Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist

John Hill
16. May 2016
Mineral roof garden, Banco Safra HQ, São Paulo, 1983 (Photo: Leonardo Finotti)

It is the first exhibition in the city devoted to the Brazilian landscape architect since 1991. Through the display of objects in a variety of media and disciplines, and the contributions of contemporary artists, the show broadens the appreciation of this influential figure. Curated by Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson, Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist showcases the full range of Burle Marx's output across nearly 140 works, from landscape designs and sculptures to textiles and jewelry.

Monographic exhibitions such as Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist can serve three functions: bring attention to artists for those unfamiliar with them; align artists' work with current trends and themes; and provide an opportunity for viewing artists' work in a new light. This exhibition does all three, and does them remarkably well.

Exhibition view (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)
Exhibition view (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

As mentioned, the show at the Jewish Museum is the first exhibition on Burle Marx in New York since 1991, when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) mounted Roberto Burle Marx: The Unnatural Art of the Garden. This 25-year lag is shocking given that Burle Marx designed over 2,000 gardens worldwide in his more than 60-year career and is considered one of the most influential landscape architects of the 20th century. Although his influence in the field is widely apparent, his garden designs are not widely known to the larger public outside of his native Brazil, and "the artist's work in other media remains little known," per the curators. In turn, the exhibition will travel to Berlin after New York, fitting since Burle Marx was born in 1909 to a German-Jewish father and Brazilian mother of European descent.

Hoffman and Nahson describe Burle Marx as "an early practitioner of a contemporary way of working: crossing genres fluidly, integrating art with political concerns such as ecology, and disregarding the traditional separation of fields of practice." In turn the exhibition, designed by SAS/Solomonoff Architecture Studio, is laid out both chronologically and thematically with, for instance, early figural drawings and pieces of jewelry grouped together. Taking a clockwise path through the ground-floor gallery of the Jewish Museum, the impression is of artistic impulses trying to find their appropriate expression, whatever they may have been. Anchoring the space is a nearly 90-foot-long wool tapestry Burle Marx created in 1969 for the Santo André Civic Center near São Paulo.

Roberto Burle Marx painting a tablecloth in the loggia of his home, 1980s (Photo: © Tyba)
Gardens of the Walter Moreira Salles residence, now the Instituto Moreira Salles, 1951 (Photo: © Cesar Barreto)

Contemporary Trends
A lot of attention in the exhibition, as well as the companion book of the same name, is given to the Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, the estate Burle Marx owned and nurtured from 1949 until his death in 1994. In addition to serving as a canvas for his landscape designs, the land became a collection of art but also tropical and semitropical plants, many of them culled from his travels deep into Brazil's interior. These collections are an extension of his opposition to the rampant felling of rainforests in his native country for agriculture and commercial uses, a practice he vocally criticized. Unfortunately, although Burle Marx expressed himself through various media, one of them was not writing; his words were spoken rather than written, with little translated into English (the exhibition features some of his words, but only in Portuguese).

His activism, which found its nexus at the Sítio, is obviously aligned with today's concerns of climate change as well as other ecological concerns tied to overpopulation and deforestation. Burle Marx's environmental engagement serves as a template for life in the 21st century even though it was highly local. After all, how individuals and groups practice locally impacts the course of the environment globally. The idea of considering, nurturing and protecting the natural species of a place is just one way that Burle Marx's way of life was commendable and worth drawing attention to.

Exhibition view (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)
Exhibition view (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

A New Light
Reappraisal of artists' output in monographic exhibitions tend to come in three ways: the selection of works; the presentation of the works in the physical exhibition space; and the curators' wall texts that accompany the works. Hoffman and Nahson have ventured beyond these norms by incorporating seven artists into the exhibition, each providing their own filtered take on Burle Marx. Most memorable are the colorful chandelier-like sculpture made by Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes with the help of Carnival craftspeople, which hangs at the museum entrance; musician Arto Lindsay's patterned soundscapes that are heard upon entering the exhibition space; Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's film portrayal of Burle Marx's famous Copacabana walkway as it is traversed by revelers on New Year's Eve 15 years ago; and Italian photographer Luisa Lambri's images that depict the blurry distinction between inside and outside in Burle Marx's gardens.

Although Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist is a faceted look at the polymath artist's life, ultimately it sparks a desire to visit his gardens in person. The tapestries, jewelry, sculptures and other works are impressive, but not nearly to the same degree as the landscapes he crafted, which are expressed in the exhibitions through photos and remarkable color drawings. If the exhibition is successful in any way, it will be to get people on planes for Brazil – not to see the Olympics, but so they can immerse themselves in the Sítio and Burle Marx's other masterful modern landscapes.

Victoria amazonica water lilies in garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, 1979 (Photo: © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro)
Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, 1988-2004 (Photo: Burle Marx Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro)

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist is on display at the Jewish Museum in New York City from 6 May to 18 September 2016.

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