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Noguchi Court bridges gallery and garden

Seven pieces from famed designer form a visual bridge to sculpture garden outside.

By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star

As Bloch Building visitors make their way toward the south end of the addition, they’ll find an opportunity to linger in a meditative oasis.

Seven large sculptures by the 20th-century modernist artist and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) sit in a quiet, contemplative space that seems to open to the outdoors through a wall of clear windows.

The architects designed Noguchi Court as a natural-lighted contrast to the adjacent art galleries and to provide a visual connection with the sculpture park outside.

And, indeed, one of the Noguchi pieces is a fountain — two massive, carved boulders — in a bed of distinctively patterned white rocks, which appears to extend beyond the glass wall to an exterior paved patio. The rock bed continues, but the water, moving slowly and silently over the boulders, circulates only indoors.

Inside, a long stone bench invites settling down to consider how Noguchi’s work reminds us of our connection to the earth and the rhythms of nature.

Part of the experience of looking at Noguchi’s work is to notice what’s not there (the voids in his shapes) as well as to see the evidence of his tools at work in the stone.

Five of the seven large sculptures in Noguchi Court date from late in the artist’s career.

“They are really some of the best pieces from the last 20 years of his life,” said Bonnie Rychlak, curator at the Isamu Noguchi Museum in New York.

In those years Noguchi had moved on from marble and worked more frequently in granite and basalt, much harder materials that presented new challenges, Rychlak said.

Controlling how the rock responded to his saws and chisels was much riskier and more difficult than working in marble.

And, Rychlak said, “He began to use the natural fissures and surfaces of the stone in the work.” Many museums have Noguchis, Rychlak said, but few if any have a collection as significant as the Nelson’s.

THE ARTIST Isamu Noguchi was born to a Japanese father and American mother in Los Angeles in 1904. Long interested in landscape design and horticulture, Noguchi eventually became one of the most respected sculptors of the 20th century.

His sleek, deceptively minimalist designs were influenced by the modernist abstraction of Constantin Brancusi, by ideas of spatial organization he learned from his friend R. Buckminster Fuller and by traditional Japanese notions and methods relating to material, composition and art.

“I wanted,” he once wrote, “to find a way of sculpture that was humanely meaningful without being realistic, at once abstract and socially relevant.”

Noguchi died in 1988. Since then, his studio in Long Island City, N.Y., has been transformed into a museum.

THE COLLECTION The Hall Family Foundation began acquiring large Noguchi sculptures in the 1980s as part of its efforts to establish the Nelson’s Kansas City Sculpture Park. The seven pieces have been on display at the museum at various times over the years. In 1999 the foundation gave them to the Nelson, envisioning the forthcoming museum addition as their permanent home.

THE SPACE Noguchi Court is in an area between the fourth and fifth glass-skinned “lenses” that sit atop the Bloch Building. The gallery comprises nearly 5,000 square feet of space, appointed with gray slate and other earth-tone materials.

THE WORKS

•“Night Land” (1947): One of the two earliest pieces in the Nelson’s Noguchi collection, this one (made from York fossil marble) evokes a surrealist dreamscape as well as a Japanese garden. It also relates to work he created for the choreographer Martha Graham. “ ‘Night Land,’ ” Rychlak said, “is one of the most important sculptures he ever did.”

“Avatar” (1947, cast 1988): Comprises interlocking, biomorphic forms and reflects Noguchi’s interest in spiritual archetypes. Because the original stone sculpture was fragile, Noguchi agreed to cast it in bronze, a process he didn’t much like, Rychlak said.

“Six-Foot Energy Void” (1971-85): Carved from a single piece of Swedish granite.

“Mountain Landscape (Bench)” (1981): A basalt carving. Not for sitting.

“Ends” (1985): Once located in the sculpture park, this stone cube is made of nine pieces of Swedish granite.

“Fountain” (1987): Water spills ever so slowly over the tops and sides of these two blocks of basalt, which sit in a bed of Japanese river rocks.

“Endless Coupling” (1988): A column of granite “bones” honors Brancusi.

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