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Isamu Noguchi’s Garden of Stone

Among other wonders in Isamu Noguchi’s garden is a rock that is perpetually coated with water. Noguchi calls it “The Well,” but the sculpture is actually a fountain based on the traditional tsukubai, the hollowed stones that serve as receptacles for trickling water in Japanese gardens.

Standing about 3 feet high, this chunk of basalt has a flat, hexagonal top with a bowl-like indentation in the middle. The sides of the rock drop off precipitously in six planes, variously fashioned in rough and smooth surfaces that meet at sharp angles and rough junctures.

Small, dark and unobtrusive, the fountain works its magic subtly with the help of hidden plumbing. Still water truly runs deep here, but that fact isn’t obvious. Liquid fills the small bowl in the rock and coats the flat surface around it, forming a satiny smooth water table, then silently slips down the sides and disappears into a bed of pebbles where it is recycled.

With its quiet presence and its blend of natural and man-made form, “The Well” is vintage Noguchi. Like the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum that houses it, the sculpture does nothing ostentatious. It simply reveals itself as an understated phenomenon.

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Opening its third season this week, Noguchi’s museum fulfills the Japanese-American sculptor’s dream of displaying a full survey of his work in a setting specially designed for it. He planned “a repository against time,” according to an Abrams book that serves as the museum’s catalogue.

“Fragile objects need protection, but even without this need there is a semblance of eternity, a sense of permanence that is implied by a museum, and a removal from time’s passage,” Noguchi wrote in a section that talks about how museums establish “a ritual of space, a hierarchy of importance.”

Noguchi’s monument to himself is not preoccupied with hierarchies but--like the sculpture itself--it is concerned with space. The physical space that embraces nature and art in the garden and allows each piece in the galleries to breathe deeply creates a mental space for viewers. That makes the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum a tranquil retreat--one that sensitive visitors hope will never become a major tourist attraction.

The unusual showcase seems remote, though it’s in an industrial neighborhood just across the East River from mid-town Manhattan. Many culturally attuned New Yorkers have yet to see the museum and most out-of-towners haven’t heard of it. Some tourists put off the trip because they don’t know the museum is easily reached by taxi or the N train. Others have difficulty connecting with the limited hours (Wednesdays and Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m.) and seasonal schedule. (Because much of the art is displayed out-of-doors or in unheated spaces, the museum is only open from April through November.)

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Even those who figure out the logistics sometimes have difficulty finding the 24,000-square-foot museum that encompasses an old photo-engraving plant and a former filling station. No architectural flourishes or bright banners identify the triangular structure. There is a sign at the entrance on 33rd Street just off Vernon Avenue, but it’s so low-key as to seem invisible.

The interior also appears rather Spartan to visitors who expect bells and whistles--in the form of audio tours, video programs, snack bars and gift shops--but Noguchi’s showplace isn’t only for purists or devotees of the 83-year-old artist. About 250 sculptures, plus models, drawings and photo-documentation of gardens and plazas, cover 60 years of Noguchi’s development in an intriguing assortment of indoor and outdoor display spaces. One gallery offers a group of “Akari,” Noguchi’s crumpled, paper-shade lamps named for the Japanese word for light. Another documents his theater sets, many of them done for the dance companies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine.

Noguchi’s professional life, as portrayed by the museum, is an eventful journey that begins with a young man’s search for mentors and cultural heritage. His works from the late ‘20s are obviously influenced by Brancusi, whom the young sculptor assisted in Paris. A Guggenheim Fellowship took Noguchi to the Far East in the early ‘30s, where he made figurative ink drawings in China and terra-cotta portraits in Japan.

Back in the United States, he supported himself by making portrait sculpture while launching the environmental, socially conscious sculpture that was to become a lifelong passion. Noguchi likes nothing better than to design a calming environment in an urban trouble spot or to provide an aesthetic focus for a community, but until his reputation caught up with his ideas he had difficulty convincing many people to finance his ambitious projects.

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Southern California, Noguchi’s birthplace, has two of them: “California Scenario” in Costa Mesa and “To the Issei” at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Others are scattered around the world, but several exist only as models and drawings.

An early clue to his interest in art that would serve a social purpose is “History Mexico,” a 1936 sculptural relief executed in Mexico City and influenced by the Mexican muralists. But as his own sensibility and Japanese heritage took over, Noguchi adapted his ideas about a useful art in playgrounds and inspiring abstract monuments. Along the way, he repeatedly met bureaucratic obstacles: A black granite arch conceived in 1952 as a “Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima” was never realized, while a playground for Atlanta was built 43 years after he designed it.

Noguchi has had more success with individual sculptures that don’t require official approval or vast amounts of money and engineering, and his museum offers a generous selection. Working in stone, metal and wood, he has developed a restrained vocabulary of organic forms ranging from playful biomorphs and abstract figures to subtle mounds, polished rings and massive boulders.

He has a special fascination for “abandoned stones” that “allow me to enter into their life’s purpose. Of the works that populate the garden of his museum, he wrote, “It is my task to define and make visible the intent of their being.” Adhering to his philosophy but following no formula, some of these sculptures stand alone while others form clustered families or lounging couples.

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Simple as they may appear, these works invariably have rich undercurrents of meaning. A 10-foot-tall abstract figure of basalt, “Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing,” was inspired by the dance of Shiva; a pile of interlocking granite stones, “The Illusion of the Fifth Stone,” appears to consist of only four parts but actually has five members. Like “The Spirit of the Lima Bean” in Costa Mesa’s “California Scenario,” this clump of rocks is carefully fashioned to look natural while keeping a secret.

Noguchi has become very sophisticated in matters of technology, engineering and plumbing. In his museum he also maintains tight control over his oeuvre and image. The secret to his genius, however, is knowing when to impose his will and when to let nature take over. A brief walk in his garden confirms that his discrimination is working.


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