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Noguchi’s Vision Replanted in Museum Exhibit

Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s legacy will take a new dimension in “Noguchi: California Legacy,” an exhibition opening to the public at the Laguna Art Museum on Sunday.

The exhibition encompasses models and drawings pertaining to “California Scenario,” a popular sculpture garden in Costa Mesa and “Noguchi Plaza,” another plaza-like installation in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Modeled on an Italian piazza, the latter surrounds a sculpture (“To the Issei”) dedicated to the first generation of Japanese immigrants who paved the way for following generations.

Exhibition references to “California Scenario” have been subtitled “The Power of the Imagination” and include a model of what is more commonly called the Noguchi Garden, as well as scale drawings, film footage, photographs and ancillary objects.

Developer Henry Segerstrom commissioned “California Scenario” in 1979. The work, completed in 1982 within the South Coast Plaza Town Center, contains an elegant compilation of rounded rocks titled “The Spirit of the Lima Bean,” paying homage to crop that was the foundation of the Segerstrom family’s fortune.

“This show is very close to me since ‘California Scenario’ is one of the great California works art but not well known as a destination,” said Segerstrom this week.

“I am a great believer in sculpture and had worked with many sculptors in the past but no one could conceive a space like a garden like Noguchi,” he said. Segerstrom recalled wanting to fill 70,000 feet of space inbetween an office building and parking garage with something out of the ordinary, beyond art or a single sculpture. “Noguchi came at the right time. He was very specific in his conditions but that endeared him to me; I appreciated his independence,” he said.

In the densely developed blocks around South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Performing Arts Center, “California Scenario” is a tranquil oasis and a powerful monument to the grandeur of California’s natural endowments that include redwood forests, mountains and deserts and a flow of water. The pyramid placed in a corner of the plaza alludes to the diverse cultures that have shaped every facet of California history.

“It took 30 years to realize Noguchi’s vision,” said Laguna curator Grace Kook Anderson. “The garden looks no longer barren. Today the rocks are weathered, vegetation is mature and it’s a popular visiting spot. It’s exactly as Noguchi had envisioned since he believed that people activate space,” she added.

She and fellow curator Janet Blake fine-tuned the exhibition organized by the Noguchi Museum in New York’s Long Island and Bolton Colburn, the Laguna museum’s recently departed director.

In tribute to Noguchi’s lasting influence on generations of artists and designers, the curators created “What is Sculpture,” a section focusing on the Akari light fixtures/sculptures that Noguchi first showed at the 1986 Venice Biennale and that were inspired by Japanese lanterns and umbrellas made from mulberry tree bark paper. (The term Akari implies both illumination and weightlessness.)

Using abstract shapes, Noguchi incorporated modernist European concepts with the traditions of his father’s homeland. “Noguchi straddled the fine line between functional objects and high art. People found it hard at first to embrace the lamps as art but to Noguchi they were sculpture,” said Anderson.

Even though stone appears to be Noguchi’s primary medium, he also produced a series of sculptures from steel plates that were produced by Gemini G.E.L Los Angeles, a studio widely known for its printmaking.

Elisabeth Segerstrom, wife of the developer, first approached the museum about the exhibition, wrote Colburn via e-mail. “Elizabeth was enthusiastic about the idea that ‘California Scenario’ could be celebrated in proximity to its 30th anniversary and Japan OC (a cultural exchange celebration that began earlier this year). It was a great opportunity to focus on Noguchi and his legacy. In addition, it was a chance for us to give a nod to Henry Segerstrom, who has shaped so much in terms of arts in Orange County…”

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to American teacher/editor Leonie Gilmour and Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. Schooled in America and Japan, young Noguchi first studied medicine at Columbia University and sculpture as a diversion. Once he realized that his true calling lay in art, he made sculptures, architectural structures and installations and designed furniture and lamps.

An avid traveler, he studied in Paris with Constantin Brancusi and met Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. He also lived briefly in Mexico City where he studied mural making with Diego Rivera. Yet, he was rooted in Japan where, post Word War II, he joined a community of young kindred artists and made sculptures as well as large, site-specific installations. Later in the U.S., he collaborated with Buckminster Fuller and created sets for dancers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. He died in New York in 1988 at age 84.

“His time in California was brief but when he was building both plazas, he got a lot of media attention as a native son,” said Anderson. “Even though many of the plazas and playgrounds and whimsical landscapes that he proposed never came about, his influence lives on.”

Related Events:

Curatorial walk-through of “Noguchi: California Legacy,” Sunday, June 12, 1 p.m. free with museum admission.

Children’s art workshop and book signing with “The East-West House” author Christy Hale, Sunday, July 17, 1 p.m. free with museum admission

Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive. 949.494.8971 www.LagunaArtMuseum.org

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  1. Christy Hale

    Please note that the children’s workshop is on Sunday, July 17, not Friday as indicated at the end of this article. I hope to see you all there!

    Christy Hale, author/illustrator of The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan

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