Aerial view of Modernist Garden Path, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden (image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

Landscape design is a living art. “One may think of a plant as a brush stroke, as a single stitch of embroidery; but one must never forget that it is a living thing,” reads a small, white-and-green placard sheltered beneath the fronds of an Everglades palm. The quote is from a 1962 lecture given by the artist Roberto Burle Marx. Burle Marx painted on canvas, wove tapestries, and crafted jewelry, but he is inscribed in Brazil’s history as the country’s most influential landscape designer. The work of Burle Marx is the subject of the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) current exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.

Every summer, the NYBG showcases the intersections between horticulture and fine arts in a major exhibition. Consider the floral folds depicted in a Georgia O’Keeffe, the meticulous foliage rendered by Frida Kahlo, or the ethereal atmospheres of Monet’s gardens — three artists featured in past NYBG exhibits. This year, the NYBG has flipped the script with the work of a landscape designer who married the formal innovations of European modernism with the bursting palette of plants native to his home country.

Roberto Burle Marx, Interior Wall, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, built 1983 (image credit, Leonardo Finotti)

Roberto Burle Marx, “Design for Rooftop Garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo” (1983), gouache on paper
31 3⁄4 x 39 1⁄4 in. (Burle Marx & Cia., Rio de Janeiro)

At the beginning of the 20th century, many garden designs in Brazil followed the European style, with imported European species. Native plants were seen as weeds by the wealthier, and whiter, classes, laying bare broader issues of diversity and race within a divided culture grappling with the social realities of indigeneity. As a painting student in Berlin in the 1920s, Burle Marx further encountered European art and design traditions, but modernism brought him down a different path. Cubism and modernist architecture led him to consider space in new ways while his visits to the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden re-introduced him to the horticulture of his home. Encased in greenhouses, Brazil’s native plants received special care from this German institution. It was within those glass walls that Burle Marx saw Brazil’s flora as a potential medium for his art.

Roberto Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador, 1974 (photograph by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo, Archive of Luiz Antonio Correia de Araújo)

“I hate formulas and repetition but I believe in principles. All experience is important but not all expression is the same,” Burle Marx declared in a 1989 interview, five years before his death. Appropriately, none of the gardens in the exhibition are modeled directly on his plans. Instead, the design was overseen by his (aptly named) protégé, the Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles. Adhering to the principles of Burle Marx’s designs, Jungles created what the NYBG calls a “horticultural tribute.”

In the outdoor Modernist Garden, beds of coleus, alternating between red and yellow, provide a high-contrast background for ground-dwelling Imperial Bromeliads. Colocasia boast huge leaves, in colors ranging from green to deep purple. A large, paved path weaves like a sine wave through the garden, resembling the undulations of the oceanside Copacabana sidewalk Burle Marx designed in Rio de Janeiro, which is perhaps his most recognized work in public space.

Evoking the tropical greenhouses in Berlin, many of the species Burle Marx discovered or cultivated himself are found in the NYBG greenhouse’s Explorer’s Garden. The Philodendron “Burle Marx,” appearing throughout the exhibition, was propagated from a plant at his estate in Brazil by Jungles. Despite being a weekday, the gardens buzzed with activity when I visited. In the courtyard’s Water Garden, a water lily-filled pool, people rested on benches, chatting and taking sun-kissed selfies. Burle Marx’s designs highlight the wealth of the rainforest while creating places for people to be together. In his words: “The communal garden, square, or park will have increasing importance with time, as we search for an acceptable equilibrium within the instability of our current system.” His work shows that landscape design is not just about creating beauty, but also forging community and, on a larger scale, shaping a national identity.

Installation view of Modernist Garden, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden (image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

Installation view of Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden (image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

“Fifty years of prosperity in five.” So went the slogan of Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazil’s president from 1956 to 1961. Brazil had been an independent nation since 1820, but the rippling divisions spurred by colonization, slavery, and the continued repression of Indigenous people, coupled with the sheer size of the country, left large pockets of fear-flung communities isolated from engaged citizenship. The country embarked on a fast-and-loose plan to centralize and modernize through a combination of industry and design. To achieve this, Brazil was to build a new capital for the country, a city completely planned, from the ground to the sky, from public parks to skyscrapers. Brasília’s architecture, urban planning, and landscape design were spearheaded by Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, and Roberto Burle Marx, respectively. The city was built in 41 months. It looked as though a new, urban, and distinctly modern Latin America was on the horizon.

In 1964, just four years after Brasília, the jewel of a unified and modern brasilidade (or “Brazilianness”), was finished, a fascist regime was installed through a military takeover of the government. As similar coups took place across the continent, modernity’s promises of progress and democracy looked to many like a pipe dream. Burle Marx accepted his appointment to the regime’s Federal Council of Culture, and used his post to advocate for environmental conservation. His politics were in the plants. He is noted as one of the first Brazilians to speak out against deforestation.

Roberto Burle Marx, Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Public Health, Rio de Janeiro, built 1938 (image credit, Leonardo Finotti)

A tapestry displayed in the NYBG library alongside his other atelier work depicts a highly abstracted profile of a figure with a saw, each shadow and mass of muscle contained in its geometry (“Untitled,” 1971). This could be an image celebrating the Brazilian worker, or one exposing the outsized role the lumber industry plays in the country. Either way, the vast rainforests of Brazil increasingly inch toward becoming but a memory. Today, fires ravage the Amazon, consuming vast swathes of living, breathing forest, and its unique plant and animal species, in their wake. President Jair Bolsonaro’s rollback of environmental protections has led to an explosion in slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Progress is often used as a euphemism for exploitation. Burle Marx, who was heavily involved in urbanizing Brazil, noted that, “Nature is always destroyed in the name of progress, but it is a cycle of life you must understand in order to take liberties with it in good conscience.”

The NYBG’s exhibition is a visionary and seemingly impossible installation of a verdant jungle at the edge of New York’s concrete jungle. In his 1951 essay on the characteristics of Rio de Janeiro’s modern architecture, “Testimony of a Carioca Architect: Concrete, Sun, and Vegetation,” Lúcio Costa wrote that the incorporation of gardens into the urban landscape results in “a creative harmony between the buildings of man and the world in which he constructs them.” Like most art exhibitions, these gardens are temporary; the East Coast is not the climate for these works, and the plants will be returned, recycled, and donated after the show comes down on September 29. The NYBG does what most art institutions cannot: it provides the ecosystem for the material, living legacy of Roberto Burle Marx to flourish.

View of the Explorers Garden, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden (image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

View of the Explorers Garden, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden (image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

Garden at the Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, 2014 (image credit, Livia Comandini / Getty Images)

Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx continues at the New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, New York) through September 29.

Layla Fassa is a writer and independent researcher based in Mexico City. Her criticism has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, Frieze, and Resident Advisor, among other publications.