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.
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