The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts supports embedded arts research through critical exchange

Isamu Noguchi’s Rock, Paper, Hipsters

by DAVE BARTON / OC Weekly

His designs fascinate both for their undeniable beauty and for their intersection with commerce.

To get an idea of the uncomfortable relationship between artistic vision and the requisite cash needed to fulfill that vision, one needs only look as far as Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibition, “Noguchi: California Legacy.”

It begins with a series of 30-year-old letters from a Los Angeles arts broker to Japanese American artist/designer Isamu Noguchi asking him if he’d be interested in a commercial commission (his first and only) from an unnamed patron. Noguchi said yes, and what follows are breathless letters from Orange County businessman/philanthropist Henry Segerstrom that are bursting with fanboy eagerness for the artist’s work. Ass-kissing and contracts follow for what will eventually be known as “California Scenario,” including an amusing missive from Noguchi to the U.S. Department of the Interior asking if he can remove some rocks from Joshua Tree National Park for the project; the department politely rebuffed him. As the project proceeds to eat up the agreed-upon funds, requests for more money ensued, with Segerstrom testily reminding Noguchi they’d set a certain price, then offering some more money. (Civil as the presented documentation is, one wonders what we’re not seeing displayed. Funded by the Segerstrom Foundation, we’re not going to get any dirt here that puts either of the visionaries in a bad light.)

The breathtakingly serene sculpture garden that resulted—secreted away in the midst of Costa Mesa office buildings, restaurants and parking garages—is the finest piece of public art on display in the county. No photos of the garden, even those hanging in the gallery by noted photog Julius Schulman and Jurgen Nogai, do the work justice. You have to see it in person. More about that later.

Noguchi has been quoted as saying his Akari Light Sculptures from the 1986 Venice Biennale are “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce,” and you can both see it and feel it when entering the larger gallery. Paper and bamboo pyramids tethered to rocks with string [Akari (# VB- 3A) and Animal Study (# VB- 3B)], or made of silk and hanging from the ceiling [Akari (# VB- 2)], or poking their heads out of the sand like worms in a Frank Herbert novel [Akari (# VB- 13)], these ethereal lanterns are the physical embodiment of Zen. Spend just a few moments in the large exhibition space, with the glow of the sculptures the only illumination in the otherwise-dark room, and the immediate feeling is a meditative one. More peaceful than any temple you’ve ever been in, a few moments there will bring on an overwhelming desire to lie down on the floor, close your eyes and bask in the quiet.

That state of bliss won’t follow you when you step into the gallery devoted to Noguchi’s Gemini GEL Limited Edition Sculptures from 1982. Abstract galvanized steel sculptures with names such as Spaceblot and Cactus Wind, the pieces were created to be a “revenue catcher” (as my friend coined it when we attended) and would be right at home in a garden or the home of a hipster with Asian pretensions. I don’t begrudge any artist the necessity to make ends meet and thought three (Magritte’s Stone, inspired by the painter’s La bataille de l’argonne; Tongue, which looks like someone giving the viewer a raspberry; and Zanzen, suggesting the abstracted form of a person in leg-crossed meditation) bordered on the amusing and intriguing, but like the metal they come from, most of the sculptures just sit there, cold, evoking little except the yearning to make a buck.

That distance from the work isn’t aided by the fact that few of the sculptures are labeled. A list is available in a corner, but the tiny, Xeroxed, black-and-white pictures accompanying the labels are fuzzy and unclear, and since the location of each piece isn’t marked, the only way to get the proper name with the right piece is to look up the image, remember it, and then try to find it on the other side of the room.

Inconvenient and more than a little confusing.

The museum’s greatest triumph is that it inspires people to make the short drive north to Costa Mesa to visit Noguchi’s “California Scenario.” A wondrous tribute to the landscape of California in 1.6 acres, it’s a serene, tactile experience that cries out to be engaged with. Water splashes down the hypotenuse of a massive triangle, over rocks and into a stream carved into the sandstone (Water Source). The stream weaves past a granite bench and an island (Desert Land) of gravel, cactus, agave and flowers that leave a yellow dusting of pollen on your hands when you touch them. The water burbles its way to the face of a granite pyramid low enough to comfortably rest on (Water Use), with embedded lights nearby that paint remarkable shadows on the wall opposite during the evening. Spirit of the Lima Bean, a signed sculpture made of boulders assembled in the shape of a giant legume (in honor of the Segerstrom family’s background as farmers), rests nearby, a surface created by one of the rocks allowing you to sit and lean your back against it.

In the Forest Walk section, giant redwoods punch the sky, surrounding three sides of a rectangle of long grass and a granite incline leading to a bench. A cascading fountain lies between the redwoods and an oasis of green grass and trees, a bench and a circular table. To the right of that is a knoll covered with ivy, a long white sculpture resting at its top, looking all the world like a headstone on a grave. Called Land Use, it’s a fitting monument to the late sculptor and his sly wit.

Posted in: News