Isamu Noguchi at the Portland Japanese Garden

Getting to the matter of the matter

I had a reason to invite my acupuncturist friend, Gwen LoVetere to come along with me to see the Noguchi exhibit, “We Are the Landscape of All We Know” at the Portland Japanese Garden. Well, not so much a reason as a gut feeling.

Gwen is a practicing Buddhist, and while I am hesitant to associate Noguchi with a particular religious affiliation —let alone try to establish some East-meets-West theme for this essay— the title of this exhibit, a quote of Noguchi’s, strongly suggests a certain spirituality, especially in light of other similarly worded ideas of his printed on banners at the Gardens. I also invited Gwen because she had never been in an art gallery before a few months ago, yet I found her input about that work nevertheless as insightful as any I had heard from others about the exhibit. I was hoping get a repeat performance with the added bonus of her spiritual awareness.

In effect, I was relinquishing part of my role as the art critic —the illusory aspect— for I suffer no illusions that I work in vacuum nor that I’m the final authority on much more than how a new pair of pants should fit when I first try them on. No, this arts writing thing is a learning process, and if I could discover how someone else looks at art, then I might benefit in an expanded reading for myself.

I would not be disappointed.


“We Are the Landscape of All We Know” was curated by the Japanese Garden’s Diane Durston in cooperation with the Noguchi Museum’s Matt Kirsch, and consists of twelve sculpture and four drawings in the Pavilion with another five sculptures in the Overlook garden behind the Pavilion. The sculptures range from the years 1958 (“Solar’) to 1982 (“Odalisque”). The drawings are all from 1949. It should be noted that Noguchi’s career spanned from the early 1930s until his death in 1988, yet this small exhibit is a fair representation of his virtuosity as a maturing/mature artist.

On the surface, Isamu Noguchi fits nicely into the pantheon of modernist sculptors. One can easily imagine how his internship with Constantin Brancusi in the late 1920s had an influence. An affinity with his contemporary, David Smith, is also apparent in some of his pieces. And whether or not Noguchi was a primary model himself for other artists, it is not too hard of a leap to Sir Anthony Caro, Mark di Suvero, or even Anish Kapoor, along with the multitudes who continue to make work in similar veins. (For instance, Portland’s own Michihiro Kosuge, who exhibited at the Japanese Garden in 2008.)

 I briefed Gwen on Noguchi’s life and place in art history before we entered the Pavilion. She was already taken with his good looks and by the tenor of his words on the banner at the front gate. Once inside, we each went our separate ways, she with her intrigue and me with my notebook.


 “Solar”(1958) — I get it: Sun, eclipses, dark and light sides of planets.

 “Wrapped Figure” (1962) — Again, pretty straightforward. Mostly draping cut in the marble with the top of a head poking out.

 “Asleep in a Rock” (1966) —  Something has changed. It looks as if the sculpture is nothing more than a piece of marble that has cracked apart or has been split and some pieces removed. Is this piece more about process than any other idea or concept?

“Mortal Remains” (1978) — The piece looks like it was found this way, weathered, cracked and pock-marked, and perhaps only reminded the artist of a skull. Something seems to have shifted in the artist’s working method.

Isamu Noguchi, "Asleep in a Rock"/The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York

Isamu Noguchi, “Asleep in a Rock”/The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York

 Ah! the curators have placed these last two in close proximity to each other! I may be onto something, methods to name, a working process to systematize, if not so much for scholarly purposes then for my own edification and fancy.

 I think to share this insight with Gwen and seek her out by “Stone of Spiritual Understanding” (1958) — A cruciform of sorts. I am drawn to how the aluminum pierces the sizable bronze “stone.” Light into darkness. (Further research would show there is more than one sculpture with this title yet of a similar configuration. The other is owned by MOMA in NYC.)  As I walk over, she turns to face me, tears in her eyes.

 I whisper, “Oh, Gwen, you’re crying!”

 “Pieces of me are coming alive in front of these works! How does that happen?” Pointing back to “Stone of Spiritual Understanding,” she says, “It triggered grief. Like the burden of wanting more, a longing. You have to stop and feel your grief of longing.” And then with a smile on her face, she said, “You ought to appreciate that piece, it being so cross-like.” (An inside joke we share regarding how I feel about acupuncture.) I looked at the sculpture again and remembered this lingering idea of mine about portrayals of the crucified Jesus, his outstretched arms as much a call to embrace as reminder of a persecution.

Isamu Noguchi, "Stone of Spiritual Understanding"/Portland Japanese Garden

Isamu Noguchi, “Stone of Spiritual Understanding”/Portland Japanese Garden

 She then led me over to another sculpture, “Spirit” (1959-1962) that I had looked at but passed by rather quickly as a type of work I had seen too many times by different sculptors. She spoke of how it was at once both reaching and embracing. Then onto “Asleep in a Rock” and “Mortal Remains.” I forgot to share my notes on these last two pieces; I found her comments much more interesting.

 “There is a consciousness in those pieces, a deep resonance in their matter that influences us at an unconscious level. Much like we are unaware of the influence the weather might have on us.”


 Gwen continued to share her impressions as we walked outside to see the pieces in the Overlook garden. She used words like comforting, sensual, aspiration, connectedness, simple and warm. As we approached the garden, she became quiet. And after some time, she used words like fragmented, isolated and sharp.

 We both agreed that the Overlook had a completely different feel than the Pavilion, and we were surprised that our reaction was so negative. After all, wouldn’t one ideally want to see some of these works in a garden? Perhaps it was that we were unable to leave the deck above the garden, and the distance from the work that gave us this impression. Or, it may have been the natural setting simply dwarfed the work. Maybe it was just a matter of the wrong space for these pieces, or the arrangement itself made the work seem little more than design elements? What was causing this overall negative feeling I was having?

 Were there too many pieces in the garden?

 Noguchi: “I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space: a beginning, and a groping to another level of sculptural experience and use: a total sculpture space experience beyond individual sculptures.”

 Too much emphasis on “individual sculptures” and not enough “sculpting of space.”

Isamu Noguchi, "Cloud Mountain"/Portalnd Japanese Garden

Isamu Noguchi, “Cloud Mountain”/Portalnd Japanese Garden

 I tried to imagine the garden with only “Cross Beam” (1970) and Re-Entry Cone (1970) installed. As fairly simple forms, one does not need to get too close to appreciate them. “Tsukubai (1962) suited the area as a water element but on its own would be too minimal for this expanse of gravel. On the other hand, “Cloud Mountain (1982-1983) worked well with the light-colored rocks and more importantly was a nod to the horizon beyond.  “Odalisque” (1982) was the sole piece that seemed to be completely misplaced. Its significant details could not be inspected from where we stood. We both wanted to be closer to the piece, and here is where we most missed the connectedness we had felt to the work inside the Pavilion.


 We ducked inside the Pavilion for one last quick look.

 Untitled (1955-1965) —  I find it curious that this piece took ten years to make. There are deep carvings connected to shallow marks. Which came first? The piece seems to be three-dimensional calligraphy, and by extension, a story told over time by way of the contrasting depths of carving.

 — Oh, and I like how the curators decided to place it in proximity to

 Young Mountain (1970) — The stone is cut and placed back together, like a puzzle. There is a small “entryway” chiseled into the base at the “back” that one can only see by purposefully positioning oneself close to the wall. Why is it shown this way?

 And why did I bother to look behind in the first place? Gwen tells me that she looked behind as well and her words return to me: “There is a consciousness in those pieces, a deep resonance in their matter that influences us at an unconscious level.”  If so, then the same might be said for all of the sculpture in this exhibit, and for that matter, any sculpture anywhere. Or is it because I am trained to consider sculpture “in the round?” This and other “art appreciation” dictates have been around for a long time (at one point considered divinely inspired) but was the impetus for them something very similar to Gwen’s way of understanding the objects? In either the making or the viewing, it is not such a great leap to see how listening to the deeper “voices” eventually leads to the “trained eye.” Or is it an “eye in training?”

 “We are the landscape of all we know.” I roll the title of the installation around in my mind. Surely Noguchi did not mean “landscape” as in a photograph or painting —or not solely— for like erosion, there is a constant change, flux and shifting. Mountains grow and fade with time.  Something new from old. And in our lives this translates to one foot in front of the other, a journey much like the trek to see this exhibit, gleaning what I can from Gwens’ observations and then looking for my own new insights about the work as I write, all to say the way I will look at art from here on out has been and will continue to be changed. It’s a process.


Read more from Patrick Collier >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives