The Atlanta Botanical Garden offers a splendid array of natural experiences, from the fern-filled shade of Storza Woods and the sunny stretch of spiny cacti beside the Fuqua Conservatory to the carefully composed Japanese Garden.
It provides a similarly various series of artistic experiences with “Independent Visions: Sculpture in the Garden,” an exhibition from Marlborough Gallery‘s International Public Art Program on view through October. Nineteen pieces by nine artists from the blue-chip New York gallery’s eclectic stable include the signature bulky headless torsos of Magdalena Abakanowicz, the kinetic stainless steel sculptures of George Rickey and Chakaia Booker’s dynamic and magical totems made of recycled tires.
The pieces are sited throughout the campus, which makes for a delightfully rambling exhibition-cum-scavenger hunt. You can also enjoy the remnants of previous exhibitions, such as the fizzy blue Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the fountain on the Levy Parterre and Atlanta artist Andrew Crawford’s witty iron gates, which are scattered about.
The garden has established itself as a great art space, and it has contributed to common weal with exhibitions of Chihuly in 2004, Niki de Saint-Phalle in 2006 and Henry Moore in 2008. This one, despite its quality, is not as memorable.
Perhaps the preponderance of 1960s-era or ’60s-style abstract sculpture accounts for this. Those works are elegant but staid. Although Beverly Pepper’s monumental Corten steel form makes a dramatic impression, the others don’t command their sites — or, perhaps more to the point, my attention.
Granted, it’s apple-to-oranges to compare their impact to that created by Chihuly’s color and pizazz or Saint-Phalle’s outrageous voluptuousness. These artists are after a different experience, more gravitas than spectacle.
(Let us note an exception: Red Grooms’ colorful, high-spirited tableaux. Dancers — one pair kicking up heels in a joyful Charleston, the other entwined in a tango — pop up in the greenery bordering the Great Lawn. A multi-figure tableau of a crowd at a hot dog stand, replete with Grooms’ signature witty details, is aptly situated in the plaza by the cafe.)
The problem, or mine anyway, may be guilt by association. Sculptures like these have for so long been the province of corporate plazas that I don’t even register them any more. Sometimes seeing such work in a new context can rejuvenate it: for example, the Alexander Calder pieces in the High Museum of Art’s “Picasso to Warhol” exhibition revivified their originality and aesthetic appeal for me. Alas, the garden setting doesn’t do the same. The image of Michele Oka Doner’s headless bronze torsos rising from the lily pond in front of the conservatory captured my imagination in a way that, say, Kenneth Snelson’s similarly water-situated piece did not.
And yet, who could resist “Wall for Bojangles” by the late Clement Meadmore? Planted amid the cardoon stalks in the Edible Garden, the quirky, blocky forms defy expectations (evoking a Mr. Bojangles dance) and make for a surprising scarecrow. That I will remember.
Image on home page: “Cast Iron Cain, Cast Iron Abel” by Magdalena Abakanowicz.