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It’s not easy to summarize Roberto Burle Marx and the many facets of his creative output. Born in São Paulo in 1909, he was first trained as an artist, and went on to become incredibly prolific as a landscape architect, painter, jeweler, glass, tile, and textile designer, sculptor, printmaker, and collector, among other things. All these talents, bound by a distinctly colorful, modernist aesthetic, are on display at the Jewish Museum’s new show, Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist.
At the entrance to the show is a verdant niche bursting with native Brazilian plant species, curated by floral designer Bella Meyer, set before a sea of blue wallpaper based on a tile mural of Burle Marx’s design. The organic lines of the painted tiles recall the outline of curving leaves; his lyrical tiles, when adorning large expanses, can be seen as vast ceramic landscapes.
I am an architect, and I also paint and make ceramics. I like to think the things I make somehow inform each other, that I am slowly stitching narrative threads through my work, as Burle Marx did. I see how his bracelet of rectangular gold plates, soldered in a syncopating rhythm and punctured by oblong pools of blue stone, reflect in the hand-painted fountains on his colorful landscape plans.
A giant tapestry fills the back wall, providing the backdrop to the entire exhibit. I become lost in the shapes, the curvilinear loops and puddles of color, contained within clean, purposeful lines. It is like an abstract garden that does not require light or watering.
A few years ago I visited the artist’s home in Rio de Janeiro, Sítio Burle Marx. Here the landscape spills gently down the sloping hills, and the exuberant foliage spreads in a seemingly effortless way. A stark concrete structure in the middle of the garden nestles in a canopy of green, inviting the mind to imagine what adventures lie in the leafy shadows.
Burle Marx’s home is host to his vast collection of Brazilian ceramics from the Vale do Jequitinhonha, a region in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, which includes massive clay vases, small round pots sprouting multiple heads, terra–cotta figurines of men and women in matching white outfits, and busts of women wearing veils. Some of the objects from Burle Marx’s collection are on display at the Jewish Museum, inside or atop glass vitrines, set against the white walls of the gallery, which does not begin to describe the true experience of his home, where he hosted famously festive parties.
Burle Marx cared deeply about public space, especially as it had the ability to influence a wide audience of people. His design for the Copacabana sidewalks, an undulating pattern of black and white cobblestone, is experienced every day by people crossing to the sandy expanse of beach, friends chatting while running and walking up and down the boardwalk’s length for exercise, stopping to sit and enjoy a coconut water and people watch. It’s like an urban room, an extension of one’s home. The sidewalks also occasionally act as overflow for concerts, New Year’s celebrations, and, more recently, the Olympic games which took place on the beach.
Also on display here are Burle Marx’s garden designs for Brasília, the country’s capital, where I lived for a few years. I am taken back to the large living room windows of my friend’s apartment at SQS 308 — considered to be the model housing block in the city — that look out onto Burle Marx’s arrangement of local plants of the arid sertão; tree branches curve outside the window, laden with plump flowers, providing the fluid, lyrical counterpoint to the rational modernist architecture.
On my way out of the Jewish Museum, I picked up its “Kids Gallery Guide” that accompanied the exhibition. The guide poses some very good questions, befitting adults and children alike: “What do you notice about the color in this work of art?” “In the air, use your finger to recreate an unusual shape based on one you see in this image (remember not to touch the work of art).” When back at my apartment, I chose to follow the guidelines for what to do once “At home”:
“Inspired by what you saw today, create your own colorful map of a place where you like to spend time. It could be a room in your house or your favorite park or garden.”
Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 18.