Flowers, foliage, works of art: A botanical garden show attempts to distill the genius of influential Brazilian artist and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
Curvy pathways draw visitors in, winding through tapestries of bold, colorful, almost sculptural plant forms. Brazilian music fills the background. Burle Marx did more than just decorate with foliage. He created spaces for human activity to take place.
In this case, it’s all in the Bronx—a borough of New York City often thought of as merely gray walls, concrete, and stone. From June to September, the New York Botanical Garden hosted its largest botanical exhibition ever. The event was called “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.” The title fits. Burle Marx’s art wasn’t only made from living materials. It used those materials to create spaces for living.
Many people are familiar with what today is known as “Midcentury Modern” architecture, furniture, and home styles. That design movement spanned roughly 1933 to 1965. In building, Midcentury Modern featured open spaces instead of segmented rooms. Large, undivided glass windows brought the outdoors in. Furniture used smooth materials and clean lines—but not as straight and harsh as the pure Modernist style that preceded it. Chair backs and arms flowed just a bit. Lampshades took on curves again.
But not many people today have heard of Midcentury Modern landscaping. The New York show is a tribute to one of that form’s masters.
Burle Marx lived from 1909 to 1994. In between, he designed nearly 3,000 landscapes, beginning in the late 1930s. Todd Forrest is vice president for horticulture and living collections at the New York Botanical Garden. He applauds the breadth of Burle Marx’s work, which ranged “from a small estate garden to roof gardens on institutional buildings to massive urban parks,” Forrest says.
One of Burle Marx’s signature elements was the biomorphic (resembling a life form) paving pattern. Walkways functioned not just as a way through. They also contributed to a site’s organic beauty. The artist often used architectural elements as well: concrete and steel walls, borders, frames.
Burle Marx found a rich palette of natural materials in his native Brazil. As he explored the plant life he had access to, he became a conservationist. He would identify and rescue plants that might otherwise have been lost—bringing them back and planting them in his own garden, and propagating them in his designs. The exhibit includes a display of many of the two dozen plants named after Burle Marx.
“The gardens were meant to be immersive,” says Joanna Groarke, curator of exhibitions at the garden. Burle Marx truly created spaces for people to dwell amid nature.
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. — Genesis 2:8