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Noguchi Comes Home

Ladies and gentleman, if, like me, you believe in the power of clich-s, here's one for us to contemplate in light of today's talk: Good things come in small packages. Hands down, the best museum show in town right now is the exhibition of rarely seen ceramic works by Isamu Noguchi at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown L.A. If you haven't discovered this relatively new museum, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a Japanese father and an American mother, who met through a newspaper ad when his father was looking for a translator of his poetry into English. After a few years his parents divorced, and the artist spent his early childhood in Japan, though later, he came back to the U.S. where he got his formal training as a sculptor in New York.

This exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian, is the only West Coast venue where you can see 36 amazingly fresh, and often startling, Noguchi masterpieces, presented along with a few dozen other ceramic works by his Japanese contemporaries. As a young man, Noguchi received the Guggenheim traveling fellowship, which enabled him to go to Paris to work with Constantin Brancusi. Can you imagine a better apprenticeship? He also traveled extensively in Asia - including a short trip to Japan in 1931, where he absorbed the influence of Asian art. But it wasn't until after World War II, in 1951 and 1952 that he went back to Japan, working side by side with the most celebrated and renowned ceramists of the era, whom their grateful countrymen referred to as National Living Treasures. This compact, extremely informative exhibition, accompanied by a very handsome catalogue, illustrates the results of this collaboration.

Seeing Noguchi's small and medium-sized ceramic pieces next to works of his Japanese contemporaries, is an excellent opportunity to realize the degree in which this American artist and his Japanese counterparts influenced each other. The unique earthiness and tactile quality of Japanese ceramics bounded by its ancient traditions provided Noguchi's Modernist aesthetic with a sense of intimacy unparalleled among his American and European contemporaries. All the while, and thanks to him, Japanese artists were discovering - and adopting - a vocabulary of Modernist art, allowing them to break with a time-honored, but at this point, stifling tradition, in postwar Japan.

I have to admit that I only recognized a few sculptures, which I knew through photographs. The rest was new, and totally fascinating, material for me. In the press release of the Japanese American National Museum, Noguchi is referred to as one of the great Japanese-American artists. I think they do him - and themselves - a disservice. He is one of the great artists of the century - period. A huge whale roaming in the ocean, not a koi fish in the pond.

The inexhaustible inventiveness demonstrated by Noguchi again and again, rendered me almost speechless, a rather unusual state for your trusted art critic. The sculptures, with its shapes often alluding to Surrealist art, convey a visual punch that's part hashish dream, part poking fun. In all instances, the clay - the most ancient material used by artists - is handled with such virtuosity and simplicity, that it made me scratch my head. This exhibition is the first of three presentations by the Japanese American National Museum in the coming years to celebrate Noguchi's centennial.

Here's a good moment to remind you about a major Noguchi project in Southern California, a large sculptural garden called "California Scenario" that he created for South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. It's one of the last works of his life, and one of the most significant achievements of his career. I'm always amazed to find out that after almost 20 years since its completion, it still remains one of the best kept secrets even among those who are interested in art. The garden is sequestered between two tall commercial buildings, and when you discover it, the garden impresses you by its size - almost 1.6-acres. It has a fountain and a waterfall, a 30-foot high triangular-shaped stone sculpture, as well as another sculpture of curvilinear forms made out of fused boulders. An ideal time to see it is around sunset. Wait for the dusk, when the garden is illuminated with artificial, highly theatrical light, creating a maximum effect, with each sculptural element casting a long, dramatic shadow. Noguchi created this garden as his love-letter to California, where he was born 100 years ago. I cannot recommend a better place for you to fall in love with contemporary art, and learn about the unique role that California played in the fusion of cultural traditions that shaped the 20th-Century.

Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics
February 7 - May 30, 2004
Japanese American National Museum
369 East First Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 625-0414

Isamu Noguchi: California Scenario
Take Interstate 405 to Costa Mesa
Exit east at Bristol Street
Turn right on Anton Turn right again on Park Centre Drive, which borders the garden.
For further information contact: South Coast Plaza Town Center

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