Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2017
Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist Exh. cat. New York: Jewish Museum in association with Yale University Press, 2016. 224 pp.; 185 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300212150)
Exhibition schedule: The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6–September 18, 2016; Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin, July 7–October 8, 2017; Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro, November 2017–March 2018
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Installation view of Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, May 6 – September 18, 2016

In presenting the work of Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994), curators Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson (with Rebecca Shaykin) and the Jewish Museum have expanded the range of exhibitions on architecture and design to include not only a designer from Latin America but one whose primary medium is the most difficult to capture and express museographically: modern landscape architecture. While the focus is on the landscapes he designed, Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist shows that his production was multidisciplinary and included everything from paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and maquettes, to decorative objects and jewelry. Works by international contemporary artists influenced by his work and legacy are also included, demonstrating a range of sensory and formal impact that Burle Marx’s work and modern landscapes have had on imaginaries of place and experience.

For me, two things profoundly affected the way that I understood the opportunities and limitations that this exhibition presents. The first is how the short film Plages (Beaches; 2001) by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster captures a New Year’s Eve celebration at Copacabana beach whose sidewalks are famously decorated with Burle Marx’s abstract patterned mosaics. The second is the simultaneous showing, on the floor above, of Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History—an exhibition equally central to the Jewish Museum’s design-exhibition agenda. At its entrance, viewers are confronted with a wall of color-coordinated material samples in clear display cases that cover the expanse of a large, tall wall. While Gonzalez-Foerster’s film expresses the ephemerality of events and the occupation of space within Burle Marx’s designed environment, the Mizrahi display captures the complex palette of materials, textures, colors, and forms from which design emerges (in this case, that of clothing). Both ephemerality and material complexities are central to the work of Burle Marx’s landscapes, yet they are difficult to express and capture. After all, how can an exhibition in New York City represent the exuberance and changing nature of the plants, water, colors, smells, and environments that make up gardens in Rio de Janeiro, for example, or the complex interrelationships between designs that attempt to give order to the natural world, as well as the paintings, jewelry designs, and tapestries that make up the range of Burle Marx’s artistic output?

Instead of focusing on such a complex task, the exhibition highlights Burle Marx’s personal and artistic trajectory and the diversity of his production. Housed primarily within one large gallery space, the exhibition is thematically divided into sections that address the landscape projects (primarily his early gardens and vegetation studies and later public spaces and private gardens), artistic production (drawings, paintings, murals, tapestries, jewelry, and sculpture), and personal matters (spirituality and his home with its broad collection of popular and sacred art). The exhibition design by Solomonoff Architecture Studio reflects this diversity and delineates the various ways that the work can be understood: from the tilted planes of the drawing boards for the plans, located in one central table-like exhibition piece, to freestanding tables that prompt the museumgoer to view some of the three-dimensional pieces in the round. Serving as the literal backdrop for the exhibition as a whole and covering the back wall of the gallery is a large, ninety-foot-long tapestry by Burle Marx for the Santo André Civic Center (1969) whose intricate designs, abstract forms, and colors are emblematic of his use of biomorphic and geometrical forms throughout his designs. Like the Mizrahi tableau, the tapestry begins to articulate the contrasts between textures, colors, and materials through changes in the weaving patterns and in the character of the woven material. The tapestry’s visual tactility, in this way, comes closest in suggesting the complexity of colors, textures, and planting that makes up Burle Marx’s Brazilian gardens.

This tapestry also reveals trajectories within his work and the objects and materials needed to express them. First, it articulates the formal modernism of his oeuvre, something shown as beginning with the 1937–38 design for the roof garden at the Ministry of Education and Public Health in Rio de Janeiro. This was an extremely important commission as it defined a new direction for modern architecture in Brazil by bringing together a group of young architects around Lúcio Costa, who had sought the reform of architecture and its teaching, and the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who had been asked to serve as an advisor. The most well-known influences from this building that served to typify modern architecture in Brazil include the use of the azulejos (Portuguese tiles), brise-soleils (sun-screen fins), plastic integration (the inclusion of murals and sculptures as part of the design), and its modern abstract landscapes. In addition, it not only propelled the career of a young Oscar Niemeyer but also that of Burle Marx for whom the project galvanized a new way of organizing planting material based on abstract asymmetrical patterns derived from planimetric studies. While Burle Marx’s break with certain European traditions could be seen in his use of native Brazilian plants in its landscapes, the beginnings of this use of local plantings can be traced to his work in Recife of a few years before which, in addition, sought to recreate the characteristic of certain environmental regions of Brazil. And while being described as the father of Brazilian modern landscape architecture because of his love of and insistence on using native flora (which began with his encounter of them in Berlin-Dahlem’s tropical greenhouses during his stay in Europe in the late 1920s), the title should be gender-corrected and bestowed to Mina Klabin who, in the mid 1920s, was designing modern and, in some cases, abstract gardens using local vegetation that surrounded the house designs of her husband, Gregori Warchavchik, in Sao Paulo.

From the tapestry, viewers can also note the exceedingly public vocation of much of Burle Marx’s work as it not only reflects his forays into muralism (seen in the azulejo murals for the Pedregulho public housing complex in Rio de Janeiro, for example) but also reflects the multidisciplinarity of his practice that, despite shifting in genres, materials, and scales, maintains a similar aesthetic trajectory and formal language. This latter is obvious by looking at the plans and photographs of his landscapes, at his paintings, at the designs for stained-glass windows for a synagogue in Guarujá, at his tablecloths, at his jewelry designs, and at his sculptures and bottles. In fact, Burle Marx was so prolific that the exhibition can only begin to insinuate the scale of his historical and artistic developments and of his production. The importance of this show, its subject, and its ambition to present Burle Marx to a public most likely unfamiliar with his work, therefore, should be lauded.

Yet the tapestry also points to the limitations of the exhibition itself as it unsuccessfully contextualizes the work, describes it in relationship to historical developments in Brazil and internationally, and provides a narrative of Burle Marx within these. While surely these may be addressed in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the museumgoer is only presented with a fragmented narrative of these issues as they become reduced to general themes such a “Tiles and Murals” or “Public Spaces.” At the expense of a clear and coherent presentation of the work within its specific historical, political, and geographical contexts, exhibitions such as this one tend to fetishize “original” objects/works. In the case of Burle Marx, this results in a presentation that does not acknowledge the political situation during the work’s production (including periods of military dictatorship), the relationship with other architects and cultural producers working at the same time with similar formal or conceptual intentions (including, as mentioned, the earlier investigations by Klabin), or the broader panorama of changes in Brazilian cities, in the use of public space, in the development of new architecture, and in the struggle to represent Brazil’s modernity while simultaneously being enriched by its Baroque past, to name a few. While this may seem an unreasonable request, the inclusion and production of material that would ground the work within its specific time and context would help the limited number of available “original objects” to carry more meaning while fitting as single fragments within more complex forces. Doing this may begin to capture the exuberance and complex interrelationships between the ephemerality of the landscape designs, Burle Marx’s outstanding artistic output, and the world that they express and from which they come.

Luis E. Carranza
Adjunct Associate Professor, Columbia University, GSAPP and Professor of Architecture, Roger Williams University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.