HOUSTON -- Though it's but one year old and its trees -- water oaks, pines, plums, sycamores, magnolias, mimosas -- still have a lot of growing to do, it is possible now to predict with confidence that the Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts here will become a preeminently restful urban island, a civilized respite wherein a precious few of the western world's better bronzes (or "steels," or "aluminums") can be viewed at leisure.
The artfulness of this special place is still somewhat obscured by its apparent barrenness -- the poured-in-place concrete walls, though beautifully handcrafted, stand in stark contrast upon green lawns under the blazing southwestern sun -- and also by its modesty and size. This garden for sculpture, and people, occupies scarcely an acre and, despite the seeming prevalence of hard materials (the concrete walls, carnelian granite paths), it is no brute tour de force. It does not shout.
The garden was created by Isamu Noguchi, the protean 82-year-old American artist whose works include, besides a percentage of the more memorable individual pieces in the history of 20th-century sculpture, a worldwide scattering of "gardens" -- the splendid UNESCO garden in Paris, an impressive rock garden inside Kenzo Tange's modern Sogetsu building in Tokyo, a stupendous civic space in Detroit and an eerie reprise of California ecology improbably set between mirror glass office buildings south of Los Angeles.
It seems odd initially that among the works on view in the Cullen garden -- pieces by Rodin, Maillol, Matisse, Calder, David Smith, di Suvero and others -- there is none by Noguchi. "The garden is simply an enlarged Noguchi sculpture," explains Peter Marzio, director of the Houston museum. This is true, but the author's signature is subtle -- Noguchi's ability to imagine and create evocative individual forms here definitively takes a back seat to his mastery of space itself.
In his long career Noguchi has had ample occasion to reflect upon the spatial circumstances best suited to the placement of sculptures out of doors, and to act upon his reflections. His Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in Jerusalem, in keeping with the local topography and light, is a succession of powerful terraces sculpted by great, raw boulders. And both outside and inside his studios in Long Island City, N.Y., and on the Japanese island of Shikoku are in fact world-class Noguchi museums, distinguished not only by the objects in them but also by the close correspondence between the objects and the spaces they occupy.
Noguchi's special mark in the Houston garden is a forceful sort of restraint, a balancing of places that have strong character and yet rely on something else -- the works of other artists -- to bring them fully to life. The site is small but there's plenty of room to move around in, and as one walks through the garden it constantly changes. There are sheltered nooks (created by high walls), and flat, plazalike expanses, and green fields and little knolls. In a manner much closer to that of Japanese landscape gardeners of old than to current postmodernist practice, Noguchi here uses familiar forms and images to suggest experiences extrinsic to the garden -- that "field" of grass obviously is too small to be a field, but it has such presence. It "feels" like a field.
The combinations of qualities such as hard and soft, vertical and horizontal, abstract and organic, man-made and natural are masterful but they seem effortless -- the master's hand is by intention more or less invisible. But the resulting spaces are neither neutral nor undemanding. A sculpture poorly placed here fares poorly, indeed. Mark di Suvero's "Magari," for instance, an iconic welded steel piece about 7 1/2 feet high, appears to have been set adrift hopelessly in its plazalike space -- a piece without a place.
On the other hand, Aristide Maillol's beautiful bronze figure "Flore Nue" is fetchingly at home in her green field, and Alberto Giacometti's "Large Standing Woman I" -- elongated, regal, intense -- plays a striking counterpoint to a bare concrete wall. These walls, in themselves, create novel installation opportunities -- Matisse's bronze "Backs" (Nos. I through IV) are conventionally installed along one wall; on a nearby surface are ranged the mouth-puckeringly dry segments of Ellsworth's Kelly's abstract "Houston Triptych," commissioned by the museum.
The sculpture garden is ideally situated between the museum and the Glassell School of Art -- where once there was a parking lot, there now exists a meaningful connection -- but the joining comprises a tough architectural context. The museum, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is an exclamatory exercise in black-painted steel, and the art school, designed by Houston architect Eugene Aubrey, is an unusual, attractive structure sheathed with reflective glass bricks. Noguchi's subtle space, however, stands up to both; it uses each, in fact, as "borrowed scenery," just as a great Japanese gardener might have used a mountain view. Already impressive, this is a place that will age with grace.