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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist by Jens Hoffmann, Claudia J. Nahson
The Jewish Museum / Yale University Press, 2016
Hardcover, 224 pages



One of the must-see exhibitions in New York right now is Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, on display at the Jewish Museum until September 18th. Although known primarily for the more than 2,000 landscape designs he executed in Brazil and beyond, the exhibition "showcases the full range of Burle Marx's output across nearly 140 works, from landscape designs and sculptures to textiles and jewelry," as I wrote in a review at World-Architects. The exhibition is accompanied by a handsome catalog by the show's curators, Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson.

Like the exhibition, the book is primarily visual, presenting the show's numerous drawings, maquettes, models and photographs in thematic sections: Private Gardens, Tiles and Mosaics, and Burle Marx in Brasília among them. Most interesting among these is Burle Marx's Home and Collections (aka Sítio Roberto Burle Marx), which served as a repository for plants, a laboratory for his landscape designs, and a museum of sorts for his art collection. Now open to the public, the house and studio is possibly the best way to understand Burle Marx, since it expresses his views on botany, design, art, and the mutli-faceted output that the show captures.

The roughly 135 pages of works is accompanied by a couple essays: an introduction by the curators, and "A Tree in Search of Its Roots" by Nahson, which focuses on "Jewish sites and meaning in late commissions." Following this essay, which is born from the fact Burle Marx was born from a German Jewish father and a Brazilian Catholic mother, is a section with a unique aspect of the exhibition: contributions by seven artists on the legacy of Burle Marx. Pieces of various media by Arto Lindsay, Nick Mauss, Beatriz Milhazes and others are interspersed among Burle Marx's artifacts in the ground-floor gallery at the Jewish Museum. In the book, their contributions are explained through conversations with Hoffmann alongside images of their work.

As I mentioned in my review at World-Architects, Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist is the first exhibition in New York City on the influential designer since 1991, when MoMA mounted a show, The Unnatural Art of the Garden, on his landscape designs. Given Hoffmann and Nahson's embrace of all Burle Marx's output, their companion book is a great introduction to his multi-faceted career. Those wishing for something honed on his gardens and other landscapes will find more information in other volumes, though unfortunately those are hard to come by and tend to be expensive (a case in point). This exhibition and book, therefore, reveal that, in the English-speaking world at least, there is still plenty to be done to reckon with the legacy of one of the world's most influential modern landscape designers.


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