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California Scenario: Isamu Noguchi’s Hidden Public Garden

By Kathryn Poindexter

Isamu Noguchi’s Sculpture Garden “California Scenario” at 611 Anton Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

In 1980, while muralism, street art, and public works were well-established within various L.A.-based subcultures as well as the mainstream, Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi was planning a public artwork of a different color. Defying easy categorization, Noguchi’s “California Scenario” simultaneously occupies the spheres of public art, autonomous sculpture, urban planning, and an extension of the movement known as “earth art” or “land art.”

On a recent visit to Noguchi’s “California Scenario,” a sculpture garden in Costa Mesa, on a sunny August day, a middle-aged man was launching himself onto rocks from running leaps, across the winding stream carved out of the sandstone ground. He was not embarrassed by someone being witness to his strange antics; he explained how he’d tried to tell friends about “California Scenario,” often referred to as “Noguchi Garden,” but lamented that no one has ever heard of it or can ever seem to find it. He was rock-jumping on business, tasked with photographing a model of an office chair for the company he represented, and chose this as his setting of choice. Having accomplished his task, he soon left.

Once left alone within “California Scenario,” one begins to take in the rather curious configuration of parts. An open plaza, dappled with seven separate “scenarios” of nature, it maintains an otherworldly tension amongst the two perpendicular white walls and adjacent corporate high rises that enclose it.

“California Scenario” was commissioned by the wealthy founder of South Coast Plaza (Orange County’s Mercedes-Benz of elite malls) and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Henry Segerstrom. An agriculture tycoon, Segerstrom came from a family whose wealth was built on lima bean farming in Orange County. In 1980, a little over a decade after Segerstrom opened the South Coast Plaza shopping mall where his family’s lima bean farms once stood, he approached Noguchi, at this point an established artist in the later years of his life, about commissioning a sculpture for a garden area situated within a corporate plaza adjacent to the mall. Segerstrom, an avid supporter of the arts and dear friend of Noguchi’s, must not have been too terribly offended when Noguchi instead insisted on designing the entire garden into a fully-realized refuge, a modern zen garden rife with autonomous sculptural works and homages to the many splendored faces of indigenous California terrain.

While Noguchi’s sensibility was, in most ways, wildly different from the contemporaneous L.A.-area public works of the likes of, say, Chicano collective ASCO and muralist Judy Baca, his thoughtful consideration sets forth a similar call for agency and cultural critique, centering on awareness and stewardship. Having worked in the studio of eminent modern sculptor Constanin Brancusi, as well throughout many different areas of North America, Asia, and Europe, his aesthetic identified him more heavily with the minimalist sculptors of the 1960s and 70s. Within this realm, he shared a sensitivity toward the site-specific imperatives of sculptors such as Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, and Nancy Holt, working in the spheres minimalism and earth art alike.

Having designed stage sets for well known modern dancers, choreographers, and composers, such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage, Noguchi was also well versed in the creation of works meant to facilitate and serve as platforms for human experience and interaction. Therefore, it’s no surprise that works focused on public space, such as “California Scenario,” were Noguchi’s preferred projects. Extending the reach of the earth art movement, and sandwiched within the boundaries of corporate high rises and shopping mall parking structures, the work is site-specific on many levels.

On a purely visual level, the play of angular plane, organic forms, and natural elements tempers the sterile corporate structures surrounding. The obsidian-mirrored surfaces of the office buildings reflect and amplify the kinetic energy and gurgling of the water trickling from three fountains and winding streams throughout. In a corporate setting, where the form of the towering high rises has strictly followed the protocol of function, it becomes surprisingly easy to lose oneself within the interwoven aesthetic dynamics that punctuate the two modes of environmental framework at play.

Considering the attention given toward the driving themes of site and stewardship, Noguchi must have contemplated how easy it is to lose sight of the irrevocable connection between man and the natural resources that support him, particularly when one spends roughly one third of their life working in a corporate high rise, or cubicle of any kind for that matter. Here, not only businessmen and women, but also the public, are offered the otherworldly auspicious conditions within which to re-connect with oneself and the natural world. “Spirit of the Lima Bean,” a large granite sculpture bearing Noguchi’s initials, serves as the centerpiece of the plaza and honors Segerstrom’s very concrete personal connection to the “fruits of the earth.” Forest Walk, a raised hill covered in smooth silky grasses and lined with redwoods, is akin to an ascent to a hermitage, resplendent with shade and greenery, designed to pull you toward the apex where a shady bench rests — a perfect spot for overlooking the plaza. Jutting planes of polished stone parallel the surfaces of the high rises, and stand as obelisks revering the sun, or markers representing the source of the flowing stream.

Closely approaching the 100th anniversary of the L.A. aqueduct, it seems more urgent than ever to honor the intentions laid out within “California Scenario.” Provoking awareness of both an inner and outer nature, Noguchi’s work fosters self-reflection and a collective call to honor and appreciate the crucial but tenuous relationship Californians hold with their precious resources. Whether meditating, peering out from an office window, or just passing through, Noguchi offers everyone a chance to pause, breathe, appreciate our home in its full indigenous spectrum, put things into perspective, and reconsider our priorities as stewards of the natural, the quotidian, and the sublime.

Kathryn Poindexter is exhibit liaison and collection coordinator for the Riverside Art Museum in Riverside Calif. She graduated from UC Irvine with a B.A. in Studio Art in 2008, and studied abroad at the University of British Columbia and has a fondness for sculpture.

Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  @wbbrjp

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