Modern Brazilian Landscape Design

Self-Portrait, Roberto Burle Marx, 1929 charcoal

Self-Portrait, Roberto Burle Marx, 1929 charcoal

If you watched the Summer Olympics, you may have caught a glimpse of the two-and-a-half-mile thoroughfare, Avenida Atlântica along the Copacabana shoreline in Rio.  This iconic pavement was designed in 1970 by  Roberto Burle Marx  whose career is the subject of a retrospective at the Jewish Museum.  Not widely known outside Brazil, over the course of a 60-year career he designed some 2,000 gardens worldwide, including Chile, Argentina, France, South Africa, and the United States.  He is perhaps best known here for his fluid design of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard (completed after his death), with its swirling, vivid patterns.

Burle Marx (1909-1994) was the son of a German Jewish father and a Brazilian Catholic mother (the portraits he painted of his parents are in the exhibit).  He grew up in Rio, and studied painting in Germany for  a few years.  It was during visits to the Botanical Garden in Berlin that he learned about Brazil’s native flora, and saw it used for decorative purposes, in contrast to Brazil, where European-style gardens with imported vegetation were in vogue.

Design for the Garden of the Clemente Gomes Residence, Areias, 1979

Design for the Garden of the Clemente Gomes Residence, Areias, 1979

Back in Brazil in the early 1930‘s, he embraced modernism which was then taking hold there. Through his drawings for public works projects and private commissions, the exhibit demonstrates how Burle Marx revolutionized garden design.  Rejecting symmetry, formalism and imported European flora, his designs employed  abstraction and grand colorful sweeps of local vegetation, bringing to mind the paintings of Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Sonia Delauney.

His design sensibilities were informed by an awareness of how people walk through a garden, resulting in relaxing design patterns created with pavings and bed shapes. 

Throughout his career, Burle Marx collaborated with architects, including  Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Jose Tabacow and Haruyoshi Ono.

Design for the Minister's Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janieiro, 1938

Design for the Minister’s Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janieiro, 1938

On display are his plans for several public works projects, such as the roof garden for the Ministry of Health and Education in Rio, one of his most celebrated designs, and the Ministry of the Army in Brazilia, both of which made clever use of scale and water.

The exhibit also showcases designs for private commissions, as well as plans that were never realized, which all together make you see how his asymmetrical plans with their amoeba-like forms have influenced landscape artists around the world, as has his use of native vegetation, colorful pavements, and free-form bodies of water.

An amateur botanist, Burle Marx discovered over fifty plant species, advocated passionately for the environment, and spoke out against deforestation in Brazil. 

Detail, tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center, 1969

Detail, tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center, 1969

In addition to his landscape designs, throughout the show, you’ll find his paintings.  I especially liked his portraits, several of regular people, some of African ancestry, who are painted as the main subjects, not supporting afterthoughts.  A prolific artist, he also worked in jewelry and textile design.   One of my favorites is a 1969 tapestry for the Santo André Civic Center; about 12ft x 90ft, it takes up the rear wall of the exhibit. In addition to it’s colorful free-form shapes, it makes use of pulled and raised yarns to create texture and three dimensionality in selected spots.  In a small room you’ll find a tablecloth and a large-scale painting he made, as well as a small selection of the folk art he collected – the angels on the top shelf are especially lovely, as is the two-headed beast on the shelf below.

If you’re hungry, I’d recommend grabbing a bite at Russ & Daughters  in the Museum’s lower level;  I can personally recommend the Vegetable Barley Soup and the Honey cake with ice-cream – the Borscht and blintzes won raves from one of my friends.

Maquette for the Burton & Emily Hall Tremaine Beach House, Santa Barbara, CA 1948 (unbuilt)

Maquette for the Burton & Emily Hall Tremaine Beach House, Santa Barbara, CA 1948 (unbuilt)

The Museum is hosting several  events related to the show.  On September 8th, at 7:30 pm, Art & Music: The Genius of the Burle Marx Family, a lecture-in-concert explores the relationship between the landscape architecture and art  of Roberto Burle Marx and the musical compositions of his brother Walter.  Directed by Thiago Tiberio, President of the Burle Marx Music Society, and performed by the Fourth Estate Project musicians, the concert will include a lecture by Walter’s last surviving daughter, Leonora, punctuated by selections of her father’s chamber music.

On the afternoon of Friday, September 16, take in a talk focused on Roberto Burle Marx’s observational work from nature, and the relationship between representation and abstraction.

The exhibit continues through September 18th, at the Jewish Museum,  1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street.

Moholy-Nagy: Finding the Present in the Past

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

I got up to the Guggenheim to see Future Present, the retrospective of Hungarian-American artist Lazlo-Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).  Spiraling up all six levels, this show presents his work in a chronological fashion, beginning with his years in Budapest, then Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, Amsterdam, London, and finally Chicago, where he settled in 1937, becoming the director of the Chicago Bauhaus, then founding a school of design. (He had been the Director of the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928)  I would recommend starting at the first floor, and working your way up, so as to better appreciate his progression through the fields of painting, photography, typography,   printmaking, industrial design and sculpture. Through his deliberate subversion of the traditional separation of “high” art from applied art, and his embrace and incorporation of technology, he exerted an influence that continues to resound in contemporary design aesthetic.

The first stop is Room of the Present (Raum der Gegenwart) a present-day fabrication of an exhibition space Moholy-Nagy conceived in 1930 (but was not realized in his lifetime), meant to showcase the vanguard mediums of the early 1930’s. In some ways it was a platform for his ideas about the power of images, and the importance of the way they were disseminated.  Be sure to see the Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930)  a sculpture/device which incorporates glass spirals, perforated disks, and other moving parts. After his death, it was called the “Light-Space Modulator,” and has since been alternatively viewed as either a kinetic sculpture or an early example of Light Art.  Throughout the exhibit, you’ll find works entitled Space Modulator, so this is a good introduction to that concept.

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

No matter his style or his medium, Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre seems to be suffused with an innate sense of rhythm and balance.   He was constantly experimenting with light, lines, architectural shapes, and relationships.   His works almost always contain a dominant geometric form that is either larger or darker, or that in some way distinguishes itself from the other elements, but is still in harmony with them.  Very often his shapes seem poised to move around the canvas.

I had been familiar with Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, starting with the Dada-influenced canvasses populated with numbers and letters, and moving on to Constructivist influenced paintings. For me it was interesting to see how the artist’s palette shifted from the browns and grays of his early works, to the brighter blues and reds that dominated his later ones.  I was delighted to discover his work in other media in this exhibition.

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Throughout the 1920’s, Moholy-Nagy was intently focused on photography, viewing this as a medium being able to create “the New Vision,” which could foster a new understanding of art in a fast-changing culture.  His photos are fantastic, creating new optical sensations; they’re always off-center, often with a strong diagonal line, giving them an architectural feel.  Most are taken from either below or above; those taken facing the subject are usually focusing in on a particular section or detail.  Depicting a wide range of subjects, they are all arresting studies in texture, shadow, and light.  The same is true of his photo-montages, comprised of images cut and pasted from magazines, which the artist augmented with pencil and ink drawings, playing with perspective and imbuing them with humor and a cinematic touch.

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

In the 20’s and 30’s, Moholy-Nagy created photograms, or cameraless photos, by placing objects on a sheet of photographic paper, and exposing it to light.  While these luminous images are mostly abstract,  sometimes you can almost decipher the object. 

Moholy-Nagy also worked in commercial design, employing then-new techniques such as using only lower-case letters for main titles, which seems so commonplace today.  In the same section you’ll also find his posters for the London Underground, which make that subway seem to be the safest and most modern of transportation systems (who would have thought that escalator mechanics and pneumatic doors could be engaging!).  Nearby you’ll see his stage designs for productions of The Merchant of Berlin, Madam Butterfly, and the Tales of Hoffman.  Photos of these sets are projected on the wall, clearly showing Moholy-Nagy’s open design, which in 1929, would have been avant-garde, but which we take for granted today.

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

The last level showcases Moholy-Nagy’s novel use of industrial plexiglas, which he molded into sculptures, or used as a drawing medium, onto which he would either incise or paint lines and abstract shapes. (He heated the plexiglas in his home oven, so he could shape it).  These pieces are mounted on clips or rails, so they can be away from the wall, casting shadows.  You’ll also find several of his larger scale paintings from the mid-1940’s, mostly employing bright red, gold, yellow, blue and black geometric shapes.  I especially liked the three large drawings whose backgrounds are finely rendered curving lines, with a geometric sculpture seemingly floating in the negative space.

Even though there’s a lot to see in this show, you don’t feel overwhelmed, as there’s plenty of space between individual works, and the various sections. 

Moholy-Nagy was active during a period of intense technological and societal change, much like our own time.  Through his response – incorporating the new and breaking down the artificial boundaries imposed by a prior age, he offers us a highly relevant paradigm in today’s cultural and technological shifts.

Be sure to see this show before it closes on September 7th.

Bruce Conner : Embracing Contradiction

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

I’m not sure how you describe work that is indescribable, except by declaring it as such, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I’m also going to strongly recommend that you see the Bruce Conner (1933-2008) show IT’S ALL TRUE  at MOMA.  From the get-go it’s clear you’re going to see a body of work that defies categorization –   at the entrance, you’re greeted with a sign that says:  BRUCE CONNER – I am an artist, an anti-artist, a romantic, a realist, a postmodernist, a beatnik, subtle, confrontational, accessible, obscure, spiritual, profane.  IT’S ALL TRUE

That seems to be a pretty good summation of his oeuvre, which comprises drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, photography and film; the show of some 250 works is divided along these categories.  Most of it is abstract, non-linear and non-narrative, and many pieces are “untitled” which makes it difficult to describe particular ones.  The show begins with his Early Paintings, abstract oils, with thickly layered paint into which he’s layered, carved or scratched flowers or geometric shapes. I especially liked Dark Brown (1959) — out of a swirling expanse of shades of brown emerges a white, whale-like shape with a group pearls embedded where an eye might be – calling to mind stories of mysterious, elusive sea creatures. (He took the title from a book by Michael McClure, to whom he gave the painting).

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

From there the show moves quickly to Conner’s collage and assemblages, made mostly when he was living in Mexico in 1961 and 62.  Of varying sizes, these 3-D works make ingenious use of wood, paper, mirror fragments, buttons, trinkets, fabric, wallpaper, and various objects, many of which are wrapped in light tan nylon fabric. While clever, I wasn’t overwhelmed by them, and I found his black wax sculptures rather creepy.

For me, it’s Conner’s works on paper that really captivate.  Black and white – pencil, ink, felt-tipped pen – they’re clearly the work of an obsessive spirit – it must have taken a lot of time and enormous concentration to create each one of these pictures.  His Star & Ink series starts with drawings where the page is covered with black ink from which tiny white specs emerge, then gradually, over the course of the series, the white specs come to predominate. In his Mandala series, he uses felt-tipped pens to draw short lines  of varying widths, and again plays with the black & white spaces and the varying depths of the blacks and the grays from which various geometric shapes – especially circles – emerge clearly, while others are hinted at.  There’s a group called Drawings, which are dense but delicate cross hatchings, composed around geometric shapes.  In this section you’ll find some works done with purple, red, and green felt-tipped pens.  In the Late Work on Paper, Conner employs an ink-blot technique (which he kept a secret) that involved intricate and precise paper folding techniques, which he used to create patterned backgrounds for geometric shapes that resided in the negative space.  Most of these images are small and delicate, reminding me variously of insects, masks, and calligraphy.  In the Illustrations section, you’ll find a different kind of inkblot – large, flat, high contrast black-ink images that made me think of shadow puppets.

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One wall is given to photos Conner took at the Mabuhay Gardens punk club in San Francisco.  These black & white images, mostly single portraits of club goers and performers, capture the spirit, energy, and loud, in-your-face feel of the era.

The Late Engraving Collages are wonderful works where Conner cut up and re-combined fragments of late 19th and early 20th century engravings – landscapes, interiors, portraits – to which he often added his own touches.  There’s a lot of dark humor in this section, as well as social commentary.

There’s much more to see here – be sure to leave yourself plenty of time, especially if you want to see his films.  But be sure to see this exhibit!  Before it closes on October 2nd.

Take the HDC #Preservation Pays Challenge and Have Fun!

The Historic Districts Council  has just issued a fun challenge:  between now and September 6th, participants must snap a photo of themselves in front of all six buildings named in the HDC infographic, as well as the Woolworth Tower Residences in Lower Manhattan and post them either on Instagram or Twitter.   Five lucky winners will be treated to a private tour of the Woolworth Tower Residences in Lower Manhattan led by Historic Districts Council Adviser and official Woolworth Tower Historian Lisa Renz.   The #PreservationPays challenge  is free and open to all.  HDC also runs great public programs and walking tours, so check out their website 

The Feverish Art of Ronald Lockett

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett,  at the American Museum of Folk Art is a show that demands your attention, on many levels.  The work is astounding.  But it may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface.  If you do, you will be rewarded.

Lockett lived and worked his entire life (1965-1998) in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama.  A satellite of Birmingham, (which was once a center of iron and steel production, as well as the civil rights movement) this area both engaged in the fight for equal rights and endured the repercussions of the deindustrialisation of the South, as factories closed and jobs became scarce. Lockett would have heard the stories of his family and neighbors who had worked in the fields and factories or participated in the protests.  And he was connected to the larger world through TV, which he liked to watch.  These personal interactions and more distant events combined to shape his work.

Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. (The late artist Thornton Dial was his cousin and mentor.) Working mostly with found materials, especially tin, wood and chicken wire, as well as non-traditional materials such as industrial sealing compound and enamel, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss.

A recurring motif  throughout his work is the stag, whose body is always surrounded by wire. Lockett also references many historical events, such as Jesse Owen’s victories in the1936 Olympics, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, using them to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans.

The front space of the exhibit showcases Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. In all these works, his imagery is allusive, rather than realistic: set against a stark, featureless background of one color, or large blocks of three or four colors, are people (or skeletal images)  who are drifting or falling.  Their lack of defining features gives them a universal, everyman quality. (His Hiroshima series has no people, only swirls of smoke).  In this area you’ll also find Civil Rights Marchers, a powerful painting in swirling grays, white and red with embedded objects, which read almost as an aftermath.  (Two other pictures also from 1988 which use the same colors, materials and techniques, but have environmental themes, Poison River and Out of Ashes, are in another section.)

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The rest of the show focuses on Lockett’s larger scale (about 4’ x 4’) works of found materials, which he took from buildings that had belonged to the Dial family.  Most time, Lockett uses the materials as he’s found them – lots of wood, rusting tin sheets layered over each other or with metal grills – sometimes he’s painted over them with iron-oxide based paint, industrial sealing compound and enamel.

In some cases the image is not readily accessible – it may be made from strips of tin that blend in with their background, or it may be found in the negative space, outlined in nail heads or in holes. It’s worth spending time with these multi-layered works; I found the wall labels helpful in understanding them. His depiction of the runner Jesse Owens is especially moving.

Sarah Lockett's Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

Sarah Lockett’s Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

There are a few pieces in which Lockett painted over his metal surfaces with bright colors, evoking quilts: I especially liked his homage to Princess Diana (England’s Rose) , and the one to the garden of his great grandmother, Sarah Dial Lockett (Sarah Lockett’s Roses).   He spent many hours in her house, and the influence of her quilts is evinced by Lockett’s use of blocks of color, and his layering of materials.

Environmental degradation is another theme that is important to Lockett, and in this exhibit you’ll also find several collages and paintings that address this issue   

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

My favorite work is at the end of the show (or maybe it’s the beginning); on paper which has seemingly been washed over in black ink, is the collaged image of a deer, outlined in white, staring straight ahead.  Even though the stag is a recurring motif in Lockett’s work, there is something very specific about this one – it just seemed to grab me.  I’ve posted more pictures on my Instagram feed.

I attended a talk by author and professor Deborah McDowell, who grew up in Pipe Shop. Although she never met Lockett, she certainly understood the context of his art.  In her talk, Prof. McDowell made several points which were helpful to me in understanding Lockett’s work.  Below is my summary of her remarks.

When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about emotion and affect.  Too often,   African American artists are viewed only through historical and socio economic lenses.  An emotional response should not be viewed as insincere – after all, Rothko invoked emotions when speaking of his work, and how his work provoked them.

Our understanding of the civil rights era comes through photos of violence – sneering dogs, horses, troopers, clubs – or pictures of the spirit of triumphalism.  These images have claimed and cannibalized history, leaving out the experiences the historians didn’t see.  The civil rights era also coincided with the deindustrialization of the South – we need to consider the larger context of this era and look at its casualties.  As people were gaining their rights, there were no jobs for them.  Even though he was born too late to participate in the Civil Rights era, Ronald Lockett was embedded in kin networks and would have heard all the stories, especially as he interacted with older people.

Remembering is re-membering:  taking the remains and putting them back together.

Ronal Lockett  was preoccupied with using the remains and converting them into something new; his work is saturated with grief, loss and mourning. He found resonances of suffering in historical events.  The titles of his works – Hiroshima, Oklahoma, Driven From My Homeland – convey these themes and reflect his engagement with history and also the local, human, personal plane.  Some of his work makes references to mass graves; a mass grave was discovered when the US Pipe factory was built – the bodies were disinterred and re-buried somewhere else.

Prof. McDowell also read from her 1997 book Leaving Pipe Shop, Memories of Kin , which recounts her years growing up in Pipe Shop (1950’s and ’60’s), as well as her return there to investigate her father’s death. I’m about half-way through the book, and even though I grew up in New York City, McDowell’s use of local dialogue and specific imagery creates a very intimate portrait of life in a close-knit Southern community which resonated with me. This memoir also brings to life people who were part of the civil rights struggle, who may not have made the front pages, but whose support and participation were essential to its success.

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Concurrent with The Fever Within is  the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, which mixes ten of Ronald Lockett’s works with some eighty small and portable works imbued with protective qualities and powers, made by a wide range of artists situated outside the mainstream.  There are some lovely amulets, plugs and pendants in the shapes of seals, polar bears and wales crafted from walrus ivory during the 18th and 19th centuries by peoples of the Thule Culture.  One display of Brazilian votive offings consists of wooden carvings of hands, feet, heads, torsos, and a few complete figures, which were made with express wishes for recovery, marriage, good harvest or other important life events.  There’s a wonderful recreation of Noah’s Ark – in the back is a crank that animates the animals.  I especially liked the work of Melvin Way, a contemporary artist whose small scale drawings (ballpoint pen on paper and scotch tape) are filled with mathematical formulas.

The Museum will be hosting other events around this exhibition, the next one being at 6:30 on August 9th, when Director Camille A. Brown will perform an excerpt from her 2014 Bessie Award–Winning production Mr. TOL E. RAncE and will speak about shared cultural themes and issues of race that are common to her and Ronald Lockett.  More information here   

On August 18th, filmmaker David Seehausen will introduce several short documentary films he has made about African American self-taught artists from the South, and will dialogue with artist and filmmaker Scott Ogden. More information here  

Both exhibits continue until September 18th.