A CRITIC’S VIEW / ART : A Classic Exhibit in a Contemporary Setting : In Bruce Goff’s Pavilion for Japanese Art, a Rotating Collection of Traditional Works


The jewel is in the crown.

For months now, browsers by the La Brea Tar Pits have watched a fantastic $13 million edifice arise from the County Museum of Art’s northeast sculpture garden. Today it opens to the public, the permanent Pavilion for Japanese Art and Joe D. Price’s splendid bravura scroll and screen paintings known as the Shin’enkan collection.

In Hancock Park did Rusty Powell a stately pleasure dome decree.

It’s a curious affair. Two cylindrical towers encrusted in pale green stone rise like donjon sentinels acting as hubs for spokes fanning out to a concrete span. The imagination hallucinates on images of Samurai guards in black lobster shell armor pacing the battlements.


Between the towers hover prow-shaped roofs, parting the air while below pleated walls look for all the world like Japanese shoji screens. Imagination drifts off to sampans or the roof of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp church while the practical lobe wonders how those delicate, paper-thin uprights can support that massive roof. Well, they aren’t paper, they are a plastic Industrial-Age equivalent called Kalwall and they don’t hold up the roof. That job is accomplished by cables suspended from gold, scimitar-shaped supports criss-crossed above.

It is a startling spectacle and everybody is going to love it.

If, that is, they can get over the feeling it looks like a 1950s coffee shop. One hot java and two egg rolls, over easy.

It was one of those insights that winds up saying more to the credit of ‘50s coffee-shop design than to the debit of this building.

One watched the structure materialize with itching anxiety through seasons of dry leaves and hopeful blossoms. Gradually it was clear that this is no exercise in perverse eccentricity but a logical and beautifully balanced architectural solution--not rational T-square logic but romantic logic on the order of that exercised by Antonio Gaudi, Paolo Soleri or Simon Rodia.

It is a work of the highest order of imaginative independence, utterly practical in the realization of its aims, unfettered in inventive impulse. Far from clanging with existing LACMA buildings, it somehow focuses and integrates the agreeable exoticism of the Anderson Building and the shady central court into the feeling of a place that is at once welcoming and off life’s beaten track.


LACMA’s decision-makers suffered a stroke of genius approving a building that may well be itself a work of genius.

What genius?

The late Bruce Goff designed the building for Price in Oklahoma. It was translated into working drawings for LACMA by his former associate, Bart Prince. Goff was something of an architect’s architect, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. He practiced in the Midwest until he died at 78 in 1982.

Despite a productive career and influence on other architects, including Los Angeles’ Frank Gehry, Goff remained little known hereabouts, so it is a lucky thing an exhibition devoted to his career was planned to coincide with the opening of the pavilion.

The exhibition, called (unfortunately) “Toward Absolute Architecture” and on view to Nov. 27, reveals Goff as a historical eclectic whose influences ranged from Viennese Jugendstil to Indian stupas integrated by organic visionary forms that look like everything from metaphysical conch-curves to fly’s-eye facets to Bucky Fuller domes.

Buildings range from rocky medieval introversion to flying fancies a la Taliesen. Looking at the exhibition confirms a suspicion that, if anything, the Japanese Pavilion is not too outrageous but too austere.

Goff worked surfaces with everything from feathers to leaves to mosaics of his own design. The ice-cream-green pavilion, by contrast, is relatively plain-surfaced except for the odd touch of gold, rock and black mosaic. Sure enough, it turns out that more elaboration was planned, but it was suppressed to save on an already-pricey project and perhaps, quite rightly, to avoid distracting from the art. All the same, one misses the encrustations implied by Goff’s sensibility.

The new curator of Japanese art, Robert T. Singer, says that the pavilion has nothing to do with traditional Japanese architecture, and he should know, having lived there for 14 years. Nonetheless the fun of the building and the measure of Goff’s sensibility is in his ability to evoke the whole palette of characteristics linked to Japan and its art without copying their forms. Poetry is a lot more pungent than reproduction.

Japanese reverence for nature seeps from a structure that meanders, innocent of right angles and straight lines. Approach across a suspended ramp that evokes Shogun castles and enter a temple-like precinct only to find yourself in a round lobby glassed to let in Japanese nature with its gingkoes and omnipresent evergreens.

If you can’t get over the new idea that Japan is about high-tech refinement, you can get to the galleries on a lift so slick the museum gang calls it the beam-me-up-Scotty elevator.

If you can’t get over the old idea that Japanese art is about miniaturized refinement, visit the gallery of netsuke donated to the museum by Raymond and Francis Bushell. These tiny carvings of everything from Sumo wrestlers to a compassionate lady breast-feeding an old man were used as toggles for tobacco pouches. Some of the work is so fine that its humble employment is akin to using a Donatello for a doorstop. Nonchalant knowledge that anything can be art.

If you are stuck with the idea that Japanese art is about refinement, period, stroll into the East Wing, which houses the first installment of Joe D. Price’s 300-piece Shin’enkan collection.

Many things about it are self-evident; what may not be is the fact that Shin’enkan means--roughly--”The place where lies the heart.”

Something about that reveals the sweetness of the way the former Oklahoma oilman has gone about giving it to the museum. He contributed $5 million toward the building and yet has modestly declined to have his name on it, reflecting the same philanthropic enlightenment exercised by Paul Mellon, godfather of the National Gallery. He ducked having his name on John Russell Pope’s building in order to insure that other donors would contribute.

This is a far cry from Armand Hammer picking up his marbles to join the growing number of collectors who will settle for nothing less than their very own museum.

The Price collection concentrates on art of the Japanese Edo Period (1615-1865), an epoch of cultural isolation when the islands developed a distinctive and luxurious brand of native art redolent with lush gold-ground screens and imagery rendered with brushwork of such breathtaking virtuosity that it looks like the artist was fencing instead of drawing.

Oddly enough, by the time Price fell for this art, it was out of fashion in Japan. His interest, according to Singer, sparked a revival that made it once again a profitable prophet in its own land--but not before Price had put together a trove that is undisputedly the finest thing of its kind in the West.

Price’s deepening passion and expertise grew into aggravation about the way such art is shown in museums, both here and there--lined up like so many foot soldiers, suffocated under reflecting glass, bleached out under electric light.

This treatment drove him crazy, so he got together with Goff to plan a space where the art could be seen as it was intended. In Japanese dwellings there is usually only one painting in a room, housed by itself in a niche called a tokanoma and illuminated only by candles or natural light filtering through the paper shoji screens.

Voila le Pavillon Japonaise.

As nearly as any expert around here can figure, the pavilion is literally unique, the only public museum in the known world where Japanese art can be seen in Japanese light. And, thanks to Goff, a place where the art can be seen as nowhere else, period.

A long curving ramp wanders down the center of the Shin’enkan space bordered by a slightly anomalous Lucite railing. At a half-dozen resting places stand tokanoma with stylized Japanese-fantasy crowns, the whole surrounded with uninterrupted Shoji Kalwall emitting softened light that causes the art to look terrific. Gold screens that appear garish in electric light glow softly, letting the precious material become part of the aesthetic statement rather than nouveau-riche posturing by arriviste Japanese merchants who were its patrons.

If the intention of the pavilion was to create a certain kind of light, the way that glow interacts with the environment adds up to a wonderful experience of serenity--an estate revered in Japanese gardens and reinforced here by the building’s organic lines and a marvelous murmuring fountain in black mosaic. Boy, do I love fountains.

The place slows time and returns the art experience to its intended place as a ruminative experience where every aspect of the art can be savored and contemplated.

The whole pavilion has 32,000 feet of exhibition space. The Shin’enkan galleries must take over half of it, yet there are only about 30 works on view. The display will be slowly rotated each year, giving plenty of time to make friends with the art.

Everything encourages dawdling. Unless inundated by hordes of viewers, it should prove to be one of the world’s most satisfying viewing places.

Nobody who saw the collection displayed in ’86 has to be told it is terrific, mind-boggling stuff, but now we can really drink in works such as Ito Jakuchu’s “Birds, Animals and Flowering Plants.”

Oriental art has a wide tradition of eccentricity but Jakuchu makes the rest of them look as bland as a presidential candidate. His huge screen full of beasties real and imaginary is as restful as Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” but rendered in an incredible imitation-mosaic technique that gives it the air of a Post Impressionist naif. This is pretty good for a picture painted before 1800.

The inaugural selection is particularly strong on images of animals. They embody (and forgive) human frailties and draw the lessons of Aesop’s fables. A monkey looks at a wasp with the greatest longing and appreciation. Can he eat the wasp before it stings him? Eternal dilemma of living things. A pair of camels lounge, vain and haughty but intelligently aware of their silliness like Bloomsbury poets laughing at their own snobbish pretensions.

Would that our Post-Mod artists could combine this degree of entertaining pyrotechnics and wry wisdom. May this gallery always encourage the feeling that you can lean on the railing and look at art forever.

To tell the truth, the place falls off a bit in the West Wing, which presently contains a selection of sculpture and ceramics from the permanent collection. The gallery space is more conventional, works more typical than impressive and the whole not quite harmonized.