The art gallery out back

Placing sculpture in the landscape is a natural inspiration.

In The Garden

October 13, 2002|By Marty Ross | By Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Art isn't just something you hang on the walls in your living room. It also belongs in the garden -- in the dappled light under the trees, on a sweep of lawn or tucked into a quiet corner among the ferns.

A successful collaboration between art and nature can turn a back yard into a private gallery, open to the changing seasons and to as many interpretations as the Mona Lisa.

"Placing a man-made object in the landscape disturbs the sense that one is in a place of nature," says Susan Cohen, a landscape architect in Greenwich, Conn. "But when it is done right, the results can be magic, making you appreciate both the nature and the object even more."

Cohen is the coordinator of the landscape design program at the New York Botanical Garden. She designed the garden's plantings around a spectacular collection of 15 sculptures on loan from the Museum of Modern Art while the museum is being expanded.

The sculptures, including Pablo Picasso's She-Goat, Henry Moore's serene Family Group and Alberto Giacometti's Tall Figure III, are installed around the garden's architectural jewel, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. They will remain there through next August.

In a public garden or in a private yard, simple landscaping is the most effective complement for sculpture, Cohen says.

"In the case of the botanic garden, I had 19th-century glass architecture, a landmark historic building, as a backdrop," she says. "I wanted to keep the plant material green, not flowery."

Only a dozen or so different plants were used in the project. By repeating the same plants around the various sculptures -- holly, English ivy and willowleaf cotoneaster were used extensively -- Cohen established continuity among the pieces.

Dogwoods and cherry trees were used next to two sculptures.

"A tree is a sheltering kind of plant," Cohen says. Putting trees next to a sculpture gives them a special place, she says.

Most gardeners can only dream of placing a Picasso sculpture in their back yards, but there are many other possibilities. John Elder, owner of John Elder Gallery in New York, has organized two shows featuring works for the garden.

"We wanted to show all the possible things people can use outdoors, and we had very positive reaction," Elder says.

The shows included unique but functional benches, arbors and gates as well as purely sculptural pieces. Prices ranged from $600 to more than $30,000.

"People who collect a certain kind of art for their houses are likely to collect that kind of art for their garden," he says. "If they like very abstract or very contemporary things, it pretty much carries through, and if they like a lot of funky kinds of objects, that's the kind of thing they're going to put in their garden."

Many artists are stimulated by the opportunity to make pieces for the garden, Elder says. They are eager to expand their repertoire and work with different materials than they normally use. Outdoor art also gives artists a chance to work on a large scale.

Clients have discovered that outdoor art adds a new dimension to their collections. "We've found, for a lot of people, they run out of room in their house and start to look for things for their landscape," he says.

Galleries are a good place to begin a search for outdoor sculpture, particularly if you're looking for pieces by established artists. If you're intrigued by the work of emerging, unknown artists, or if you're looking for a bargain, don't miss the sales at art schools.

"You never know," Elder says. "I know collectors who seldom buy anything except from student shows. If they have a good eye and have been doing it long enough, they can do pretty well."

Finding a place for a sculpture in your garden isn't really any more difficult than deciding where to hang a picture, but you may want to make a mock-up of the sculpture if it's large and heavy.

Cohen suggests using a cardboard box -- or several boxes -- to approximate the size and dimensions of a sculpture. Move the box around the garden, inspecting it from different angles and from the house.

Please yourself, Elder advises. He likes to see collectors buy outdoor pieces and place them so they can see the art all the time.

"Art is a pretty important aspect of all parts of life, and the garden shouldn't be left out," he says.

Plantings, placement

Keep the landscaping around a piece of sculpture in context with the rest of the garden, says Susan Cohen, a landscape architect in Greenwich, Conn., and coordinator of the landscape design program at the New York Botanical Garden.

For instance, if you plant a tree next to a piece of sculpture, plant the same tree elsewhere in the garden so the sculpture doesn't look out of place. Here are other suggestions:

* A lawn makes a beautiful backdrop for sculpture. A carpet of evergreen ground cover, such as English ivy, also works well.

* A piece of sculpture shouldn't look like a shrine. Let the landscape flow naturally around it.

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