You may know the work of Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994) without even realizing it. If you have ever marveled at the sweeping grandeur of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, you’ve seen his iconic design for the promenade running alongside it. Using the traditional Portuguese pavement method, in which gray and black bricks are laid out in mosaics, he created undulating patterns big enough to be admired from an aerial perspective, to suit the drama of the city. He understood that even a sidewalk can be sexy.
“Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist,” a comprehensive exhibition at the Jewish Museum, generously represented the architect and landscape designer’s parks and gardens, jewelry, textiles, and costumes, as well as his sculptures and the early portraits he painted of himself and his family members. Among the standout pieces were his colorful plans for his parks and gardens, which resemble camouflage or biomorphic versions of Clyfford Still paintings, and a monumental tapestry composed of pastel shapes punctuated with slashes and dots that ran the entire length of the gallery.
Burle Marx deserves credit for developing a unique vision of modern Brazilian design, standing shoulder to shoulder with Oscar Niemeyer. Where Niemeyer’s work was monumental, Burle Marx’s was eclectic. A bold colorist, he created public spaces that offer rich textures and a variety of visual and temporal experiences. In his rooftop garden for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro (1943), gray gravel paths wind around kidney-shaped patches of green foliage. A statue of a seated woman provides a focal point at the far end. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brasília (1970), he created an intricate network of indoor and outdoor gardens with geometric water features and interlocking grids of raised beds and stone paths. While the two projects are stylistically divergent, both offer strong patterns and colors and a complex choreography of spaces.
There was an odd timidity to the exhibition that stood in contrast to the work itself. The show treated one of the world’s boldest, most innovative and original landscape architects with scholarly dispassion, and buried the scale and vitality of his contributions with a curatorial approach that presented all mediums as equal, with the early portraits placed on the same footing as the masterpiece parks and gardens. The latter vary from intimate-size to large-scale, but that was difficult for viewers to appreciate, given the relatively small number of photographs of the built works, which were represented primarily through the aforementioned site plans.
Thankfully, the catalogue makes up for the exhibition’s shortcomings. It includes dozens of full-page photographs, plans, and reproductions of paintings. Among the texts are a detailed biography, a consideration of Burle Marx’s work in relation to his Jewish identity, and a group of essays tracing his influence on contemporary artists such as Juan Araujo, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Beatriz Milhazes. Works by the artists mentioned in the catalogue were also included in the exhibition. Gamboa II (2013–15), an installation by Milhazes shown in the lobby, is a frilly profusion of paper flowers, plastic baubles, and shiny balls, items typically used in Carnival costumes, all suspended from the ceiling.
The Jewish Museum should be commended for bringing attention to Burl Marx’s polymath talent. But the exhibition would have been more effective had it also captured the spirit of his work.