Models for the Associated Press Building at Rockefeller Center

Two Designs by Isamu Noguchi

“Door Design to Win Prize” reads the headline for the announcement of the national competition for the Associated Press Building at Rockefeller Center in The New York Times on June 26th 1938. Though architectural competitions were common, it was the first open call for decoration of the Rockefeller Center Buildings. Artists were asked to submit a plaster sketch model based on the theme of “news” for a bronze panel to be placed above the Associated Press Building’s main entrance.  A jury would select the winning plaque and award three cash prizes at $1000, $500 and $250 respectively. 

The present design was one of the 188 submissions to the competition. It was also one of two designs submitted by the artist Isamu Noguchi, the other of which was the award-winning panel.

The present design was one of the 188 submissions to the competition. It was also one of two designs submitted by the artist Isamu Noguchi, the other of which was the award-winning panel. This first design took months to complete, while his second design, for which he specified stainless steel as his preferred medium, was completed in just three days prior to the deadline. It is unclear why Noguchi submitted two designs, but Christine Roussel suggests in her book The Art of the Rockefeller that Noguchi likely became aware that the architects were discussing a change in medium to the large panel, though it would not be decided publicly until July of 1939, well after Noguchi’s design won.

Following the jury’s selection of the top three works, all 188 panels were exhibited in the Mezzanine Galleries of the International Building at the Rockefeller Center in October of 1938. Edward Alden Jewell reviewed the exhibition in The New York Times describing Noguchi’s award-winning panel “of such outstanding effectiveness that it would seem beyond question to merit the honor paid.” He goes on to detail a selection of the submissions though there is no mention of Noguchi’s other design. 

Isamu Noguchi with the award-winning plaster model. The figure in the lower right would be removed from the final bronze.

There is however, mention of the two Noguchi designs for the competition in several period articles, and The Noguchi Museum retains sketches pertaining to this design in their files. Yet, there does not appear to be any known period visual documentation of the completed work. Comparing the present lot to the winning design’s model, we see the same stylized figuration. In both we see reverence for the collection, distribution and production of the news, only we see this transform from static observation in the first panel to an active pursuit in the second, award-winning panel. Visually and stylistically, it would seem there can be little doubt that these were by the same artist.  

In the mid-1980s the owner of the present panel approached Noguchi concerning the work. While he did not meet with the artist directly, he sent an image and received a letter in reply from the registrar at The Noguchi Museum, Bonnie Rychlak. In her letter, dated June 4th 1987, Rychlak confirms that she has shown the image to the artist and that “Indeed, [Noguchi] said it looks familiar and recalls that design to be the second study for the Associated Press Plaque competition.” She does go on to qualify that it would be impossible to say whether the plaque was the original, because the work is not signed or dated. This detail, however, is important because it was a requirement of the competition; the model was to be 1/8th scale, made of plaster and painted to resemble any bronze patina, and free of any artist signature or identification to ensure the jury did not know the artist when making their selection. 

Letter From Bonnie Rychlak through which Noguchi confirms the design is his.
What we do know, is that the design of the present lot is Noguchi’s. The work exhibits all of the requirements of the Associated Press Building competition and the quality and vintage of the work is in line with what we know of Noguchi’s production at the time. 

The fate of the models following the competition is unknown. Competition guidelines specified that they were to be collected by the artist on the last day of the exhibition or they may be “disposed of or destroyed” by the Rockefeller Center. Did the artists collect the works? Did Noguchi? How did the Rockefeller Center handle the works left by the artists? Few examples have turned up since 1938 and even the whereabouts of the award-winning model by Noguchi is unknown. What we do know, is that the design of the present lot is Noguchi’s. The work exhibits all of the requirements of the Associated Press Building competition and the quality and vintage of the work is in line with what we know of Noguchi’s production at the time. 

In the absence of any other documentation or clear provenance linking the present model to the hand of the artist, the artwork does not meet the standards for inclusion in The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné. While there is not a definitive visual record, the work has been in the same collection since the mid-1980s and the design has been confirmed by the artist. 

We would like to thank The Noguchi Museum for their assistance in cataloging this lot. We are proud to bring this historical treasure to market. 

Resources

Rockefeller Center. Competition for a Bronze Panel for the Doorway of the Main Entrance to The Associated Press Building, 1938
"Door Design to Win Prize," The New York Times, 26 June 1938 
"Design Contest Closing," The New York Times, 7 October 1938
"Art Panel Chosen for A.P. Building," The New York Times, 10 October 1938
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Sculpture Show Will Open Today," The New York Times, 11 October 1938
"Plaque Plans Change," The New York Times, 30 July 1939
"Huge Plaque Symbolizing Press Freedom Is Unveiled at Associated Press Building," The New York Times, 30 April 1940
"Science in the News: Stainless Sculpture," The New York Times, 5 May 1940
Roussel, Christine. The Art of the Rockefeller. W. W. Norton Company, 2006.