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A Glorious Bewilderment:
Marie Menken’s
Visual Variations on

Isamu Noguchi Museum | September 27, 2023-February 4, 2024
by Joanna Seifter, December 21, 2023

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Martha Graham’s visionary choreography was distinguished by brusque, repetitive movements designated as “contraction and release,” involving dancers physically withdrawing and expanding their bodies, imparting a breadth of somatic and emotional expression. Graham’s collaborations with Isamu Noguchi, as thoroughly boundless as her choreography, appropriated Noguchi’s biomorphic sculptures as sets, costumes, and even dance partners. Graham and her dancers approached Noguchi’s forms from different heights, distances, and angles, examining every inch of their surfaces while grasping how they functioned onstage at large, ebulliently “contracting and releasing” with a stationary object. Although Graham’s dancers periodically touched Noguchi’s more prop-like sculptures, they more frequently hovered over his works, enveloping them to the best of their ability without ever making direct contact.

Graham’s interactions with Noguchi’s works mirror museumgoers’ diverse and, often, avante-garde, methods of engaging with abstract art. Marie Menken’s 1945 short film, Visual Variations on Noguchi, heavily features the sculptures Noguchi made for Graham’s 1944 ballet Herodiade. The Isamu Noguchi Museum’s latest exhibition, A Glorious Bewilderment: Marie Menken’s Visual Variations on Noguchi, juxtaposes Menken’s film with its (remaining or reproduced) sculptural subjects. Museum educators John Falk and Lynn Dierking posit that audiences “actively create and make meaning of their own museum experiences,” each interpreting the same works slightly differently and forming unique museumgoing rituals.*  Menken, Graham and Noguchi’s shared “museum experience” is rooted in motion; with cinematography embodying Graham’s choreographic language, Menken’s Visual Variations on Noguchi is the rare film that genuinely encapsulates uncertainty, ingenuity, and play in a museum environment.

A Glorious Bewilderment introduces the visitor to Menken’s framework by presenting Visual Variations on Noguchi in its original 16 mm format. The film itself opens with a muffled audio montage of abrasive static and a disembodied whispered string-of-consciousness monologue: “Sidewalk… lithium…” Composer Lucille Dlugoszewski escalates Visual Variations’ score, interspersing its static with shrill, chalkboard-like violin screeches, 1940s sci-fi space battle sound effects, mechanized assembly line gears and phrenetic breathing. 

As the film’s audio unfolds, the film’s credits transition to shots of Noguchi’s sculptures, each of which is shown either in stylized segmented close-ups or as rhythmic camera oscillations. Menken and Graham’s collective construction of exhibition spaces are absent of the cursory glimpses or resignation to confusion that tend to proliferate in modern and contemporary galleries. Rather, their conceptual viewer both scrutinizes and watches Noguchi’s sculptures from afar, from all directions, affording just as much attention to each work’s negative spaces as their positive spaces. 

Visual Variations’ cinematography frequently belies the audience’s presence within the film, a conceptualization of museumgoing that lends itself to voyeurism. The film’s numerous zoomed-in pandowns of vertical convey a visitor leering at their forms the way they might ogle bodies. In Menken’s cinematic gallery, the collection outnumbers (and intimidates) the viewer. When the camera hesitantly pans left from behind the cropped appendage of Noguchi’s Untitled (1942), for instance, it fully reveals another sculpture, Untitled (1943), giving the impression that the viewer is hiding from it–out of fear, awe, shame, or perhaps all three. Menken’s composition of another sculpture’s appendage resembles a looming, vaguely threatening phallus, its resultant shadow following the audience’s eye line.

Occasionally, the film’s selective cinematography completely changes the content of Noguchi’s works, further abstracting and personifying them. When Menken swipes the camera back and forth across the oval atop Figure, she highlights its curvatures by a single light source puncturing an inky background, giving decontextualized art the appearance of a whirring flying saucer. Menken’s camerawork distorts Graham’s relationship between dancer and sculpture, isolating the viewer’s approaches and explications from the collection itself, transforming the whimsical museumgoing experience to nothing short of a horror film sustained by alienation and ambiguity. 

Dlugoszewski’s notes on her score for Visual Variations on Noguchi describe how our perpetual search for–and desire to elucidate–greater meaning from our environments fulfills us more than materiality itself, presupposing that “Rain is [alive] but I am only alive when I wonder how I know it is.” Once visitors complete Visual Variations on Noguchi, they can proceed to do just that–to reframe and reinterpret the sculptures Menken hand-selected and filmed, supported by the exhibition’s extensive written and visual documentation of Noguchi, Menken, and Graham’s art and concurrent careers.

*John Falk and Lynn Dierking, “During the Visit,” in The Museum Experience Revisited, (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2013) 105.

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Images: Header: Marie Menken, still of both Untitled (1942) and Untitled (1943) from Visual Variations of Noguchi, 1945. Film. Courtesy Isamu Noguchi Museum and The Film Makers’ Cooperative. Above: Image 1: Marie Menken, title card from Visual Variations of Noguchi, 1945. Film. Courtesy Isamu Noguchi Museum and The Film Makers’ Cooperative. Image 2: Isamu Noguchi, Untitled, 1943; partially reconstructed in 1995. Wood. Courtesy Isamu Noguchi Museum.

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