A Refuge from the Gallery Hunters the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Is a Serene Sanctuary in New York's Frenzied Art Scene

Article excerpt

AS the fall art season gathers steam, much of the New York art world descends in Saturday rituals on Prince Street in Soho to Dean and Deluca's, sharing tips on what's hip and hot, and then fanning out to see the latest in the galleries. New York's major museums are opening exhibitions calculated to spur maximum attendance.

But one unhurried spot that may go unnoticed during this fall foray is the small, serene Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, close by the East River.

There is no big news, no large-scale loan exhibition to trumpet. But it is home to some 250 sculptures that span the career of the accomplished late artist (1904-1988), who was one of this country's most vital and versatile sculptors in this century.

In many instances, these works bridge the duality of Japanese and Western modernist traditions which inspired his life and vision. They are laid out on two floors and in the garden. The visitor begins with the late work, upright stone monoliths of granite and basalt that suggest the solemn menhirs of Carnac, and travels backward in time.

Twelve galleries, filled with works that reflect the breadth of the artist's materials and concerns, end at the rear of the second floor. Here there are the portrait busts from which Noguchi eked out his living at first, and the gleaming metal abstractions that draw heavily from the influence of Constantin Brancusi, with whom he apprenticed in Paris on a Guggenheim grant in the 1920s. There are surreal, biomorphic works influenced by Joan Miro and other European modernists, and objects and documents from his theater sets, many of them collaborations with Martha Graham.

This museum offers the kind of viewing experience that has become rare. It's a quiet sanctuary for the private contemplation of art, nature, and the growth of the artist's vision. The garden, laid with granite railway stones, contains an ample range of stone sculptures, bamboo, katsura, Japanese black pines, cherry trees, and other plants that make it a refuge.

The low stone benches of granite and travertine, created in the 1960s by the artist, are playfully biomorphic. A center piece is "The Well" of 1982, a variation on the idea of a birdbath, or "tsukubai." It's a six-sided basalt fountain. Water trickles from the flat top over the sides, as if from a level sheet of glass - a poem to serenity itself. …