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Noguchi Garden Museum offers new perspective

When the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on Vernon Boulevard closed down for long-overdue repairs last year, it reopened in a temporary space that retained the art but left behind its signature asset: the garden.

The museum now occupies the second floor of a three-story loft building on 43rd Avenue in Long Island City, temporary quarters that could hardly be any more of a departure from the lush landscape of the original. The patrons can’t help but notice.

“One of the first things they say is, ‘Where’s the garden?’” said Bonnie Rychlak, the museum’s curator, while showing off the space last month as the latest exhibition, “Noguchi: Sculpture and Nature,” was being mounted. “We, of course, couldn’t bring the garden.”

Although Long Island City has long fostered a vibrant artistic community with prominent institutions from the Noguchi Museum to P.S. 1 and the Socrates Sculpture Park, lately it seems to have spawned a new generation of art venues: the temporary museum.

The Museum of Modern Art opened its temporary gallery space, MoMA QNS, to much fanfare last month in the blue building that once housed the Swingline staple factory off Queens Boulevard at 33rd Street, four blocks from Noguchi. Meanwhile, the Museum for African Art plans to move into the space directly above the Noguchi Museum on the third floor of 36-01 43rd Ave. this fall, where it will stay until its permanent home on Fifth Avenue is ready to be inhabited.

For any art museum, the task of setting up a temporary space is Herculean in scope, requiring not only an appropriate facility to accommodate and protect the objects, but also the resources to broadcast the move and lure patrons to a new venue.

But the challenges for the Noguchi Museum were even greater, because the museum itself is as much a reflection of Isamu Noguchi as his artwork. If you leave the museum, are you leaving behind part of the artist, as well?

Noguchi, born in 1904 to an American mother and a Japanese father, was a sculptor who created a prolific body of work that spanned decades and styles, exploring themes that were often drawn from principles of Zen, like respect for nature and the perfection of asymmetry.

His museum and garden formally opened in 1985 in a building constructed in 1927 as a photo-engraving plant, which he acquired in 1975 after already having worked in a studio across the street for 15 years.

But when he died in 1988, his museum on Vernon Boulevard was basically frozen in time, left untouched by the artists and trustees who were charged with preserving his legacy.

“The space in Long Island City on Vernon Boulevard was fairly fixed,” Rychlak said. “It’s really not been that many years since Noguchi died and he set up the museum there, and there are many people that feel that the entire space is a site-specific work of art.”

For Rychlak, herself a sculptor who began working as an assistant to Noguchi in 1980, the immutability of the space has been a longtime source of frustration. Although the layout inevitably changed to some extent as pieces were loaned to other institutions doing Noguchi exhibitions — which Rychlak often curated — she has been campaigning to reinvigorate the museum by shifting the permanent collection’s 255 objects and bringing out some of the 400 or so now in storage.

“As presumptuous as this might sound, I always felt that . . . it was really chock full of work,” Rychlak said of the garden museum. “There were certain areas that I think were really beautiful, but others where it almost appeared as though he was trying to show everything and didn’t really edit himself at all.”

But the temporary space has been nothing short of a godsend, she said, setting a precedent that it is possible to maintain the integrity of the work while showing it in a different way — even if that means changing Noguchi’s own layout.

“It is a new space, it’s not anything like Vernon Boulevard. It’s not anything that Noguchi had anything to do with,” Rychlak said. “What do we do? Do we try and make it look like Vernon Boulevard, or do we try and do something different?”

Rychlak did something different, and she appears to have won over any naysayers. She inaugurated the new space with “Zen No Zen: Aspects of Noguchi’s Sculptural Vision,” which displayed approximately 20 works in a thematic exploration of the way Noguchi embraced key elements of Zen and the Japanese aesthetic.

Although removing the work from its original venue meant divorcing it from the way Noguchi himself had intended it to be seen, Rychlak considers that to be a positive step for the museum, because an artist is not necessarily the best judge of his own work. Sculptures that he only wanted seen from the front, for instance, she has now displayed in such a manner that they can be viewed from all sides.

“I don’t necessarily think he was the best designer of his exhibitions,” Rychlak said. “But I guess that’s what any good curator does is interpret the work in a way that not only makes you see it differently or see it new, but also to flatter the work.”

Indeed, she was so successful at bringing new meaning to the work that longtime patrons failed to recognize pieces that were mainstays in the garden.

“It is thrilling to hear people say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve never seen this piece before,’ when they’ve actually seen it a hundred times,” she said. “That really is what I guess good curating is about.”

But that’s not to say you cannot bring back a little bit of the garden. The new exhibition, “Noguchi: Sculpture and Nature,” which opened at the end of June, is a retrospective that moves through major phases of the artist’s career, ending with an indoor recreation of the garden, replete with a bed of rocks and backdrop of bamboo.

“Even in the Zen show, everybody would say, ‘Where’s the garden?’ They were so disappointed there wasn’t a garden,” Rychlak said. “Now at least this gives it a center, it gives the whole space a focal point.”

The Noguchi Museum is located on the second floor of 36-01 43rd Ave. For hours and information, call 204-7088, or visit www.noguchi.org.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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