A Refuge From the Gallery Hunters

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum is a serene sanctuary in New York's frenzied art scene

AS the fall art season gathers steam, much of the New York art world descends in Saturday rituals on Prince Street in Soho to Dean and Deluca's, sharing tips on what's hip and hot, and then fanning out to see the latest in the galleries. New York's major museums are opening exhibitions calculated to spur maximum attendance.But one unhurried spot that may go unnoticed during this fall foray is the small, serene Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, close by the East River. There is no big news, no large-scale loan exhibition to trumpet. But it is home to some 250 sculptures that span the career of the accomplished late artist (1904-1988), who was one of this country's most vital and versatile sculptors in this century. In many instances, these works bridge the duality of Japanese and Western modernist traditions which inspired his life and vision. They are laid out on two floors and in the garden. The visitor begins with the late work, upright stone monoliths of granite and basalt that suggest the solemn menhirs of Carnac, and travels backward in time. Twelve galleries, filled with works that reflect the breadth of the artist's materials and concerns, end at the rear of the second floor. Here there are the portrait busts from which Noguchi eked out his living at first, and the gleaming metal abstractions that draw heavily from the influence of Constantin Brancusi, with whom he apprenticed in Paris on a Guggenheim grant in the 1920s. There are surreal, biomorphic works influenced by Joan Miro and other European modernists, and objects and documents from his theater sets, many of them collaborations with Martha Graham. This museum offers the kind of viewing experience that has become rare. It's a quiet sanctuary for the private contemplation of art, nature, and the growth of the artist's vision. The garden, laid with granite railway stones, contains an ample range of stone sculptures, bamboo, katsura, Japanese black pines, cherry trees, and other plants that make it a refuge. The low stone benches of granite and travertine, created in the 1960s by the artist, are playfully biomorphic. A center piece is "The Well" of 1982, a variation on the idea of a birdbath, or "tsukubai." It's a six-sided basalt fountain. Water trickles from the flat top over the sides, as if from a level sheet of glass - a poem to serenity itself. Noguchi was born in Los Angeles of an American mother and Japanese father and lived in both Japan and the United States. For years, he was best known for his "Akari" lantern sculptures and for such commissions as the Japanese garden at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, a courtyard of granite fountains at the Tokyo Supreme Court, the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, and a major fountain project for Hart Plaza in Detroit. His reputation was confirmed in 1985 when Noguchi was honored as the American re presentative to the Venice Biennale. The museum's main feature is a concrete block structure that includes a reception area. With its clerestory windows and other openings, it is a kind of indoor-outdoor gallery. It has the feel of a sculptor's studio but opens up to the sculpture garden. The museum fills a triangular block on Vernon Boulevard, which runs parallel to the East River. Noguchi originally had a studio across the street, near numerous marble suppliers, before he bought the former photography engraving plant as a place to store his work. He eventually transformed it into the museum. Shoji Sadao, the executive director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, was a close friend of Noguchi, whom he met through Buckminster Fuller. He was also the architect (and Fuller's partner) with whom Noguchi worked when creating the museum. "He would know exactly what he wanted," said director Sadao. "He seemed to know exactly where certain pieces were to go.... Noguchi had an amazing sense of proportion and space." The museum is itself an environmental work of art. The converted engraving plant makes no bones about its origins or its drab surroundings. Part of its beauty lies in embracing the locale as an aesthetic theme. The building opened as a museum in 1985, providing permanent display for the collection. A byproduct of the museum's opening was to inspire greater life into the Long Island City art scene; the opening of the nearby Socrates sculpture park followed. A memorial retrospective exhibition devoted to Noguchi will open at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo in March 1992.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum is open from April through November, Wednesdays and Saturdays only. The museum is located at 32-37 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City, N. Y., 718-204-7088.

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