How might the work of a contemporary artist trained in industrial design match up with a seminal mid-century sculptor trained under Brancusi? Reactions to that question—and many more—are on display in “Solid Doubts: Robert Stadler at the Noguchi Museum” in Queens, New York.
“Both of them are interested in creating doubt rather than easy solutions,” Dakin Hart, the Noguchi Museum’s senior curator, said of Stadler and the devotional museum’s namesake, Isamu Noguchi. “They really think the objects that surround them should be subject to questioning and ought to be part of the flow of change rather than resisting change.”
The process of pairing work by the late Noguchi and the Austria-born, Paris-based Stadler “was something of a blind date,” Hart said during a walk-through a few weeks ago, and the result is four surreal installations that challenge ideas of design, functionality, and typical usage of materials. “Solid Doubts” is the first museum show in New York for Stadler, whose work tends toward playful re-imaginings of elements of domestic interiors, with special attention paid to a separation of art and design as differing categories and practices. His work remains on view at the museum through September 3 and also features in a solo show running through June 7 at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Midtown.
The first installation at Noguchi features works from Stadler’s series Cut_Paste (2015), in which marble panels and sheets of aluminum are arranged into furniture-like figures: a table, a bench, and—in the case of Cut_Paste #5—a shelved structure that Hart said he “would definitely use as a bar.” Noguchi’s work is placed alongside and—in certain places—on top of Stadler’s. Noguchi’s Big Id (1971), a five-foot-long marble protuberance from a sheet of stainless steel, stands back-to-back with Stadler’s would-be bar. Other smaller Noguchi works are placed atop Stadler’s bench and coffee table, which recall castoffs from a luxury building project—like something “a junior associate at an architecture firm, maybe SOM, was told to make that looks expensive,” quipped Hart.
Stadler’s Anywhere #2 (2017) is a movable lamp meant to subvert the tyrannical control of engineers who install a home’s electrical wiring. The white construction hangs from one end of a lever, and the other end has a handle that a user would pull to rotate the lighting. The display, among pieces from Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Hérodiade (1944) and Stadler’s PDT series (2015), summons the image of a mythic moonscape, calling to mind some abandoned, ancient place. “To me, it’s like ruins,” Hart said.
Stadler’s Pools and Pouf! (2014) occupies another room. Like a living area that has been blown apart—an “exploded sofa,” in Stadler’s own terms—the series consists of black tufted leather shapes that sit on the floor, relating to each other the way a couch does to a footstool or a coffee table. The piece is “looking for new forms, new shapes, a way of questioning why the basic furniture types seem to be so static and to evolve so slowly,” Hart said.
Representing Noguchi nearby are two of his well-known Akari lamps with washi paper wrapped around a collapsible bamboo frame and mounted on metal legs. Like Stadler’s questioning of what he calls the “Chesterfield molecule”—the traditional configuration of the iconic Chesterfield sofa and conventional companion pieces—Noguchi’s lamps carry out a similar reprogramming of interior-design philosophies. “Light has a similar potential as a material to shape space and change the way that we interact with spaces,” Hart explained.
In the garden—a leafy space behind the museum dotted with rocks and Noguchi stoneworks—two pieces from Stadler’s Rest in Peace #2 series sit in the sun. Starting with white plastic lawn furniture, the artist has artificially eroded a chair and a table until they are riddled with holes, the chair missing half of its back altogether. During a tour at a press preview in April, Stadler called them “skeletons of skeletons,” explaining that where contemporary furniture is already a pared-down version of traditionally cushioned and upholstered pieces of the past, Rest in Peace #2 extends that process to the point where “they have osteoporosis.”
Stadler’s work takes on Noguchi’s solidity and sparkles with a subtle wit—and shows how pliable Noguchi’s work can be. “We’re always aiming to maintain the sense of restless serenity that we have here at the museum and [a desire] to see how adaptable it is,” Hart said. “What you find is that the basic Noguchi package is incredibly resilient, and it’s actually hungry for contrast.”
In conversation, Noguchi’s and Stadler’s work together engages that contrast through intriguing inquiries into art versus design, space versus material, the past versus the present—all without definite answers. Speaking of the works in “Solid Doubts,” Hart said, “They like being questions.”