken swoops up and down Noguchi’s sculptures almost entirely in close-up. You get a sense of his vertical straightaways and of the tasteful, nose-shaped bulges on a slate piece called “Gregory.” Thanks in part to the clanging score by Lucia Dlugoszewski, added in 1953, you can even feel the rushed, jazzy optimism of art in the postwar era. But aside from a black papier-mâché jack titled “E=MC2” on which she lingers at the end, Menken never lets you see any Noguchi work in full.
In a cogent essay for the show brochure, the curator Kate Wiener connects the museum’s long avoidance of Menken’s piece not just to the fragmentary way Noguchi’s work is depicted, but to what she calls his passive role in the film’s production — he wasn’t even in the studio the day Menken visited. But Noguchi often collaborated with choreographers like Martha Graham, and Wiener suggests that by bringing out the motion implied by his many organic swoops and curves, Menken actually activates the sculptor’s work in a way he would have appreciated.
Another way to put it, though, would be to say that the film gives the lie to the 19th-century fantasy of encyclopedic completeness that still animates most museums. To watch it is to spend four minutes inhabiting another person’s subjective experience of a third person’s sculpture. And once you elevate such a subjective take to the same level as the sculpture itself, displaying them side by side, two things happen. You realize, first of all, that a museum exhibit, however thorough or thoughtful, can never be more than the barest jumping off point for whatever you bring to the show yourself. And you discover that Noguchi’s gorgeous sculptures, seen fully in the round but entirely static, might look a little bit thin.
This isn’t Noguchi’s fault, or the museum’s. The show includes a number of his bravura sculptures, many of them not usually on display, like “Trinity,” a 1974 bronze casting of a 1945 slate original that turns the terrifying new technology of the mushroom cloud into a kind of deco, cut-paper cactus. (It makes an interesting complement to Menken’s short film “Hurry! Hurry!” (1957) in which images of flames are superimposed over close-ups of wriggling sperm cells.) “Gregory,” the large, palette-shaped piece of slate studded with perpendicular protrusions, finds a peculiar beauty inspired by Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a large insect in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” It’s just that they can’t help looking like they’re waiting for their turn onscreen.
Fortunately for us — and for Noguchi — another short is waiting to scramble our senses in the opposite direction, braiding a near infinity of subjective moments back into something lasting and whole. Menken’s “Moonplay” (1964) consists of shots of the moon against a black sky: small and white as a spotlight, large and pale as a reflection in water, seen through branches, hidden by clouds. Most shots, however, last only a moment, so that the film, as it begins, looks almost like some early experiment in computer animation, with a simple white ball bouncing frantically around the screen.
What keeps it all together — and imparts a paradoxical sense of peace to this relentless motion — is the simplicity of the film’s visual elements. There’s nothing to see but light and shadow, and wherever the moon may go, it stays the same. A percussive but beautiful score by Teiji Ito, playing the Iranian zither, amplifies this effect, evoking a rainstorm whose drops combine to make a single rich sound.
When the moon gets bigger, though, the shots get longer, and even a small contrast with the rapid bouncing is enough to make a one- or two-second view of the moon behind clouds feel like an eternal vista. If you stay to watch the film twice, or even three times, you’ll start to notice that the moon isn’t the same in every bounce. Sometimes it’s larger, sometimes it’s smaller, and often it looks smudged or squished, but eventually you learn to see the details and the whole at once.
A Glorious Bewilderment: Marie Menken’s “Visual Variations on Noguchi”
Through Feb. 4, The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 9-01 33rd Road (at Vernon Boulevard), Long Island City, (718) 204-7088; noguchi.org.