Frida Kahlo’s Vision Comes to Life at New York Botanical Garden
Artist's lush garden and studio are revealed in the Bronx.
As the madness of Frieze Week permeates New York City, a tranquil Mexican oasis has sprung up in the Bronx, in the form of “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” on view at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) May 16–November 1, 2015 (see Frida Kahlo’s Garden Comes to NYC This Spring).
Though a garden may seem an unlikely choice of venue to host an exhibition on the famed Mexican artist, the show is actually a natural fit, given Kahlo’s green thumb. “The same genius she’s celebrated for in her art, she also put into her garden,” Todd Forrest, the vice president for horticulture and living collections, said during the press preview.
Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, known as Casa Azul, now exists as museum dedicated to the artist’s life. When several staff members from the NYBG visited, they were struck by the vivid indigo walls and lush plants in the courtyard. The vision for the garden’s exhibition immediately became clear: a reimagination of Casa Azul, staged in the landmark Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
After years of planning, that vision has come to life, transforming the conservatory space into a Mexican paradise, centered around a version of the Aztec-inspired stepped pyramid built by Kahlo’s husband, and fellow artist, Diego Rivera. The vegetation, largely comprising native Mexican plants, has been selected based on archival photos of Kahlo’s garden, and on the many plants depicted in her artwork.
A number of striking, sculptural cacti, favorites of Kahlo’s that are no longer found at Casa Azul, now can be spied at the botanical garden. “Like all great gardeners,” noted Forrest, “Kahlo was perhaps over-ambitious.” Though cactus, agave, and other desert vegetation didn’t thrive in Mexico City’s more tropical environment, fruit trees planted by the artist now provide cool shade in the Casa Azul courtyard.
At home, Kahlo’s studio overlooked her garden; here, it is staged amid the plants. Though the humidity inside the conservatory prevents the garden from including any historic furniture, the reproduction of Kahlo’s desk and easel are based on how her artistic materials are arranged at Casa Azul today.
Though the conservatory may be the garden’s main attraction, the heart of the exhibition is arguably further inside the grounds, at the library, where guest curator Adriana Zavala has has put together an impressive selection of 14 artworks by the artist. There are a number of still lifes, featuring ripe, vibrant fruits and vegetables, as well as the gorgeous Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), which shows the artist surrounded by lush vegetation and animals. Another canvas depicts the horticulturalist Luther Burbank as half man, half tree, growing out of the ground.
While avoiding the turmoil of Kahlo’s personal life, the exhibition explores the concept of hybrid forms. Zavala’s goal was to reveal the many-layered nature of Kahlo’s identity, showing her “as an artist, as a woman, as a Mexican, and as an intellectual.”
Although one of Kahlo’s most famous works, titled, The Two Fridas (1939), is absent from the show, the artist Humberto Spíndola created an homage to the double self-portrait, which depicts Kahlo dressed both in a Victorian wedding dress and in traditional Mexican attire. Using tissue paper and bamboo reeds, Spíndola, a gardener at Casa Azul, has carefully dressed two bamboo mannequins, holding hands, in delicate paper versions of the dresses. The two works are connected, as in in the original painting, by the heart.
For the preview, two actors dressed in Spíndola’s stunning paper garb reenacted the painting, an action that was so well-received that the garden is considering restaging it once a week for the duration of the exhibition. “Frida was, at certain points, a little ambiguous in her personality,” Spíndola said of his choice to use male models.
The exhibition is nothing if not an event, which is fitting, given how much of a moment Kahlo is having this year (see The Striking Absence in the Detroit Intitute of Arts’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Blockbuster and Frida Kahlo Love Letters Sell For $137,000—That’s Over $1,000 Per Page!). In addition to potential performance art, the gardens have planned concerts from the Villalobos Brothers, their first musical group in residence; a taco truck and cantina serving Mexican beer on tap; weekend screenings of the 2002 Salma Hayek film Frida; and “Frida al Fresco Evenings” with a tequila bar and live music, among other programming. There’s even a special “Frida’s Kitchen” prix fixe menu based on the artist’s recipes at the garden’s brand new full-service restaurant, the Hudson Garden Grill.
As Forrest put it, somewhat cheekily, “This is our tribute to a great gardener who also happens to be a great artist and a cultural icon.”
“Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” will be on view at the New York Botanical Garden May 16–November 1, 2015.
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