DECORATIVE / ART: Plants In The Gallery
There’s been some interesting writing produced in recent months examining the use of plants in contemporary art. Some of these offerings, like Arden Sherman’s Proposal for a Museum, speak to the long-standing (and only recently suspended) practice of incorporating decorative potted plants into gallery spaces, a topic she’s been exploring via exhibition documentation photography on her excellent blog Mise En Green.
100 Drawings from the Museum Collection (installation view), October 11, 1960–January 2, 1961, the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Hans Hofmann, September 11, 1963 – December 1, 1963, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Henri Rousseau, March 18, 1942 – May 3, 1942, The Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Others, such as Faye Kahn’s “A Plant As Familiar,” have focused on the houseplant as an active component of the artwork or installation itself, unpacking its visual and symbolic implications in both physical and digital settings.
While each of these essays provides viewers with links to further readings on its respective topic, there is a single, seemingly applicable item that hasn’t come up in either context, so I thought I’d quickly mention it here.
In June 1936, the MoMA presented “Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums,” the museum’s first (and, to date, only) exhibition dedicated to living plantlife.
Steichen, a celebrated photographer, curator, and painter, was also a dedicated horticulturalist who specialized in breeding delphiniums. Among the hybridized breeds he developed were “Carl Sandburg,” named for the Nobel Prize–winning poet and author (who was also his brother-in-law), and “Connecticut Yankees,” which remain commercially available today.
Steichen’s breeds were particularly noteworthy for their height. His application of colcichine, a chemical mutagen that induces chromosome doubling, ensured that while the normal delphinium of the day was three to four feet tall, Steichen’s often stood as high as seven feet.
Edward Steichen with delphiniums (c. 1938) at his farm, Umpawaug House (Redding, Connecticut)
A particularly interesting excerpt from the exhibition’s original press release:
“The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, announces a very unusual one-man, one-week show which will be opened to the public Wednesday, June 24, at one p.m. It will be an exhibition of “Steichen Delphiniums” — rare now American varieties developed through twenty-six years of cross-breeding and selection by Edward Steichen. Although Mr. Steichen is widely known for his photography, this is the first time his delphiniums have been given a public showing. They are original varieties, as creatively produced as his photographs. To avoid confusion, it should be noted that the actual delphiniums will be shown in the Museum — not paintings or photographs of them. It will be a “personal appearance” of the flowers themselves.
The delphiniums will be shown in relays at the Museum of Modern Art. The first group starting Wednesday, June 24th will consist of the garden hybrids of the true-blue or pure-blue colors, and the fog and mist shades. The final group, with giant spikes in the Metropolitan area from four to six feet high, will be placed on exhibition Monday,June 29th.”
(You can read the press release in its entirety HERE.)