In 1969, House and Garden magazine commissioned one of the first minimalist artists, Patricia Johanson, to propose new directions for American garden art. Having never been exhibited or published before as a whole, the resulting garden proposals reveal an unknown dimension of the New York art world of the late 1960s. Three years of research have brought 146 surviving drawings to light. They demonstrate the intimate progress of the artist’s engagement with nature in her quest for an art concerned with ethical relationships between humans and the natural world. Shuttling between the West and the East, and the contemporary and the historical, Johanson takes equal distances from earthworks created by her peer artists such as Robert Smithson, and the environmentalism advocated by landscape architects following Ian McHarg. Her vision of a new modernity is still significant today. The book is divided into 2 volumes, and includes a preface by Stephen Bann and a catalogue of 146 original garden proposals.
In 1969, Patricia Johanson was a young artist on the verge of success. Five years earlier, she had been included in "8 Young Artists," the first exhibition of Minimalist art. Then, in 1968, her work appeared in the landmark show "The Art of the Real," at New York's Museum of Modern Art, alongside abstractions by Tony Smith, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, and others. That same year, she drew notice for Stephen Long, a plywood and acrylic ribbon running along sixteen hundred feet of abandoned railroad track near Buskirk, New York. The sculpture's contiguous strips of red, yellow, and blue responded to changes in natural light. This work put the twenty-eight-year-old artist at the forefront of the nascent Land art movement and brought her to the attention of editors at House and Garden, who sent her a letter in March 1969: "Dear Miss Johanson: Would you like to design a garden for this magazine?" Johanson's acceptance of the proposal would both redirect the path of her career and redraw the lines of Minimalism. In Patricia Johanson's House and Garden Commission: Reconstruction of Modernity, Xin Wu, a curator of contemporary landscape design, gathers the 146 extant sketches (out of 150 made; none were ever realized) together for the first time. The innovative plans, executed in colored pencil with notes scribbled in the margins, propose transformative environments that often use figurative form—"Water Gathering Sculpture" takes the shape of a centipede for its main channel and runoff furrows—to express a metaphysical relationship between nature and humans. In this way, Johanson intended to challenge Minimalism's "anthropocentric separation of subject and object." The results are practical and poetic—and occasionally adversarial: "The visual beauty of a garden of pure color would be outweighed by the noxious destructiveness of sulphur and tar." Johanson never returned to the art world, but in establishing an ethical dimension within the Minimalist vocabulary, she rewrote its tenets and proved that life truly begins in the garden.
These garden designs are important as a highly personal exploration of the relevance of art to modern life and because of their relationship to the work of Johanson's contemporaries such as Robert Smithson. None of the garden designs were built, however, and as a result, these "paper designs" are as much works of art on paper as they are landscape studies.
It takes courage in a review to describe an intensely scholarly, elegantly written and fastidiously presented publication as "mind-blowing," but here Xin Wu offers an inspired resurrection of an almost forgotten garden project launched in the mind-blowing 1960s when boundaries to the imagination were unfashionable. Even the Dumbarton Oaks format of two thin volumes is innovative with jewel-like color illustrations upon glossy paper: coral sand dunes under snow, clouds that walk the earth over the body of sea spiders, some editions presented in a chaste box like the Beatles's White Album...Wu's sensitive presentation of Johanson's seven garden types enlarges the mind.
- 280 pages
- Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
- Foreword by Stephen Bann
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