News on the Wire
We're proud to welcome Lance Esplund, who writes about art and culture for The Wall Street Journal and other publications, as a guest contributor to Front & Center. Today he discusses a Rockefeller Plaza sculpture by one of the 20th century's most unique and prolific artists.
Isamu Noguchi "imagines our nice reporters in a Blitzkrieg," said a 1940 editorial in The New York Herald Tribune. Its author was referring to the five journalists depicted in Noguchi’s 22-foot-tall, cast stainless steel bas-relief sculpture "News," which had just been installed above the main entrance of the Associated Press Building at 50 Rockefeller Plaza.
Noguchi submitted his proposal for "News" in 1938, and later said that the sculpture "foretold of war." His design emphasizes the importance and urgency of reporters getting the story—and getting it fast and right—during pivotal, even dangerous times. The work's dynamic figures suggest people melded together to serve a greater purpose. Rippling through the plane, they struggle as one mass, like the father and his sons against the serpents in the ancient Greek marble sculpture "Laocoön Group."
Noguchi's gleaming "News" adorns the building’s limestone façade like an enormous silvery brooch, but its energetic internal forms and lines race and rain down like a barrage on the front doors below. Its forward momentum is evocative of the Hellenistic marble sculpture "The Winged Victory of Samothrace" and of figures plowing through the waves, mounted on ships’ prows. The journalists feel fixed, wedged like spikes into the architecture. Taut yet elastic, however, they ride the newswires like a steaming locomotive.
Until 2004, 50 Rockefeller Plaza’s primary tenant, now Bank of America, was The Associated Press. And you can imagine the morale boost (or at least the kick in the pants) Noguchi’s "News" provided for the AP's employees. They looked up and saw themselves, larger than life, expertly operating the tools of their trade (the camera, teletype, telephone, wirephoto and trusty notepad)—springing into action like first-responders, like Marines storming a beachhead.
Noguchi immortalized these journalists as everyday workers, as blue-collar builders of the truth. And he portrays them as men of action and consequence, moving like speeding bullets, literally made of steel—as heroes, if not superheroes. Their phone, teletype and notepad are not merely tools but sturdy pedestals, and the scroll of paper unfurls like a banner flag, doubling as a reporter’s wind-whipped cape. Entering their offices each day, these journalists were encouraged, perhaps, to straighten their postures and to quicken their step, to giddy-up to the vital, courageous business of the newswire.
A hallmark of American Art Deco, "News" was the first major sculpture made of stainless steel (and the largest metal bas-relief at its time). Figurative, extroverted, overtly American and patriotic in feel, it was selected out of 188 entries in an open competition that stipulated bronze. And it is atypical for Noguchi (1904-88), an artist, architect and designer who worked primarily as an abstractionist and who, more successfully than any other modern artist, blended East and West in his work.
Born to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in both America and Japan. He had an extremely productive and innovative career, creating furniture, fixtures, landscapes, monuments, buildings, playgrounds and theater sets. A studio assistant to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, Noguchi was deeply influenced by Brancusi’s smooth, pared-down essences of natural forms, and also by the biomorphic abstract sculptures of Jean Arp and Alexander Calder, as well as classical Greco-Roman sculpture, organic objects such as stones and bones, and primitive monuments such as Stonehenge. He brought all of these influences to bear in his own deceptively unassuming, hand-carved sculpture, which comprises mostly stone, marble and wood. His singular vision can be experienced more fully at The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens.
At its unveiling ceremony in 1940, Nelson Rockefeller said of "News" that it was "a powerful, beautifully executed, sculptural interpretation of the gathering of the news—symbolic of the freedom and vitality of the press." In her book The Art of Rockefeller Center, Christine Roussel reminds us that Rockefeller’s speech went on to warn us "against totalitarian ideologies and urged each American to preserve and protect our intellectual freedom. World War II was on the horizon."
Nearly eight decades later, Noguchi’s "News" reverberates as a testament to the importance of the freedom of the press and of the journalistic pursuit of the truth. Perhaps the sculpture’s highest praise came in 2004: Anecdotally, when the Associated Press team left 50 Rockefeller Plaza for new digs, some expected Noguchi's sculpture to come with them—they felt that "News" was theirs.