Noguchi comes home

Artist and designer Isamu Noguchi was a busy man in the early 1980s.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, he had won a Guggenheim award as a young man, catapulting him into the arts stratosphere. He spent many years working in Japan and Europe, ascending to the rank of an international artist.

Noguchi was part of the early modernist and environmental movements, having worked as an assistant to famed modernist Constantin Brancusi in Paris, and was also a close friend of American visionary Buckminster Fuller, who created the geodesic dome. By the 1960s, Noguchi had designed numerous indoor, outdoor and landscape works all over the world, according to the website, designboom.

Laguna Art Museum is bringing Noguchi home for the first-ever retrospective of his work in California, said Museum Curator of Exhibitions Grace Kook-Anderson.

The show, "Noguchi: California Legacy," opens Sunday and continues until Oct. 2.

"In his work, Noguchi was trying to diminish the boundaries of art and function," said Kook-Anderson.

The show will be guest-curated by Bonnie Rychlak, curator of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, N.Y. A tribute to Noguchi will also be part of a Carnegie Hall festival on Japanese culture, according to the museum.

Today, Noguchi is probably best known for his modernistic furnishings, including akari lamps — Japanese-style lanterns in varied shapes and sizes, Kook-Anderson said. His tables and other furnishings are hot items on eBay.


Segerstrom connection

In 1979, the international artist was hired by Henry Segerstrom to create a welcoming public area outside of South Coast Plaza.

Between 1980 and 1982, the two men hammered out a project that ballooned into an ambitious homage to the state of California, with depictions of desert landscapes, rivers, grasslands and mountains. During this time, Noguchi also created a now-famous plaza in Little Tokyo as well as other installations and artworks. Noguchi died in 1988.

"California Scenario" marks its 30th anniversary this year, and Segerstrom is helping to make the show possible, with many of Noguchi's multi-faceted body of work, including akari, steel sculptures, and an extensive exhibition of "California Scenario." Two films will also be part of the show; one depicting the two men's collaboration on "California Scenario," and one focused on the plaza itself.

Kook-Anderson said that patrons will be interested in an exhibit of letters between Noguchi and Segerstrom over the years that "California Scenario" was envisioned and created.

"You can see the respect both men had for each other," she said. "But there is also tension as they worked out their differences."

Originally, Segerstrom had envisioned a lush landscape for the plaza, but Noguchi convinced him to pay homage to California's varied topography.


'Spirit of the Lima Bean'

One of the highlights of the show is a small sculpture in jade depicting a lima bean about the size of a football. The lone jade lima bean occupies center stage in one of the museum's ground-floor rooms. Another sculptural tribute to the humble bean, "Spirit of the Lima Bean," is also part of "California Scenario."

The bean is a potent symbol of the collaboration between Noguchi and former farmer Segerstrom, who from humble beginnings in a farming family has become a leading patron of the arts as well as a major developer in Orange County, according to Kook-Anderson.


Lita Albuquerque exhibit

Kook-Anderson said she was trying to find an appropriate adjunct exhibit to the Noguchi show for the museum's upper level and paid a visit to the studio of noted Los Angeles artist Lita Albuquerque. Little did she know that Albuquerque had spent time with Noguchi back in the early days of her career, actually driving the famed artist around the city.

"There are other connections, too," Kook-Anderson said, because both artists see nature as a springboard for their art. For this show, Albuquerque will exhibit two works under the umbrella "Emergence:" "Red Pigment Paintings" and "Beekeeper."

In "Red Pigment Paintings," the artist experiments with raw, dry pigment, using her own breath or wind to blow it across black-covered canvas, Kook-Anderson said. The result is a wall-full of small works that have highly distinct, natural forms.

"Beekeeper" is a journey into the cosmos, usingthe bee as a starting point. The work includes a short film that gives the viewer a Zen-like experience of traveling into space and back and is sure to be a hit with museum patrons.

In addition, on the lower level of the museum is "Landscape and Figuration from the Collection," a continuing exhibit of works from the museum's permanent collection.

If You Go

What: "Noguchi: California Legacy" and Lita Albuquerque, "Emergence"

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive,Laguna Beach

When: Open Sunday, closes Oct. 2. Seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on First Thursdays Art Walk.

Admission: $12 general admission; $10: students, seniors, active military; Free: children younger than 12 and museum members.

Contact: (949) 494-8971 or

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