Los Angeles

Isamu Noguchi

Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Plaza

Seventy-nine years after Isamu Noguchi’s birth, his natal city, Los Angeles, dedicated its first public sculpture by its native son. Appropriately, Noguchi’s most recent plaza is situated in the center of “Little Tokyo,” positioned between the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the James Irvine Japanese Garden (Seiryu-en), the Japan America Theater, and the still blighted opposite side of San Pedro Street. The one-acre plaza is more modest in size than the South Coast Plaza by Noguchi in Costa Mesa.

After achieving the major concession of moving the theater from the center to the periphery of the plaza, Noguchi designed the public space itself with admirable simplicity: a series of circular red-brick patterns echoing the facade of the theater. The plaza itself is intended to provide uninterrupted ceremonial spaces for “concerts, plays and ondo dancing in the round.” This, in other words, is a people’s plaza, incorporating fountains, a children’s playground, and shade trees.

Significant during the dedication ceremony, which included a Shinto blessing, was the presence of representatives of various walks of Los Angeles political life. Especially noteworthy was the side-by-side seating of Los Angeles’ black mayor, Tom Bradley, and the diminutive Japanese-American Noguchi. Perhaps this cultural conflation itself is as important as the art work which symbolizes it. The newest Noguchi plaza is an emblem of the potential unity that Los Angeles must pursue; it is a major breakthrough that the Community Redevelopment Agency, an entity of city government, contributed a million dollars toward the realization of the plaza—the first major contribution by the city of Los Angeles toward the work of an internationally recognized native-born artist.

Noguchi’s esthetic suggests a balance. The sculpture in the plaza—entitled To the Issei—consists of two juxtaposed 20-ton basalt pillars from Japan, one vertical, standing 12 feet high, the other 10 feet long and lying on its side. Each is partially scraped away but largely undisturbed, so that the human hand is scarcely discernible. In contrast to the alternatively drab and garish Little Tokyo redevelopment projects that surround the plaza, Noguchi’s barely sculpted boulders speak of an esthetic in which the relationship of the artist’s hand to the structure of nature is symbiotically expressed rather than egotistically imposed. Is it still possible to believe that esthetic presence might have some impact on the hard reality of everyday existence?

Melinda Wortz