Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube sculpture – A masterpiece in New York

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi, 1968 (CC BY 2.0) wwward0

Introduction

Red Cube is a gigantic monumental sculpture by the American landscape architect and artist Isamu Noguchi, located out in Lower Manhattan. The minimalist masterpiece combines architecture and art, creating a fascinating monochromatic cube that balances nimbly on one of its corners.

Notwithstanding its title, Red Cube isn’t an actual cube but rather looks as though it’s been overextended along the vertical axis. Let’s find out more about Isamu Noguchi’s landmark sculpture. Noguchi installed the enormous public art installation in April of 1968.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Kid in a Cube (CC BY 2.0) wwward0

About the Red Cube

Nestled at 140 Broadway in one of the most sought-after addresses in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, Red Cube surely pops out against the background of the high-flying skyscrapers that house the HSBC Bank, Brown Brothers Harriman, and the Bank of America.

Aside from these high-rise buildings that flank the piece, the area is frequented by Halal carts and camera-toting tourists looking to snap Instagram-approved photos.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Cube (CC BY-NC 2.0) Maciek Lulko

Wearing a vivid shade of red and standing on one of its vertices, Red Cube is classified as a minimalist, site-specific public installation art. The scripture stretches axially, in a seemingly incomparable competition with the high-rise building flanking it.

The sculpture is made up exclusively of red-painted steel but it’s not just the stunning bright red color that distinguishes the sculpture from its surrounding architecture and design elements.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: 140 Broadway (CC BY-NC 2.0) Maciek Lulko

Design & positioning

Everything about this sculpture is unique and refreshing, but nothing beats its ability to contrast yet marry into the surrounding. Aside from its eye-catching hue, Red Cube stands out from the surrounding architecture because all of its lines are diagonals.

They stand in stark contrast to the vertical and horizontal lines of the neighboring façade of the Gordon Bunshaft-designed HSBC Building (previously known as the Marine Midland Bank) and the adjacent buildings.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube Manhattan (CC BY-ND 2.0) Mal B

Furthermore, the artwork is perched somewhat dangerously on one corner, seemingly balancing precariously – meanwhile, the neighboring buildings are solidly erected, creating a distinctive contrast.

The brilliant red painted steel of Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube stands out starkly against the blacks, browns, and whites of the surrounding buildings and streets. It is bordered on three sides by skyscrapers, the height of which draws the viewer’s eye upwards.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Red Cube, 1968 (CC BY-NC 2.0) ArtJoy4Ever

The sculpture itself contributes to this upward pull by balancing on one corner, with the opposing corner reaching towards the sky. Despite its namesake, the sculpture is not a cube but rather appears to have been extended along its vertical axis, forming a distorted cubic-esque structure.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube Manhattan (CC BY-ND 2.0) Mal B

Noguchi’s intention

A cylindrical hole cuts through the middle of the sculpture, revealing a grey internal surface with uniformly-spaced lines running from one hole opening to the other. If you look through the Cube’s hole, you are being provided with an immersive view, gazing directly at the sky towards the HSBC Building. This design helps tie the architecture of the surroundings and the sculpture together.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube (detail), 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube (detail), 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: 110620-0085 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) gaetanku

To create this artwork, Isamu Noguchi married architecture with art, purposely paying homage to the setting. In line with the artist’s earlier works, the structure playfully mingles with the urban fabric and presence of the surrounding architecture. After all, the site upon which the sculpture sits can be as vital as the artwork itself.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube (detail), 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Red Cube (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) josullivan.59

Emphasizing the importance of this relationship between the surroundings and the installation, Noguchi stayed true to his creed as an artist. Noguchi believed that an artist is not only a creator and decorator of structures but also a credible collaborator with the architects in creating significant shapes and space.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube (detail), 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube (detail), 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: 110620-0084 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) gaetanku

The setting

To better understand the importance of this artwork, you need to understand the location, which some call one of the great public spaces of New York. They even dare to compare this small part of the city with the visual impact and elegance of any renowned Renaissance plaza or Baroque setting and call it one of the most magnificent examples of 20th-century urbanism anywhere in the world.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi (CC BY-NC 2.0) Zach K

Pulitzer Prize winner Ada Louise Huxtable, one of America’s most architectural critics, wrote in her 1968 review1:

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–are all just right.

Location

Noguchi’s Red Cube is located on one side of a tiny plaza in front of the HSBC (formerly the Marine Midland Bank) building on Broadway. It is tucked between Cedar Street and Liberty Street at 140 Broadway, New York, NY, 10005.

Address: 140 Broadway, New York, NY 10006, USA

Hours: 24h

Closest subway stations: Take Lexington Avenue Express 4 or 5 Train to Wall Street Station or J/Z train to Fulton Street

Trivia

Appearance in The April Fools, 1969

Due to its bold and unusual appearance, Red Cube quickly rose to fame. In 1969, one year after its installation, it prominently appeared in the movie The April Fools, starring widely popular actor Jack Lemon and French actress Catherine Deneuve in her first Hollywood movie.

Video still of The April Fools, 1969
Video still of The April Fools, 1969

Survived 9/11

During 9/11, a significant amount of art in and around the Twin Towers got destroyed. The estimated value of the art by the likes of Alexander Calder, Joan Miró and Roy Lichtenstein is a mind-blowing $100 million of art from private collections and $10 million of public art. Noguchi’s sculpture managed to survive these attacks and, well over 50 years later, looks the same as in 1968.

Occupy Wall Street, 2011

In 2011, Red Cube witnessed yet another tumultuous event, the Occupy Wall Street protests, which took place across the street in Zuccotti Park. The non-violent occupation left the artwork undamaged.

The second day of Occupy Wall Street Day, September 18, 2011, in Zuccotti Park with Noguchi's Red Cube in the background
The second day of Occupy Wall Street Day, September 18, 2011, in Zuccotti Park with Noguchi’s Red Cube and Mark di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre in the background, photo: Occupy Wall Street September 18 2011 Sha (CC BY 2.0) david_shankbone

Controversial redesign plan, 2018

In 2018, a building owner proposed a controversial plan2 to redesign the plaza, adding seating, walls and trees, and consequentially getting rid of the food vendors but also obstructing the exceptional views.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Food truck in front of Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: Noguchi’s ”Cube” (CC BY 2.0) wwward0

These plans have encountered enormous backlash both from public and private institutions as well as individuals and remodeling requests have been thwarted. The plaza and building, declared a landmark in 2013, can still be enjoyed without much interference.

140 Broadway-Helmlsey seating
Rendering of the proposed 140 Broadway plaza view with benches, planters and trees. Image by Jackson Wandres/NV5 via Tribeca Trib

Who created the Red Cube?

Isamu Noguchi is the artist behind the public art installation. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, Noguchi was a well-known landscape architect, industrial designer and artist. He’s celebrated as one of the most influential American sculptors of the 20th century.

From the 1920s until he died in 1988, Isamu Noguchi had a productive career. Noguchi was raised in Japan by his American mother (he’s the son of Japanese playwright Yone Noguchi) and was initially discouraged from becoming an artist until he began attending sculpting workshops in New York.

Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York
Isamu Noguchi – Red Cube, 1968, steel, aluminum, 24 feet tall, installation view, 140 Broadway, New York, photo: The Cube, Marine Midland Building, Broad (CC BY-SA 2.0) Ken Lund

Noguchi subsequently proceeded to Paris and began his creative career as one of Brancusi’s assistants. He mastered stone sculpting and later expanded his abilities to include landscape, furniture, architecture, and stage design.

Throughout his career, he created gardens, furniture and theater designs, among other works that can be found in major cities across the world. You’ve probably seen his artworks in New York City: The Sunken Garden (1961-1964) is in the open plaza in front of Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, and News (1940) is on the main entrance to 50 Rockefeller Plaza.

Isamu Noguchi - News, 1940, installation view, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York
Isamu Noguchi – News, 1940, installation view, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, photo: NYC – Rockefeller Center: Associated Pre (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) wallyg

Furthermore, the Noguchi Museum (formerly known as the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum) in Long Island City has an outdoor sculpture garden and multiple galleries displaying his work.

More by Isamu Noguchi

Explore nearby (140 Broadway, New York)

Citation

Footnotes

1. https://www.nysun.com/article/arts-sweet-liberty-or-ada-louise-was-right ^
2. http://tribecatrib.com/content/critics-lash-out-redesign-proposal-landmark-red-cube-plaza ^

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