On the occasion of the Portland Japanese Garden's Noguchi exhibition
this past May I had the honor of speaking with Marc Treib one of the world's foremost historian/critics on Noguchi, land art and the design of public spaces. He is the author of numerous books including, Noguchi in Paris: The UNESCO Garden (2003), Settings and Stray Paths: Writings on Landscapes and Gardens (2005) and Space Calculated in Seconds (1996). He is Professor of Architecture Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley. This is the final weekend for the Noguchi show (PORT also interviewed its curator)
at the Portland Japanese Garden.
Noguchi at the Portland Japanese Garden (photo Jeff Jahn)
JJ: You are in Portland because of your relationship with Noguchi's work and the Japanese Garden's 50th anniversary show. In particular you focus on "the sites", be it a public space or former studio. I've been to the Houston sculpture garden, The Long Island Studio and the California Scenario. I haven't been to the UNESCO
or the studio in Japan, which looks amazing. There is something about the Japanese garden format that laid the groundwork for his work which wasn't just object oriented sculpture but an environment for experience that speaks most to me.
is the best one.
California Scenario (photo Loren Madsen)
JJ: It is definitely the most satisfying to me. It is incredibly playful and even
has a playful sense of humor referencing fault lines, lima beans and water supplies.
I lived in LA from from the mid 70's till the early 80's and as a kid experiencing
the space for the first time it was one of the first true art environments I encountered.
I felt like he understood the fragility of the human occupation in So Cal and knew it as a tenacious strength.
MT: I don't think it was humor, I think Noguchi was dead serious. You know he was
born in Los Angeles but he had never really gotten to do anything in California.
When he was presented this opportunity by Henry Segerstrom was a big developer
down there. Apparently, the shopping mall across the street is called South Coast
Plaza someone told me is the most successful shopping mall per square foot in
the entire US. And it is gigantic and former farm land. So Segerstrom kind of
proposed to him something that would kinda deal with the agriculture and the origins
of the land , which the family was developing. Which is why one of the pieces
is called The Spirit of the Lima Bean, because that is what they used to grow
on the site. It does sound funny, in particular lima beans of all things but I
don't think there was humor involved. So basically it is an exegesis of the ecosystem
of California, the mountain, the meadow, the sources of water in the Sierras and
there is something about land use. The one thing I've never seen operating is
that first mound is supposed to have mists covering it.
Noguchi's California Scenario with children (photo Steve Aldana)
JJ: Mists really? Perhaps, when I was a kid all art looked funny... especially
when you just wander into a space and read about lima beans on a plaque. The
experience was one of my first wonderful moments of vexation regarding art.
MT: Either it didn't work or they never did it, but I've never seen pictures
showing the mists working. But Segerstrom was really committed to the project.
He said that his wife knew about Noguchi's work and he did not. She had some
issue of Art in America with his work in it so they had decided to commission
the piece. They had already done this big Serra down there in that complex,
one of the tower pieces and a number of other artworks that they had sponsored
over the years so when they were building these two towers and the parking garage
they thought they would get Noguchi to do the plaza. It was a pretty interesting
ploy. I asked him how much it cost and he (Segerstrom) said, I don't know.
They were half partners with Prudential and he knew that that company would
have never paid what it cost to do the project so the costs were never allowed
to line item. It was just labor, materials and whatever that he estimated were
about 1.2 million. And it is beautifully done. A lot of the reasons it is beautifully
done is because this landscape architect Ken Kammeyer really pulled it through.
Because Noguchi would do a model at 1 to 100 scale and oversee construction
stuff but basically the projects varied with whoever carried out the detailing
stuff. A lot of it was Noguchi's partner Shoji Sadao who was also Buckminster
JJ: It was like they shared him...
Water feature at California Scenario (photo Loren Madsen)
MT: He was the enforcer. He made things happen and worked out all of the technical
things and got drawings done. And a lot of the detailing like in Houston, a
really good architect or landscape architect would have detailed it better.
California Scenario really works because they had a really good landscape architect.
For example, they had no visible drains. They are all hidden underneath things.
So getting everything to work and the selection of plants was actually Kammeyer's
for example, today with the tree cover overgrown it is much more pleasant
as a space to be in but it is much less sculptural because the vegetation doesnt
reinforce the sculptural idea in any way. He really didn't have a good sense of
JJ: From photos the UNESCO project almost looks like a diagram of plate tectonics
rather than a green space garden.
Garden Elements (1962) at Portland Japanese Garden (photo Jeff Jahn)
MT: Well it is more like his reliefs from the 30's and 40's so it is a sculptured
ground plane and the early photos looks much more interesting sculpturally. I
don't know if you know a piece called Opus
40 by Harvey Fite
in Saugerties New York, just north of Storm King? It was
a blue stone quarry and Fite was teaching across the river at Bard and he took
this quarry and started reshaping it as a place to display his sculptures and
then x years into it he realized, no THIS is the sculpture.
It was called Opus 40 because he was going to work on it for 40 years. He had
a little tractor mower and used to mow all around the edge of it but one time
he got too close and fell down into it so it should be called Opus 37 because
he only worked on it for 37 years before he died. But it is very similar to
Noguchi's UNESCO as a kind of sculptured ground plane. It is a kind of relief
and not that spatial like California Scenario, but UNESCO is hemmed in by buildings
and far more constricted.
JJ: It seems more topographic.
MT: UNESCO was an important and earlier work, but it is not my favorite.
The Highline, New York City (photo Jeff Jahn)
JJ: I know you are here to talk about Noguchi but ever since I heard you were
coming I wanted to ask you about the Highline in New York City? When I was there
a few weeks ago I was surprised at how busy it was... so many were asking me
to snap pics for them with their smart phones (probably because I had a more
serious camera). I remember when it was brand new it was hardly used and before
that it was like one of Smithson's Passaic post industrial ruins. Also, everyone
brings up Gordon Matta-Clark as well but to me it is too Disneyland like Matta-Clark
had so much edge. The fact that Im from Portland means that such green spaces
are common... not just something that had to added into a wealthy neighborhood.
What is your take on it?
MT: At some point I am definitely going to write something about it but as an
amenity The Highline is undeniable but if you are talking design I'll take Smithson
over or Matta-Clark over Piet Oudolf the planting designer. It is now more of
a tourist site almost as if Times Square has been shifted into Chelsea. I'm
not certain how many locals actually use it. At least it isn't like many designs
which pretend to be art works and therefore become resistant to changes and
become incredibly precious, which is something that bothers me.
JJ: Well there is this frisson of repurposed renewal between the rusty metal
of the old and new the fancy plantings... I think tourists come to New York
thinking anything is possible but Times Square is so congested and gaudy that
it no longer functions as a symbol of hope but as an albatross of corporate
hegemony. Perhaps the preferences of Americans are shifting from corporate icons
to pastoral renewal or a more Portland-like fetishing of green space as a symbol
of freedom? I've always found that the most compelling places have distinct
strata of use, like Venice's sinking palazzos or Soho's onetime galleries in
cast iron buildings. These imbedded layers create conflicting viewpoints, which
I also like for panel discussions or verbal critiques.
MT: I've always interested in pairing up Okwui
with Dave Hickey!
JJ: Because they both speak completely different languages?
MT: Of course that is the whole idea... that is why you arrange people in discussion.
JJ: I do think it is really important to curate against form. It seems like
there has been a tendency of late to create tensionless exhibitions and talks,
which is boring because everyone has a predictable thing that they do, like
eggs fitting into cartons. Yet, once you've been in the cultural milieu you
realize that everybody is speaking a different language and that fractious moment
of translation is where the truly interesting stuff happens... otherwise it
is just running according to script. What I like about Hickey is that he creates
fractures and gets people to reveal their positions up front, Okwui is more
of a diplomat. Both are very cosmopolitan as both have such specific presentation
and intense vocabulary that you are pushed to either love it or hate it. That
skeptical moment between acceptance or rejection for the reader or audience
member is a good thing that isn't personal... simply a faceting of worldviews.
You don't have to be convinced by something to gain understanding. Both Hickey
and Enwezor are so intelligent that it is fascinating to hear them talk about
their backgrounds but even better when they are improvising off of something
MT: Well you know everyone has got the shtick now. The artists have their shtick,
and the curators have their shtick and the critics have their shtick. And it
used to be that you had an artist and you had a critic who was a critic... and
now you have an artist and a critic who is a proponent. Today you don't make
it in the world unless you have a critic who, "writes about you."
There is an artist I know who is now showing in New York and was in the San
Paulo biennial last year, which has like 8,000 artists in the show and he was
singled out by a critic in Art in America as one of the 6 and he said there
were sales the next day.
JJ: But it is different in a smaller place like Portland which is both big and
small at the same time... a place where they don't always pay very close attention
to reviews, both national and local and it gets tied to much pettier things
like do they teach at the same school, do they have the same social clique and
they want to be friends in a kind of consensus of community that doesn't always
appreciate being critiqued from outside. I do it anyway and think of it as an
asymmetrical skeptic's approach and try to focus on the work as if it were being
shown in London or New York. People in smaller places want affirmations but
that really isn't enough to simply promote people and work they like. A real
critic points out multiple horizon lines that may or may not be relevant, but
they have to present the possibility that they are crucial and shatter monogistic
thinking. I think that is why reviews really matter in New York and London.
They know the critics there are under tremendous pressure. Here, people want
to be friends and run with a gang... and I just don't do it. The thing is plenty
of Portland artists and designers are making waves internationally by sidestepping
the cliquish aspects local scene while reaping the benefits of having such a
conducive atmosphere of supportive peers. In that way the international market
has been very healthy for Portland... you can be left alone and show in world
class venues elsewhere.
MT: You know as an outsider looking in on the art market... I mean the prices
the things and how things are in Frieze New York and then Hong Kong the next week
and then to Basel... it just becomes a whole other entity.
JJ: The commerce of it?
MT: And the preciousness, because it is done by an artist. If the same thing
is done by a designer it get changed. There is no problem. But things like Tilted
Arc, Im a great Serra fan but that was a bad piece... although Martha Schwartz's
thing has been removed too I hear. They will never be happy those people.
JJ: They tried to have a Mark di Suvero removed from in front of the Milwaukee
Art Museum in Wisconsin. Calatrava had actually oriented his museum design with
it as an axis point. And those that sought to remove it were just picking it
as a target. It wasn't like Tilted Arc, it wasn't obstructing anyone.
MT: Well di Suvero's can normally resist removal! (laughs)
JJ: It wasn't that serious a threat but it's like a remnant of the culture wars.
MT: Another thing, the Marfa people have a news letter each year, an annual
MT: Yes Chinati, they did a conference on the restoration of unpainted plywood
and the latest thing is the concrete boxes outdoors in the parade grounds. If
it were architecture we would just say, let's cast new ones because they were
made incorrectly. So people are chipping away small corners and replacing it
with new concrete.
JJ: Part of the Judd conference we did here in Portland in 2010
was in response
to this. Judd was absolutely against the preciousness of the object with things
like pedestals. Judd's attitude was not about value being attached to original
components of a piece or even the object itself... merely the way it operated
visually, thus his infamous dislike of distracting damage. Instead, his attitude
was similar to design or architecture... simply refabricate it again. It's like
a Stradivarius, the instrument is no good unless it can be played so they repair
damaged parts so they can become playable again. Judds are played by the eyes,
not relics and it is why he is still a radical artist because there is tension
between his philosophy and the market pressures that fetish things like original
surfaces despite being marred and considered damaged by the artist. Sorry, it
is a topic close to my heart.
Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate at Chicago's Millennium Park (photo Jeff Jahn)
I also wanted to bring up Millennium Park in Chicago. It is a rare large scale
plaza, sculpture park, garden and stage that actually worked well... mostly because
of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture ties it together by being so popular.
MT: I was disappointed when I finally saw it because it is not integrated. It
is like a carnival. You've got the Kapoor and you've got the Gehry and the Gustafson
but they don't feed into one another. Well the work that SOM (Skidmore Owings
and Merrill) did kind of divided everything up. Gehry is always over the top
but I thought the bridge works. Then there is the Kapoor, it is called Cloud
Gate but it really isn't a gateway into anything, it is kind of lateral and
when you go underneath it you don't know where you are going.
JJ: It is kind of like the Bermuda Triangle but that is why it works. People
bring out the cameras and take photos for social media sites. It is very Me
Generation. Then they see themselves reflected in a distorted landscape. It
is intensely solipsistic but tourists love that.
MT: I love the piece, it is pretty much the best of the work I've seen of his.
JJ: I think it is the most successful piece of public art I've seen by any artist
in the last century or more.
MT: It is probably true. Then he has a show at the royal academy where he shoots
red wax out of a cannon against a wall. He's got too much money now.
JJ: Well that monstrosity for the London Olympics
was a stinker as if they wanted
their response the the HDM/Ai Weiwei designed birds nest stadium
MT: That I don't understand. I may not like a lot of Kapoor's work... I saw his
discs in London but that tower was just ugly and Cecil Balmond is a really great
designer... what happened there? Of course there is a film about making it and
Balmond was born in Sri Lanka and Kapoor is from India abnd they were joking
that this was their revenge on Britain. (laughs)
JJ: (laughing) could be... that explains a lot
MT: And the tower is just this (mimics a straight line with is hand). The rest
is just window dressing, its not an alternate path and there is no roller coaster
that goes up to it and like a Carsten Holler you can't slide down. It doesn't
even stabilize the tower, it is basically a water tower with an elevator. All
of the other stuff is decoration.
JJ: It shows just how good his cloud gate it because without it Millennium Park
would not have worked at all. It shows what art can do, it can overcome even
uninspired design. But when the art itself sucks no design can save it.
MT: Well what was there before, just rail yards... so anything is really an
amenity and people will go there, that's not in question. Ultimately though
it is long on trees and all of the talk and the hyperbole is kinda silly, a
bit like Villet.
JJ: Which reminds me that I wanted to ask you what you thought about Walter De
Maria's Lightning field in comparison to a reviled project like la
. Both impose a grid but with different expectations. De Maria's almost
unI'versally lauded piece isn't a park like la Villette. The is more of a destination
than an amenity though design is clearly at work as the entire experience of being
brought out to an isolated somewhat rustic cabin has a great deal of intention
MT: Villette? Well I compare it more to things like Roden Crater but The Lightning
Field is just an incredible experience. Of all of my earthwork visits to me
it is the most impressive because of its minimal means. You know I'm a modernist.
I've been to Roden Crater twice while it is under construction, I'd love to
get back there too.
Actually, I'd love to do a book or an exhibition called Building Light which
is Alvar Aalto, Tadao Ando, Flavin, Irwin and Turrell. I've got a folder I've
been collecting things in for years and anytime I get near a Turrell or Flavin
I put it in the folder.
JJ: Ando does a great job of marrying earth and sky. It is odd but I think most
light art isn't very related to Earth Art, it is usually one or the other. And
then you have Judd who kind of straddles the two with the 100 mil aluminum pieces
but avoided earth art because he felt he couldn't improve upon the landscape.
Whereas Noguchi is very rooted to the earth.
Concrete Judds at Chinati Foundation, Marfa Texas (photo Jeff Jahn)
MT: Maybe the land art stuff isn't specific enough objects, because you can't fabricate
the landscape setting? There isn't enough control? Though Judd did have this tilted
circle of concrete at Philip Johnson's The Glass House and a couple of things
that border on it. LA County has a sister piece to those open ended boxes at Chinati,
which were the closest Judd ever got to land art. I once asked Michael Heizer
at a conference once about the landscape and he indicated he didn't care about
it at all, just that, he used dirt as a medium and there was a lot of it
out there. Though, I think he perhaps protests too much. I visited Double
Negative in its now crumbling state and it is perfectly sited.
JJ: I have such a crush on Heizer's work and respect how little he wants to
talk about the work in public, letting the work speak for itself. His father
was an archeologist and the work is like an archeological site... it is mostly
about man's activity. The piece for Philip Johnson was Judd's first concrete
piece and St Louis also has a concrete box. Which brings me back to Noguchi
for how much at ease is work engages the landscape. Other artists couldn't help
but make a mark on the landscape... there is an interventionist element but
Noguchi's work almost looks like it was always there, even if it is an obvious
intervention. To use your Millennium Park terminology Noguchi's work is integrated
as a kind of place making that isn't as interventionistic... even the works
on display in Portland which are stand alone pieces that Noguchi never intended
specifically to show in Portland.
For me Noguchi's work seems to step out of time rather than engage the language
of overpass construction or Cor-Ten. The connection to Japanese gardens is huge.
There is a lineage, where the other later artists have a kind of signature Art
making to them. Some Noguchi's look as if they might have been from an
Noguchi on views at The Portland Japanese Garden (photo Jeff Jahn)
MT: I agree that they are closer to landscape architecture than they are to earthworks
because they are not really derived from the site. They are imposed on the site.
I was just on the Master's committee of someone at Columbia whose thesis was on
the preservation of Noguchi's American Landscape projects. And I asked him what's
your thesis, should a landscape have different preservation criteria if
it was conceived as landscape architecture rather than an art piece? In
many ways Noguchi was kind of Naive in that early part of his career and was more
concerned with esoteric spiritual concerns instead of how a piece would actually
accommodate the human body. But there is a place for that as well... not everything
needs to be comfortable. The California Scenario is not a very comfortable place.
At California Scenario there is hardly a place to sit, it is incredibly hot.
What has gI'ven it a new life ironically is non smoking and buildings. You cant
smoke within 20 feet of the door so you have to go deeper into the space. I'd
like to do a new study on the use of public space as based on no smoking laws.
JJ: Maybe Damien Hirst will do an outdoor smoking piece?
MT: Well he did do that cigarette piece.
JJ: It is a logical progression for him! (laughs)
MT: They have these spaces in Tokyo because in all of the central courtyard
areas you are not allowed to smoke. So cigarette companies like Kool rent out
space for smoking lounges. They sell Kools there too presumably.
JJ: So it all gets down to the use of the space and rules of behavior. Is it
being used as a sculpture park or is it landscape architecture that is being
used by the public with a wider latitude of program? The last time I was in
Houston I hung out in Noguchi's sculpture garden despite the fact that it was
114 degrees in the shade. I was drinking hot coffee too and feeling so tough
because nobody else was in sight. Perhaps they had more common sense but I like
coffee and wanted some for my sculpture stroll. I liked some of the work but
the sculpture garden itself was so dead and wasn't inviting... to be fair 114
degree weather doesn't help.
MT: (laughs) Well, Houston's Noguchi sculpture park also has an unfortunate
relationship to the building at least compared to the Turrell tunnel, which
has a direct connection to the two Museum wings. At one point they had proposed
that the street might come out. It could have been a very different situation
if they had depressed the street so that you had a platform that continued from
the museum. Instead, people just think it is part of the parking lot more than
as the sculpture gardens.
JJ: It just highlights how intention in public spaces is so important. In Portland
we have the Halprin Fountains like the Ira Keller Forecourt, which is incredible.
I see a lot of that design in Brad Cloepfil's Clifford Still Museum in Denver,
which is also set back as a terrace of rectangles and light pools instead of
the Halprin's setback of rectangles creating a waterfall with pools of water.
Also, instead of just textured concrete both look a lot like terraces made of
basalt crystal columns.
MT: Sounds like a Clyfford Still painting
JJ: It was a tremendous pairing of the right architect for a notoriously difficult
to please artist. Which parallels the Japanese Garden here and its plans to
expand with Kengo Kuma designing the buildings
. Since ours is considered so
authentic it is a tricky proposition to expand upon. Kuma is pretty much the
only architect I'd trust to do something that actually enhances the Portland
Japanese Garden, which is considered to be the best one outside of Japan. I
hear you are advising the Garden as well?
MT: Yes, and though I havent seen the Anderson gardens near Chicago, which
everyone says are also very good as they say Japanese Style gardens,
which is also a somewhat difficult proposition... I do believe the ones in Portland
are the finest that I've seen and the best kept. The one jarring note to me
is you have that one dry garden floating in the middle of a forest. Still, it
isn't actually in Japan and the garden is in a Douglas Fir forest and a Japanese
Garden isn't just about the land it sits on, there are views.
Portland is Kuma's first public project in the US and hopefully he will do it
justice. Certainly having Noguchi for their 50th anniversary certainly made great
sense for the garden.
Isamu Noguchi: We Are the Landscape of All We Know
is on view at the Portland Japanese Garden through Sunday July 21st 2013