The house that Joe built. An American collector provides a fitting home for his Japanese art

AFTER 35 years of collecting Japanese art from the Edo period, Joe Price decided he wanted a museum to ``show it right.'' A multimillionaire businessman from Bartlesville, Okla., Mr. Price had for decades combed the galleries and auction houses of New York, London, San Francisco, and elsewhere, ``buying art I liked. It was lying around everywhere. What I bought turned out later to be all Japanese and all by six artists,'' he recalls.

Thirty of Price's pieces make up what is considered to be the West's best collection of Edo-period art.

When he got tired of displaying it in a small gallery adjoining his home, he searched for a place to put it. ``There was no interest in Japanese art anywhere in the Midwest,'' Price says.

Then, in 1971 the Tokyo National Museum held a joint show of Price's collection with Emperor Hirohito's. ``The show woke everybody up, including the Japanese - and then I had to really work to continue getting the best pieces,'' Price says.

Chagrined that, even if he built the most beautiful building ever to hold art, hardly anyone in Bartlesville would come to see it, he eventually approached the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with an offer: ``I'll build a beautiful building and store my collection here, if I can build it to my own specifications.

``Done,'' said museum director Earl Powell III nearly 10 years ago.

Yesterday, the new Pavilion for Japanese Art opened to the public here. The last building designed by the late Bruce Goff (1904-82), who was considered the most innovative of Frank Lloyd Wright's disciples, the Japanese pavilion is a showplace in its own right, with its cantilevered and suspended ceilings, translucent Shoji-like walls, and circular towers of Utah green quartz aggregate.

PERHAPS most important, the building meets Price's four criteria, as no museum in Japan does. If offers:

Natural lighting, transmitted by both skylights and translucent walls.

No glass on paintings or around scrolls, screens, or sculptures.

The ability to view every painting at both close range and from up to 80 feet away.

The positioning of each painting so it can be seen without other paintings entering the field of vision.

``That's what every painter in the Edo period wanted - for his piece of art to be hung and contemplated alone,'' says Price.

The lowest of the pavilion's three levels contains pools with rushing water. A single ramp wraps all the levels into one continuous exhibition space. Platforms throughout the museum provide vantage points for contemplation of the art. Each object is displayed in a so-called tokonama, a space flanked by jutting blinders that shut out the areas next door.

The pavilion also houses research and storage facilities intended to make it an international center for study, as well as exhibition, of Japanese art.

The inaugural exhibition features about 30 masterpieces from the Shin'enkan Collection - the gift promised to the museum by Mr. Price and his wife.

This collection includes works by Kyoto masters Ito Jakachu, Soga Shohaku, and Nagasawa Rosetsu as well as other works by Rimpa school masters Sakai Hoitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu; Ukiyo-e paintings and genre screens; paintings from the Buddhist school; and works in the Nanga and Nagasaki styles. A separate wing of the museum displays Buddhist sculpture, ceramics, lacquerware, netsuke, woodblock prints, and textiles that are not part of the Shin'enkan Collection.

The Prices gave $5 million toward the construction of the pavilion, which cost $12 million in all.

WHAT Mr. Powell calls an ``unprecedented'' example of Pacific Basin fund raising brought in the difference, $4 million of which came from a Japan-based committee headed by Toshiko Yahiro, chairman of Mitsui, the large trading company.

At an opening gala, Mr. Yahiro said the joint effort among collectors, the Japanese business community in Los Angeles, and the business community in Japan backed up his ``belief that the 21st century would indeed be the era of the Pacific Basin.'' The ``deeper understanding'' fostered by such a cross-cultural venture will mean a ``less controversial'' view of the Japanese economic community, he said.

``I just like that the art is happy,'' said Price, who moved to Newport Beach, Calif., two years ago. ``It's never looked better.''

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