Isamu Noguchi, Red Cube, 1968
There are some New York artists whose New Yorkness you sense right on the surface – Stieglitz, Gottlieb – and there are others where the New Yorkness sits a bit further below. Isamu Noguchi is one of these. He never gets enough credit for his involvement in the Greenwich Village scene (his studio was in MacDougal Alley, the same as Pollock), or his set designs for Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. But there is, at least, the corrective of the Noguchi Museum out in Long Island City: one of those institutions that art worlders always claim to love and then never visit.
Red Cube (bright red, even brighter than the Di Suvero across Broadway in Zuccotti Park) isn’t a cube but a parallelepiped. It doesn’t even resolve into a cube by some trick of perception; it’s longer than it is wide, and that’s that. If you look through the hole on the northwest face, you get an edited view of 140 Broadway, now the headquarters of Brown Brothers Harriman – another work of Gordon Bunshaft and the folks at SOM. When it first opened in 1968, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the Times:
The scale of the buildings, the use of open space, the views revealed or suggested, the contrasts of architectural style and material, of sculptured stone against satin-smooth metal and glass, the visible change and continuity of New York’s remarkable skyscraper history, the brilliant accent of the poised Noguchi cube – color, size, style, mass, space, light, dark, solids, voids, highs and lows – all are just right. These few blocks provide (why equivocate?) one of the most magnificent examples of 20th-century urbanism anywhere in the world.
But Huxtable concluded her review on a weary note: “What next? Probably destruction.” The balance between 140 Broadway, the Chase building, and the old Chamber of Commerce couldn’t be maintained for long; some schmuck was always going to beat the zoning laws and ruin the neighborhood. That’s indeed what happened, though it was harder to predict that the descendants of Harry Helmsley (Leona? not Leona?), who built 140 Broadway, would install a massive plaque the size of a catafalque right outside the building, making Noguchi’s balanced cube seem even more precarious.
Red Cube is outside 140 Broadway, between Cedar and Liberty streets.