To the thunderous beat of huge, barrel-shaped taiko drums, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened its Pavilion for Japanese Art on Sunday, finally allowing the public a good look at the provocative edifice that's been under construction beside the La Brea tar pits for two years.
"The drums are an important part of Shinto festivals," Robert T. Singer, the museum's Japanese art curator, said above the roar. "They're used to summon the gods and the gods' blessings."
The summons must have worked. Besides bright sunshine that lent diffused light needed to illuminate the treasures inside, the day brought mostly praise from visitors.
"It's superb," said Yasushi Tamura, a pathologist from West Covina. "The outside looks sort of unusual, but once you get inside, it has a real serene atmosphere."
Museum officials said that 3,200 people came to see the $13-million, 13,100 square-foot pavilion, designed by the late Bruce Goff and translated into reality by his former associate Bart Prince to house patron Joe D. Price's art collection.
Many spectators complained that the natural light wasn't strong enough. They had trouble seeing clearly some 210 Japanese screen and scroll paintings, netsuke (miniature sculptures) and other artworks on view.
But an informal survey showed that most people liked the twin-wing Japanese-flavored building fashioned with translucent, rice paper-like walls, exterior saber-like gold beams and tranquil interior pools and a gurgling fountain.
"It's gorgeous," said Cindy Buckner, admiring the building's absence of right angles and the Lucite railing along its curving ramp. "I like the use of free-flowing forms and the non-corners."
"I'm not that impressed by the art," said architect Yuri Lechtholz, gazing at a fat ceramic jar with his daughter Yelena. "But I'm impressed by the architecture. I think the building itself is like Japanese art."
"I'd seen pictures and I thought I wouldn't like it," said Alma Echols of Baldwin Hills. "It's sort of such a hybrid, a mix of modern and Japanese architecture. But it's not offensive at all. It's beautiful."
Still, there were those who weren't so enraptured.
Manabi Hirasaki, a trustee of the Japanese American National Museum, scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 1990, said the "ultra-modern" architecture clashed with the ancient artworks, some of them 6,000 years old. "The contrast is so much," he said, adding that labels describing the objects didn't explain enough.
Nina Berson, a fiction writer, said she liked the soft lighting, but not the pavilion's "materials or its architectural forms. They're obtrusive without being pleasant."
And several visitors disapproved of Goff's plan to create a place where Japanese art could be seen as it was intended--either by candle light or by natural light filtering through paper shoji screens.
"I'm very surprised at how badly lit this is," said Joe Brosta, squinting at a large painting in Price's Shin'enkan collection. "I've seen many of these pieces before at the museum and some are really striking. They jump out at you when they have light on them. But these come off as dull."
"I think they don't have the electricity hooked up yet," Buckner said. "I wish it were better lit."
Most interviewed agreed about one thing though: the tiny, intricate netsuke sculptures.
"That looks really cool," said high school student Jason Arrington. He was peering at a skinny, 3-inch-tall sennin or immortal sage that looked like a creature from "Star Wars."