Isamu Noguchi

A long and winding road leads fromIsamu Noguchi’s first formal design for an environmental work, an urban playground entitled Play Mountain, 1933, to the recently completed Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, which he created for the Museum of Fine Arts’ sculpture collection. That ambitious project of 53 years ago exists only as an austere plaster model. Never constructed, it initiated a string of unrealized large-scale outdoor projects Noguchi conceived during the ’30s and ’40s.

By the early ’50s, however, the pattern of rejection of his proposals had begun to shift toward favorable reception. Following several imposing commissions in Japan, Noguchi was invited by Marcel Breuer in 1956 to design a patio for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Completed in 1958, this surprisingly effective blend of Eastern tradition and Modernist innovation took hold of the site in a far more expansive and imaginative way than Breuer’s original intention. The success of this project, and, equally important, the relationship Noguchi established during the same period with the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago, set into motion the course of his future public works.

Of the 13 outdoor environments Noguchi has shaped into playgrounds, plazas, and gardens since 1958, it is clearly the Israel Museum’s Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, Hakirya, 1960–65, that provides the pragmatic model and visual antecedent for the Cullen Sculpture Garden. In both cases he has designed a space intended for the presentation of sculpture other than his own; an important distinction from, say, the Sunken Garden for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1960–64, wherein the ideological unity of Noguchi’s pristine marble forms is as hermetically sealed within its enclosure as are the library’s precious contents themselves. The two sculpture gardens, in contrast, have a peculiarly utilitarian dimension: to provide varied exhibition space for collections of works by other artists, which inevitably leads to questions of the site’s accommodation of difference and its adaptability to change as the collections grow or are altered.

The Cullen Sculpture Garden borrows from its predecessor some of the same devices of minimalist staging—a sense of props and flats set with the immutability of concrete for various unspecified acts. But whereas the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden is situated on five acres of rocky hillside, projecting itself into the landscape and with a commanding view, the one-acre Cullen Sculpture Garden has no real share of nature surrounding it, only varied profiles of urban architecture. That is to say, in planning the Houston garden, there was no natural dynamic given in the site itself. Perhaps over the eight years the garden had been promised, our expectations that this project would do much more than merely replace a vacant lot became unreasonably raised. One is grateful it has finally come to pass and taken its place in Houston’s cultural landscape, yet the experience of it seems to be dominated by a feeling of underlying arbitrariness and neglected opportunities. Why, for example, despite the comfortable parameters ofan easily comprehensible space, is there less realization of an intimate and fluid relation between the sculptures and their settings? The rather modest David Smith (Two Circle Sentinel, 1961) on its tiny hillock at the central point of the garden, and perhaps the Louise Bourgeois (Quarantania 1, 1947–53) nestled near a group of crepe myrtles, are the happy exceptions to this general failing. One suspects that what is represented in this project is the negative dialectic of compromise which has left its telltale trace in an absence of overriding coherency It is, aside from all expectation, an equivocal piece of sculptural architecture: neither a satisfying entity nor a vital container.

Slightly at odds with these judgments, the official opening of the garden was a completely sanguine event that by a coincidence of planning brought the great master of the aleatoric, John Cage, to perform in the premiere of his new work, Ryoanji, 1986, in Noguchi’s virgin space. With six musicians dispersed among a colorful and enthusiastic crowd, this was a moment when the garden revealed its potential to move and breath. However, where chance is at work there is usually irony as well.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom