The Portland Japanese Garden is having a great year.
In the first exhibit of its kind nationwide, the Garden is showcasing the artwork of one of the most critically acclaimed sculptors of the 20th century: Isamu Noguchi. And on May 30, the Portland Japanese Garden celebrated its 50th anniversary at a reception in Toyko. At the celebration, Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and the Imperial Family’s Princess Akiko of Mikasa paid tribute to the garden.
“For our 50th anniversary here, we wanted to pull out all the stops and do something that would draw attention to the Garden’s long history. So we sought an artist who would be the iconic image of someone who bridges East and West, and Isamu Noguchi is such a person,” says Diane Durston, the Arlene Schnitzer curator of culture, art and education at the Portland Japanese Garden.
This is the first time the Noguchi Museum in New York has loaned artwork to a Japanese garden, says Matt Kirsch, the Museum’s associate curator. The Noguchi Museum usually loans pieces to other museums and to outdoor sculpture parks, but not to Japanese gardens, he says.
“We’ve always been fairly careful how we portray Noguchi. Noguchi was American born. We try to have a nice balance between the emphasis on his American identity and his Japanese background. So previously there was some hesitation that it could be a little heavy handed to have Noguchi displayed in such a manner [in a Japanese garden],” says Kirsch.
The Portland Japanese Garden has been working with Kirsch for three years to bring this unprecedented exhibit to Portland. What sealed the deal? “The beautiful, all-around experience,” says Kirsch about his first visit to the Garden.
“It basically made sense to us as a way to expose Noguchi’s work to the West Coast in a very favorable setting,” says Kirsch. “Noguchi didn’t really have an established connection with the West Coast other than Los Angeles, the city where he was born and Seattle, Washington, where he did two public projects. So his connection to the Pacific Northwest was pretty tenuous.”
The Portland Japanese Garden is presenting 22 of Noguchi’s works in metal, stone and paper, created from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. Seventeen pieces of artwork are housed in a serene pavilion, and five sculptures are harmoniously placed in a garden, overlooking a stunning view of the city and Mount Hood.
Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an Irish-American mother and a Japanese father. From ages 2 to 13, Noguchi was raised in Japan. He returned to America and later settled in New York. During World War II, he volunteered to live in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona to help bring an artistic respite to the internees. Instead, the Japanese Americans there shunned him, thinking he was a spy.
Noguchi’s artwork bridges Eastern and Western, as well as modern and traditional art forms. Until his death in 1988, Noguchi created sculptures, fountains, plazas, gardens and playgrounds all around the world. He crossed disciplines, too. Noguchi designed stage sets for legendary choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. In addition, he created paper lanterns and an iconic coffee table, which are still available on the market today. He also won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts, bestowed by President Reagan in 1987.
Noguchi travelled worldwide and collected famous friends and stories along the way. For instance, he collaborated with artist Diego Rivera on a mural in Mexico City, romanced Rivera’s wife, artist Frida Kahlo, and became good friends with artist Alexander Calder and writer and inventor Buckminster Fuller.
“He was influenced by all of those people in all of those places,” says Durston. She believes Noguchi exemplifies his quote and the title of the exhibit, We Are the Landscape of All We Know.
“He recognized that every person is a landscape of all they know. I thought that was a wonderful metaphor for our Garden as well, because we are a Japanese garden in the Pacific Northwest and our garden represents a coming-together of cultures.”
The Noguchi exhibit runs through July 21, 2013. In a second celebration, the Portland Japanese Garden will throw a 50th anniversary gala October 19 at the Portland Art Museum.