Giants Amid the Blooms
AS summer approaches and the euro and pound remain mightier than the dollar, New York City seems to have been recolonized by Europeans over the last few weeks. But one group of visitors that arrived recently from Britain for a brief change of scenery did not travel the normal way, slogging through the purgatory of airport customs. Most of them arrived at Port Elizabeth in New Jersey in the holds of cargo ships. And at least one made its way into the Bronx strapped to a low flatbed truck so big that it had to wait until the middle of the night to cross the George Washington Bridge, stopping traffic with its greenish biomorphic bulk, like something bound for a government lab at Area 51.
The city is no stranger to these kinds of tourists, having hosted its share over the last few decades. But the New York Botanical Garden’s “Moore in America” exhibition, which opens Saturday with 18 of Henry Moore’s big, beloved bronzes (and two more in fiberglass), is the largest outdoor collection of his work in a single location ever presented in New York, or anywhere else in the country. And it serves as the garden’s announcement — after it dipped in its toes with a crowd-pleasing show of Dale Chihuly glass works in 2006 — of its intention to venture more ambitiously into the art world as a way of opening people’s eyes to the garden not simply as a nice, blossomy place to spend a summer afternoon but also as a museum in itself, one of flora.
“It opens up the gardens to new audiences who might not be all that into plants or into gardening but who are into human creativity,” said Todd Forrest, the garden’s vice president for horticulture, riding one recent sunny morning on the back of a golf cart as Moores were being trucked into place all across the garden’s 250 acres.
“And by bringing in art, we show them that the garden — that these kinds of gardens — are in themselves works of art,” he continued. “They’ve been designed and constructed and conserved in much the same spirit.”
In choosing Moore, one of the most revered and familiar sculptors of the 20th century, the garden may be taking few risks. But Mr. Forrest and officials at the Henry Moore Foundation, in rural Hertfordshire north of London, said that the landscape, with its combination of highly choreographed planting, natural schist formations and native forest, was such an ideal fit for the work that it seemed the logical choice for the garden’s first ambitious exhibition.
Moore, who died in 1986, most likely would have approved. “Sculpture is an art of the open air,” he once said. “And for me its best setting and complement is nature. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.”
The Botanical Garden is not just any landscape, of course, and so as early as two years before the exhibition was to open, Anita Feldman, the curator of the Moore Foundation, began visiting the north Bronx and wandering the garden’s hills and fields to decide which pieces from the foundation’s collection would work best, and to figure out where those works would sing.
At the time, many of the pieces she had in mind were scheduled to be shipped to a slightly larger show of Moore’s work that opened last year at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in southwest London — appropriately, perhaps, given that those historic gardens were the inspiration for the one that was founded in the Bronx in 1891. (After the New York show closes on Nov. 2, the pieces will head to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, completing a kind of greatest-hits international garden tour.)
The placement of sculptures in such traveling shows is always a negotiation, never purely a matter of aesthetics. Mr. Forrest naturally wanted to use the works to showcase all the garden’s parts, even the Children’s Adventure Garden, “which I specifically did not want to use,” Ms. Feldman said — for practical reasons: the high probability of a sculpture becoming a set of monkey bars. But the two sides compromised with a 1949 piece, “Mother and Child,” that could be hidden somewhat in a bank of ivy.
Ms. Feldman also had visions of placing a large seedpod-shaped piece called “Large Totem Head” (1968) almost in the embrace of one of the oldest trees in the Botanical Garden, a towering black oak near Daffodil Hill, so that the sculpture could play off the totemic power of the tree. But the weight of the piece might have damaged the oak’s roots, so the sculpture was recently lowered into place well in front of the tree.
Even with such compromises, Ms. Feldman said, the garden proved to be a kind of wonderland for a Moore aficionado. A 1975 work called “Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped” found a home in a section of ornamental conifers (near the Rose Garden), which ring the sculpture almost as if it were a lone performer being watched by an audience of eccentric spruces and sequoias and cedars.
“I think probably it’s the best site we’ve ever found for that piece,” Ms. Feldman said. “All the sudden you come up on this little glade, and it’s just so, so nice.”
Another piece, “Goslar Warrior” (1973-74), of a reclining figure with a shield, was placed on the Visitors Center Cafe Lawn so that the warrior seems to be staring up admiringly, or warily, at the height of a soaring Himalayan pine close by. The statue’s curve picks up beautifully on the curving branch of an Austrian pine behind it, and its long horizontal lines echo a flat hilltop and dark elongated rock formation in the distance.
“Nothing here is accidental,” Mr. Forrest said, exaggerating only slightly.
The heavy lifting and slow, methodical lowering of the pieces was handled by Frank Mariano, whose family’s company specializes in moving sculpture and has hoisted pieces by Rodin, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Roxy Paine, and many, many Moores, over the last few decades. Resting on a bench between hoistings, Mr. Mariano, who has become a well-versed amateur sculpture critic in his job, said he had a particular affection for Moores and had rarely seen them in such a symbiotic relationship with a setting. “Kind of knocks you over,” he said. (He described the actual lifting job for the exhibition as a relative breeze. “We had to take three huge Moores off the side of a mountain once,” he said. “Literally off the side of a mountain.”)
Ms. Feldman said she was very happy the pieces had found such a good spot in the Bronx for the next five months, before many of them migrate south to Atlanta for the winter. “But I must say, they’ve been on the road a long time,” she added, sounding like a worried mother. “And after that, they really do need to come back home to England.”