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Isamu Noguchi's Garden of Stone

April 03, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

Southern California, Noguchi's birthplace, has two of them: "California Scenario" in Costa Mesa and "To the Issei" at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Others are scattered around the world, but several exist only as models and drawings.

An early clue to his interest in art that would serve a social purpose is "History Mexico," a 1936 sculptural relief executed in Mexico City and influenced by the Mexican muralists. But as his own sensibility and Japanese heritage took over, Noguchi adapted his ideas about a useful art in playgrounds and inspiring abstract monuments. Along the way, he repeatedly met bureaucratic obstacles: A black granite arch conceived in 1952 as a "Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima" was never realized, while a playground for Atlanta was built 43 years after he designed it.

Noguchi has had more success with individual sculptures that don't require official approval or vast amounts of money and engineering, and his museum offers a generous selection. Working in stone, metal and wood, he has developed a restrained vocabulary of organic forms ranging from playful biomorphs and abstract figures to subtle mounds, polished rings and massive boulders.

He has a special fascination for "abandoned stones" that "allow me to enter into their life's purpose. Of the works that populate the garden of his museum, he wrote, "It is my task to define and make visible the intent of their being." Adhering to his philosophy but following no formula, some of these sculptures stand alone while others form clustered families or lounging couples.

Simple as they may appear, these works invariably have rich undercurrents of meaning. A 10-foot-tall abstract figure of basalt, "Behind Inner Seeking Shiva Dancing," was inspired by the dance of Shiva; a pile of interlocking granite stones, "The Illusion of the Fifth Stone," appears to consist of only four parts but actually has five members. Like "The Spirit of the Lima Bean" in Costa Mesa's "California Scenario," this clump of rocks is carefully fashioned to look natural while keeping a secret.

Noguchi has become very sophisticated in matters of technology, engineering and plumbing. In his museum he also maintains tight control over his oeuvre and image. The secret to his genius, however, is knowing when to impose his will and when to let nature take over. A brief walk in his garden confirms that his discrimination is working.

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