In the 18th century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) created a system of classification for indexing the natural world, which he presented in his work titled Systema Naturæ in 1735. Linnaean taxonomy presented three kingdoms—animal, plant, and mineral—which were then divided into classes, orders, genera, and species. This system of classification, now known as binomial nomenclature, structured a world where humans dominate both the language and law of nature, determining where and how plants and animals can operate.
Two exhibitions, Down the Garden Path: The Artist’s Garden After Modernism (2005), curated by Valerie Smith at the Queens Museum, and Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern (2015-2016) curated by Christian Larsen at The Wolfsonian—Florida International University, explore how our subsequent relationship to the plant kingdom has influenced contemporary art and design, while also tracing the history of specific specimens’ adaptation and influence. Down the Garden Path presented dozens of artist-designed gardens from across the world, from memorials and commissioned landscapes to radical natural installations that pushed back against social and political barriers, while Philodendron focused on the eponymous plant, building a “cultural biography” of the philodendron that outlines its “discovery” by Western explorers in the 17th century to its place as a common houseplant and design object across Europe and the United States in the 20th century.
“The philodendron’s history is bound up with the political agendas of expanding colonial empires,” said Larsen, Associate Curator of Modern Decorative Arts and Design at the Met, and former Curator at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University. “It was one of the rejected plants that didn’t quite fit the bill for the types of cash crops the heads of Europe were looking for, but it was part of that exploration and exploitation of new land by colonial powers.”
Tropical aroids (the family of which the philodendron belongs) provide a fascinating case study of this history of plant exploration,” outlines botanist Mike Maunder in his essay “The Tropical Aroids: The Discovery, Introduction, and Cultivation of Exotic Icons,” published in Philodendron’s exhibition catalog. Maunder explains that before the plants came into the hands of Western horticulturists and botanic gardens, it was their image and description that was passed along by select voyagers, such as Charles Plumier, whose botanical illustration Varietes de colocasia hederacea et d’arums (1693) is the oldest work in the exhibition. These illustrations were given to botanists who could not travel to the tropics, like Linnaeus, who describes just twenty-six aroids in his book Species Plantarum (1753).
“[Linnaeus’s] thinking is what allowed the separation of man from nature—giving us control over it—literally naming and dominating over it,” said Larsen. “It is more a philosophical frame of thought that preconditioned the advancement of man industrially, further removing us from our own environment, estranging us from realizing we are part and parcel of nature.”
For the curation of the exhibition, Larsen, who’s doctoral dissertation focused on Brazilian design’s integration into Europe and the Americas, presented approximately 150 objects comprised from the Wolfsonian’s own collection as well as loans from other institutions that span several centuries. Besides botanical illustrations, the exhibition also included landscape renderings, images, film, textiles, sculptures, living topiaries designed by landscape architects Mauricio del Valle and Veronika Schunk, and paintings, such as Brazilian artist Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist work Still Life with Philodendron I and II (1943), which made their debut in the United States.
Burle Marx studied painting in Berlin in the late 1920s, frequenting the Dahlem Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum for botanical inspiration. It was in these venues where he first discovered many of Brazil’s indigenous plants, ironically thousands of miles from their native home. Burle Marx had not experienced these species in public gardens while growing up in Brazil. European designs were instead the main influence in the country because of its three centuries as a Portuguese colony. The plants’ appearance were foreign to the artist, despite both of their native origins.
This inspired Burle Marx to advocate for South American plant species that were being destroyed in the rainforest, and to cultivate rare plant species to integrate into his garden commissions. His designs focused specifically on decolonizing the tradition of gardens in his native Brazil, which had been designed in a deliberately European style.
“Burle Marx changed that by using shapes and colors that were inspired by indigenous designs that he actually saw for the first time in Berlin, Germany at the Museum of Ethnology in Dahlem,” said Smith, a freelance writer, curator and adjunct professor of Art History at Barnard College, Columbia University and former Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at the Queens Museum in New York. “He was an avid horticulturist and grew his own native species, which he used in his gardens. This was an anomaly as landscape architects before him had used non-native and European plants.”
“It is more a philosophical frame of thought that preconditioned the advancement of man industrially, further removing us from our own environment, estranging us from realizing we are part and parcel of nature.”
In addition to designs of gardens by Burle Marx, Down the Garden Path included garden-based photography, film, architectural plans, and five outdoor gardens commissioned by the Queens Museum in the surrounding Flushing Meadows.
“Most of the gardens that I showed are conceptual,” said Smith. “Theoretical proposals for gardens and ideas about life, philosophy, politics, society and our relationship to nature. The garden is just another medium. They can be sites of contention. Discursive or meditative sites. How do they function? Who are they for, what do they say about who we are? What do they say about history?”
Plans for gardens designed by American land artist Alan Sonfist were also included in the exhibition. Sonfist’s New York-based project Time Landscape, which was proposed in 1965 and implemented in 1978, brought back precolonial plants like wildflowers and trees to a plot of land at LaGuardia Place and Houston Street in Manhattan. To determine the right species for the project, Sonfist explored both Dutch and English logging records and maps of the specific project area. The trees in this area remain, now nearly fifty feet tall.
“It is important that Time Landscape has become a functioning part of the community, not just a decoration that’s been stuck there,” Sonfist explained to Smith in an interview about the project in Down the Garden Path’s exhibition catalog. By returning plants to their native habitats, Sonfist and Burle Marx attempted to relinquish their own power over these species. Down the Garden Path’s catalog includes a quote from Antiguan-American essayist and gardener Jamaica Kincaid from her book My Garden Book which says, “to name is to possess.” By naming the birds, and flowers, and trees, Western botanists like Linnaeus attempted to own nature, but with naturalists and artists like Burle Marx and Sonfist, there is an attempt to begin to return its freedom.