A few years before he died in 1988, artist Isamu Noguchi established a 24,000-square-foot museum to house representative samples of his seven-decade-long career: paintings, ceramics, furniture, sculptures, landscaping designs and set designs. Noguchi opted to locate the museum in his adopted hometown, New York City.
Here on the West Coast, Southern Californians must rely on individual installations to view Noguchi’s work. The Laguna Art Museum offers a chance to see a different perspective on Noguchi’s accomplishments with “Noguchi: California Legacy,” which devotes three compact galleries to a sampling of his work from 1979 to 1986.
Museum curator Grace Kook-Anderson envisions it as a “teaser.”
“The exhibition at Laguna Art Museum is ... not meant to be retrospective, but to look at his time in California,” she says.
Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an Irish-American-writer mother and a Japanese-immigrant-poet father but was raised and schooled in Japan, the Midwest and New York. Later, the artist lived in Asia, Europe and Mexico, and maintained studios in New York and Japan. “Noguchi was really an international artist whose own identity was not grounded by one place,” Kook-Anderson says.
The exhibition’s main gallery celebrates California Scenario, the sculpture garden about 15 miles from the museum in Costa Mesa. The South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts are neighbors of the 1.6-acre piece that sits beneath two office towers. The museum calls this section “The Courage of Imagination,” referring to the garden as well as the efforts of Orange County philanthropist Harry Segerstrom, who commissioned it in 1979.
Visitors learn about the garden’s history through photographs, videos, models, blueprints and diagrams, as well as documents and correspondence reflecting the negotiations necessary to establish a major art installation.
Segerstrom had initially envisioned a lush garden for the site that had once been his family’s lima bean farm. Instead, Noguchi proposed a bare sandstone plaza enhanced by sculptures and landscaping that would represent California’s diverse environments. Noguchi paid homage to Segerstrom’s humble family crop with “The Spirit of the Lima Bean,” a 10-foot-tall assembly of granite boulders. Now, 30 years after California Scenario’s completion, its rocks are weathered and the plantings are mature, just as Noguchi had planned. (The museum provides driving directions to the garden.)
According to Hirokazu Kosaka, a friend of Noguchi’s during his California stay and now the artistic director of L.A.'s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the sculptor brought a novel aesthetic to public art. “Noguchi pioneered public art as a garden, for people to explore and interact with,” Kosaka says.
The second gallery displays the Akari light sculptures, illuminated in a darkened space, that Noguchi first presented at the 1986 Venice Biennale. Intended to address the question “What is sculpture?,” the lantern-like pieces suggest that paper and fabric as well as stone and metal are sculptural materials, and that home furnishings can also serve as artwork. But their relationship to Noguchi’s “California legacy” is only that they were created during the same period as the other art on view.
The final room shows 14 small steel sculptures that Noguchi created in the early 1980s at Gemini G.E.L., a Los Angeles printmaking studio. Kook-Anderson says the sculptures reflect Noguchi’s “sensitivity and knowledge of the landscape.” Noguchi had described them as “short poems pertaining to California, where I was born, and to the world I have known.”
A notable Noguchi work located in California that isn’t included in the Laguna show is “To the Issei,” a tribute to Japanese immigrants located in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center plaza in Los Angeles.
Noguchi installed it along with the surrounding plaza at the same time as California Scenario. Although the creation is his only other major public work in California, the Laguna Art Museum excluded it because it didn’t have supporting materials. Other smaller scale works located at the Norton Simon Museum and the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA similarly are not mentioned.
Noguchi’s California connection extends beyond his art, says Amy Lyford, an art historian at Occidental College. In 1942, Noguchi voluntarily entered a “relocation center” in Poston, Ariz., on the California-Arizona border. More than 17,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned there; most from Southern California. According to Lyford, Noguchi had hoped to develop an arts program for internees. During his time there, he designed a camp cemetery and recreation areas, but they weren’t completed.
Decades later, Noguchi renewed his relationship with California, resulting in “California Legacy.” As Kook-Anderson says of the pieces, “I think there was some satisfaction that Noguchi was able to do this work in his place of birth.”
‘Noguchi: California Legacy’
Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach
When: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Ends Oct. 2.
Contact: (949) 494-8971 or www.lagunaartmuseum.org