CONCORD — Public sculpture is a competitive and often bitterly thankless endeavor. The whims of architects, developers, town councils, and corporate boards — not to mention all the ordinary pratfalls of collaboration — ensure that even a completed project is never safe from interference or demolition.
Michio Ihara, who has lived and worked in Concord since the early 1980s, has dealt with his share of meddling and neglect. At 85, you feel he has seen it all. And yet there are few sculptors anywhere in the world who have enjoyed such sustained success in the public realm.
Ihara’s combination of tough-mindedness and humility may have something to do with it: To collaborate successfully with architects and engineers, he has said, “the artist cannot simply assert himself. He has to develop sympathy for his partners and their expertise. The initial design concept may start with the artist, but, like a game of catch, the ball is tossed back and forth until the structure of the sculpture has been refined without anyone invading another’s territory.”
Ihara’s big sculptural commissions can be found in performing arts centers, town squares, hotels, office buildings, theaters, schools, libraries, and hospitals, not only throughout the United States (one of the finest is a huge wall sculpture at the Rockefeller Center in New York), but also in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, even New Zealand. They bring qualities of delicacy and subtle movement to public architecture that in many cases would appear brutish and adamantine without them.
Greater Boston is lucky to have an unusually high concentration of Ihara’s works. They can be seen near Faneuil Hall, at Logan Airport, at the First Church in Boston on Marlborough Street, at 265 Franklin St. in the Financial District, and in office buildings, schools, and private residences all over town.
Right now, a retrospective of his small-scale work — including maquettes, prints, and several larger outdoor sculptures — is on show at the Concord Art Association, not far from where Ihara lives with his wife, Doreen, in a beautiful house with a large studio attached. (The house used to be the administrative building of the Brooks School; the studio was the gymnasium.)
The show is excellent. It introduces us to every stage of Ihara’s career, and to the full range of his formal syntax. And although the maquettes obviously lose something when reduced in size and stripped of the architecture with which they are designed to harmonize, they have their own attractive qualities — concision and intricacy, above all.
It is also worth remembering that they all come from the artist’s studio; they represent some of his earliest and purest responses to given commissions.
Not all the works in the show are maquettes, but those that are are often displayed with photographs of the full-scale finished commission alongside. For those wanting more, a downstairs gallery is screening a video slide show with images of Ihara’s full-scale public commissions in situ.
Works like “Patina,” from 1975, and “Clavichord,” from 2002, feel like classic Ihara. Both set up vertical parallel lines like the weft on a loom, and punctuate this impromptu structure with small metal planes that cling to the vertical rods but rotate forward and backward.
Ihara’s control over both the positions of these punctuating marks on the “weft” and their relative positions in space is intuitive rather than systematic. At times they resemble the notations on medieval musical scores; at other times, wheeling birds coming into formation. The results are at once organic, asymmetrical, and inexplicably sure-footed. They have a rightness that is like a watermark on all of Ihara’s work.
If that rightness also seems characteristically Japanese, it could be because a sensitivity to good design seems to be inculcated in the Japanese from early childhood, and permeates so many different aspects of the culture. Naturally, of course, not everyone has it — or develops it — to the same degree.
Ihara was born in Paris in 1928, but his family went back to Tokyo the next year and Michio grew up in Japan. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1961.
He studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he befriended Gyorgy Kepes, the great Hungarian artist, designer, and educator. He credits Kepes’s “The New Landscape in Art and Science” (1956) with opening his eyes to what he wanted to do with his art. The two men were close friends until Kepes’s death in 2001.
Over the years, Ihara has constantly found new ways to introduce variation and movement into his work. His “notations” can be small discs or squares, which reflect different amounts of light according to their position in space; thin, serpentine lines or ribbons; or merely deftly placed twists in otherwise straight lines. In many cases the modular components of his structures are light enough to be ruffled by the wind, creating entrancing effects.
But Ihara does not rely on literal movement in all or even most of his works. He is a master at creating the impression of movement using purely static forms. Constantly altering the thickness of his lines, the density of his clusters, the patina of his materials (usually stainless steel but also copper, bronze, and brass), and many other variables, he encourages the eye to rove and roll.
One maquette for an altarpiece in a Christian church in Japan is especially lovely. Notwithstanding the stable and symmetrical form of the cross (which Ihara ingeniously defines as an absence), the rest of the altarpiece is amazingly fluid, suggesting the ungraspable play of light on ruffled water or the lightning vicissitudes of the spirit.
In its openness, its abstraction, its material simplicity, and its modular structure, Ihara’s work is classically modernist as much as it is classically Japanese. Quite apart from the pleasure I took in so many of the individual works, one of the show’s effects on me was to restore my faith in classic modernism, which in less sensitive hands can often feel so tired, tarnished, and degraded.
Make sure, when you visit the show, to see the two sculptures installed in the garden behind the building as well as the two out front. And note that the Concord Art Association is organizing a tour of Ihara’s large-scale sculptures in Concord, Waltham, and Boston, to be led by Ihara himself, on Aug. 3, from 1-5:30 p.m.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.