New York

“Down the Garden Path: The Artist's Garden After Modernism”

Queens Museum

Curator Valerie Smith seemed to have chosen works for “Down the Garden Path: The Artist’s Garden After Modernism” not simply to illustrate a theme, but to enrich it. Fleshing out a well-installed selection of actual works, photographic documentation, and plans for unrealized projects with five new artists’ gardens commissioned for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Smith’s exhibition proposed the garden as a model for human influence on the environment, while positioning it as a lens through which to view the diversification of artistic strategies since the 1960s.

Works offering ecology as the foundation for a better way of life were here given a complex genealogy. Represented by photographs and sketches, Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, initiated in 1965 and realized in 1978, is a slice of Manhattan as the Dutch might have found it, restaged and still thriving at the corner of West Houston and LaGuardia Place. It’s a mass of untended undergrowth, an antilandscape wholly beyond the Romantic notion of the cultivated wild. More recent works of public art documented or realized at or near the Queens Museum participate in the genre’s recent trend toward blending radical idealism and aesthetics with the concerns of other disciplines and communities.

Mel Chin and Rufus Chaney’s Revival Field, 1991–93, documented here in photographs, is a sculpture in the form of a plot of toxic-metal-absorbing vegetation planted at Pig’s Eye Landfill in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Closer to home were Nils Norman’s The Gerard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station Prototype, 1999, a bicycle-drawn minicaravan containing a library, a photocopier, and weather-detection instruments, which was parked on the museum’s first floor, and Lonnie Graham’s Jardines Gemelos de las Americas (Twin Gardens of the Americas), 2005, thriving just outside the building’s entrance. One of many multifunctional gardens initiated by Graham and maintained collaboratively by members of a given community, the ongoing social sculpture gives back in proportion to what it receives.

Then there’s the garden as an expression of a more-idiosyncratic vision. Gordon Matta-Clark’s unrealized Islands Parked on the Hudson, 1970–71 (represented here by a sketch), and Acconci Studio’s Personal Island, 1992, a circle of land that detaches with you as you row your boat out into a lake (a project documented here by photographs), hint at the possibility of escape to an offshore heaven or hell. Represented here via photographs, tools, journals, and his movie The Garden (1990), filmmaker Derek Jarman’s rocks-and-driftwood plot, built to surround his cottage on the unfriendly coastline of Dungeness, England, embodies a life of lonely protest. Confronting visitors to the second floor was The Grass-Eater, 1997–2005, Thierry de Cordier’s tumor as lawn ornament—a five-foot-high rump of wood, rubber, blankets, and half a zinc bathtub, built by the artist in his rural Belgian garden and installed along- side wall texts racked with self-doubt.

Of the works that specifically address the historical position of the show’s subtitle, Argentine artist Sergio Vega’s Modernismo Tropical, 2002, a slapstick narrative in photographs and text that tells the story of International Style “tropicalized,” is perhaps the most successful. But though in some ways consummately modern, the garden, home, and park designs of post-war Brazilian botanist, ecologist, and designer Robert Burle Marx go farther still by providing a starting point for many of the strategies demonstrated here: planning and designing, devoting oneself to the local, crossing existing disciplines and learning new ones.

Larissa Harris