Centennial Man

Chances are Hans Noë, an architect and Holocaust survivor who did a stint at Mies van der Rohe’s office, palled around with sculptor Tony Smith and ran famed SoHo watering hole Fanelli’s for decades, has had a more eventful life than you. In mid-October, the National Museum of Mathematics staged a public conversation with the nonagenarian, and it was clear the audience had come prepared to hear the man spin a yarn. Wearing a ball cap that cast his eyes in shadow, he certainly looked the part of groused raconteur. Moderator Lawrence Weschler tried his best to steer Noë across the many contours of his biography—coming of age as a Jew in the fascist-controlled city of Czernowitz, now part of Ukraine (“In those days, life was just a throwaway thing. … Nothing has changed”); immigrating to New York, where he studied architecture at the Cooper Union; his friendship with Smith, whom he considered a mentor, and initial antipathy toward Mark Rothko (his paintings “made me seasick”); the time he spent restoring watches in San Francisco, where he was stationed during the Korean War; the apprenticeship under Mies and the very charmed first encounter with his future wife (“I was sitting in Crown Hall with a friend, and Judy walked by”); marital bliss in the Hamptons, where he built a few small houses, until she grew tired of the isolation and they moved to the city, where he began acquiring and flipping old buildings; taking over the extant bar at the base of 94 Prince Street (“Food was just a necessary evil”), then handing it off to one of his sons in the early 2000s; retirement in the Hudson River Valley—the better to speed the chronology along. An emblematic exchange:

Weschler: So after the war, you came back and Tony Smith told you to go—

Noë: Can I say something?

Weschler: OK, but then when are we going to talk about your work?

The work was the small sculptural studies on display in the upstairs museum gallery. Both rigorous and gracile, the maquettes borrow from Smith and Constantin Brancusi even as they recall the wilder progeny of midcentury Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Weschler had organized the since-closed exhibition and was eager to discuss geometry, inviting guests mathematician Chaim Goodman-Strauss and Noë’s son Alva, a philosopher, to weigh in. No sooner had an explanation of a truncated tetrahedron been proffered than Noë went off piste. “I think that the real art that is happening today … has no meaning in itself. That what you the viewer brings to it is the meaning,” he said. “The sculpture itself is like an obstacle.” And then a final verbal swap:

Weschler: The visitors from Tel Aviv suggested that this piece looks like a Star of David stretched out.

Noë: That’s news to me.