Exhibition Focuses on Legacy of Artist/Designer Isamu Noguchi

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Isamu Noguchi at California Scenario in front of "The Spirit of the Lima Bean" (c. 1982). Photograph courtesy of The Segerstrom Foundation.

LAGUNA BEACH — Laguna Art Museum and The Segerstrom Foundation are presenting “Noguchi: California Legacy” through Oct. 2.Born in Los Angeles, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was one of the 20th century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors. The exhibition is composed of three parts that examine the impact he had in California:

• “California Scenario: The Courage of the Imagination,” based on Noguchi’s South Coast Plaza sculpture garden commissioned by Henry T. Segerstrom 30 years ago;

• “What Is Sculpture? Akari from the Venice Biennale,” from the 1986 Venice Biennale exhibit in which Noguchi, that year’s U.S. representative, exhibited his Akari light sculptures;

• “Noguchi at Gemini G.E.L.,” consisting of the sculpture multiples that Noguchi created in 1982 at atelier Gemini G.E.L. Los Angeles.

Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, Noguchi created sculpture, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, paintings, ceramics, architecture, and set designs. His work, at once subtle and bold, traditional and modern, set a new standard for artistic achievement.

Noguchi, an internationalist, traveled extensively throughout his life. In his later years he maintained studios both in Japan and New York. Large-scale public works first experienced in Mexico, ceramics and tranquil gardens from Japan, ink-brush painting inherent to China, and the marbles of Italy all informed his work.

His protean production utilized a wide range of materials, including stainless steel, marble, cast iron, balsawood, bronze, sheet aluminum, basalt, granite, and even water.

Noguchi’s contributions are significant to art history and design, and he may be connected to many noteworthy artists, such as Constanin Brâncuşi, Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Calder, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage, to name a few.

“California Scenario”

Situated between two office towers at South Coast Plaza Town Center in Costa Mesa is Noguchi’s “California Scenario” (1980-1982), a 1.6 -acre metaphorical abstraction of California’s natural resources. Comprised of trees, plants, water, and sculpture, the garden is a space filled with beauty and tranquility. When commissioned by developer and philanthropist Segerstrom, Noguchi offered a plan that challenged everyone’s notions of a garden.

Laguna Art Museum will examine the impact of this sculpture park on California in the exhibition “California Scenario: The Courage of Imagination,” which has been organized by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. It will feature a model of a work made by Noguchi in honor of Segerstrom, titled “Spirit of the Lima Bean,” as well as ephemera, photographs, and film footage of construction of the project.

Additionally, the exhibition will feature a new model of “California Scenario” commissioned by Elizabeth Segerstrom in honor of her husband.

“California Scenario” suggests an outline of the vastness and diversity of California. With redwoods and cacti, among other indigenous plantings, the garden transports visitors to terrains ranging from the High Sierra to the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park. Noguchi gave the design elements in the garden evocative and allegorical titles such as Land Use, The Desert Land, The Forest Walk, Energy Fountain, Water Use, and Water Source.

The masterwork of the garden, “Spirit of the Lima Bean,” is a seven-foot-high granite sculpture made from seven boulders that fit together as tightly as those of the stone walls at Sacsayhuamán, near the ancient city of Cuzco in Peru.

In 1980, when Segerstrom envisioned a garden for the site of the family land that had once been a lima bean farm, he saw it as a lushly green and shady space. Instead Noguchi created a bare, stone covered plaza that with time has grown into a magical landscape. Together the artist and the developer created a garden surpassing anything that had been projected and, in Noguchi’s words, “Henry Segerstrom had the courage to imagine the ultimate within our limits.”

About Akari

“What Is Sculpture?,” organized by the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, and features the Akari light sculptures that Noguchi exhibited at the 1986 Venice Biennale.

Noguchi’s Akari sculptures were inspired by a 1951 visit to the Japanese town of Gifu, known for its manufacturing of lanterns and umbrellas from mulberry-bark paper and bamboo. Inspired by the lanterns illuminating night fishing on the Nagara River, Noguchi designed the first of his lamps that would be produced by the traditional Gifu methods of construction. He called these works Akari, a term  meaning light as illumination, but also implying the idea of weightlessness.

Extending the concept of illuminated sculpture that he developed during the 1940s in New York, Noguchi employed abstract shapes to unite the simplicity of Japanese aesthetics with the principles of contemporary art and design. More than home furnishing, Akari are light sculptures.

With the warm glow of light cast through handmade paper on a bamboo frame, Noguchi utilized traditional Japanese materials to bring modern design to the home. Comparing Akari to falling leaves and cherry blossoms, he wrote that they are “poetic, ephemeral, and tentative.” He also said, “All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami, and Akari.”

Gemini G.E.L. Editions

In 1982, Noguchi designed 26 sculpture editions made out of steel plates and produced by Gemini G.E.L. Los Angeles. Founded in 1966, Gemini is an artists’ workshop and publisher of limited-edition prints and sculptures by more than 60 highly accomplished artists, including Noguchi.

At Gemini, the artists do all of the drawing or carving directly onto the printing elements. The edition is hand-printed by Gemini‘s master printers, and each print is signed and numbered by the artist as well as embossed with the Gemini chop.

In the catalogue “Isamu Noguchi at Gemini 1982-1983,” Noguchi writes about his time in California in the early 1980s and his steel plate sculptures:

“At this point Stanley Grinstein of Gemini suggested their interest in my becoming associated with them in editions. My conscience cleared by a strong motivation, I had only to resort to that often-abandoned aspect of my work which goes back to 1928 when I first made the three-dimensional out of a two-dimensional plate. The way pointed to an aesthetic of the flat enhanced by a technology not otherwise practical

“May I say that these sculptures are like short poems pertaining to California, where I was born, and to the world I have known. They were made in 1982 when I had become involved with two large gardens in the Los Angeles area.”

Upcoming Event

Sunday, Aug. 7, at 1 p.m.: Lecture and discussion with Noguchi expert Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki, a professor of art history and visual studies at UC Irvine. His research interests include the history of modern Japanese art and visual culture, Asian American art, and the history of interactions between Japanese and American art worlds. He holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

“My work focuses on the role of the visual arts in the construction of modern national identities, especially in early and mid-20th-century Japan,” says Winther-Tamaki. “I am particularly intrigued by artists whose positions partly outside Japan complicated the artistic identities they developed in various media: Isamu Noguchi, Minoru Yamasaki, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Fujita Tsuguji.

“My book, ‘Art in the Encounter of Nations: Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years,’ examines the contribution of discourses about abstract ceramic sculpture, avant-garde calligraphy, abstract paintings, and place designs to modern Japanese cultural identity. In two articles on Isamu Noguchi, I consider the different cultural significations of a range of sculptural and design materials (clay, stone, metal, plastic) in his thinking and practice.”

Docent-led tours are available every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 2 p.m. and are free for museum members or free for non-members with paid admission. No reservations necessary.

Audio tour now available through all smart phones. Visit www.LagunaArtMuseum.org to access the “Noguchi: California Legacy” audio tour on your mobile device. For patrons who do not have a smart phone, Laguna Art Museum offers free iPod Touch rentals at the front desk.

Laguna Art Museum is a museum of American art with a special focus on the art of California. Its purpose is to provide the public with exposure to art and to promote understanding of the role of art and artists in American culture through collection, conservation, exhibition, research, scholarship and education. Working within the tradition of the oldest cultural institution in Orange County, Laguna Art Museum documents regional art and places it in a national context.

The museum is located at 307 Cliff Dr. in Laguna Beach, on the corner of PCH and Cliff Drive, next door to Las Brisas restaurant.

“Noguchi: California Legacy” hours through Sept. 5: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

General admission: $10. Students, seniors, active military: $8. Children under 12 and museum members: free. Through Sept. 5, general admission is $5 on Thursdsay and Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m.

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