Burle Marx exhibit transforms NYBG into a Brazilian paradise

An overview of the lush Burle Marx exhibit at NYBG. 
An overview of the lush Burle Marx exhibit at NYBG.  Photo Credit: Michael Galayda/Staten Island Yankees

A tropical Brazilian paradise can now be found 20 minutes from Grand Central Terminal in the Bronx. 

The New York Botanical Garden’s summer show is dedicated to the life and vision of Roberto Burle Marx, an artist, conservationist and landscape architect who left his imprint on the curving walkways of the legendary Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, campaigned fervently against the deforestation of South America and represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale.

To recreate the experience of strolling along the Portuguese stone mosaic of Rio’s Atlântica Avenue boardwalk designed by Burle Marx, the NYBG has painted asphalt with abstract, black and white waves.

Across the way, a fountain showcases a replica of the artist’s wall-size concrete mural at the Banco Safra headquarters in Sao Paulo. The Explorer’s Garden highlights tropical rainforest plants and the Water Garden showcases day- and night-blooming water lilies.

Roberto Burle Marx was an artist, conservationist and landscape architect.
Roberto Burle Marx was an artist, conservationist and landscape architect. Photo Credit: Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo, Archive of Luiz Antonio Correia de Araújo

“This is the biggest living exhibit we’ve ever done,” said Todd Forrest, the NYBG’s Arthur Ross vice president for horticulture and living collections. “It’s crazy, but it truly matches the joie de vivre and larger-than-life spirit of Burle Marx.”

Those who knew the great artist, who died in 1994, agree he was a true force of nature, who exhibited a passion for plants and bold gestures. His protégé Raymond Jungles, a Miami-based landscape designer, was enlisted to capture the vision of his mentor and longtime friend.

Initial planning for the show began about three years ago, and transforming the grounds into a tropical paradise took about five weeks during one of the coldest and wettest Mays in New York City history. 

Untitled painting by Burle Marx from 1990. 
Untitled painting by Burle Marx from 1990.  Photo Credit: The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Gift of Brian and Spencer Zahn

Indoors at the Art Gallery of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, Edward J. Sullivan has curated an exhibit of the artist’s paintings, drawings and textiles. Burle Marx would often hand-paint tablecloths for his elaborate parties at the Sitio, his sprawling garden residence in the West Zone of Rio.

“Everywhere he could put a cool plant he did,” said Forrest. “He was a plant nerd and a plant collector.” In many ways, he embodies the NYBG’s Year of #plantlove, celebrating the connection between plants and people.

Throughout his career, Burle Marx stressed the importance of conservation. The NYBG has surprisingly deep roots in Brazil and has worked toward preservation and research in the region since its founding. 

Visitors can explore the grounds through an interactive mobile guide and also experience the sights and sounds of Brazil through special events, including extended summer hours on some Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, The Artes Brasileiras! will also present a performing arts series and the food truck Merenda will dish out churrascos and other Brazilian street-food-style bites. An opening weekend celebration will take place this weekend.

“We want this exhibit to tell the story of plants and the important role they play in our lives and raise awareness about endangered plants,” said Forrest. “Over the next four months, this exhibit will be exciting to watch as it grows and changes.”

‘Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx’ runs Saturday through Sept. 29 at the New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx, nybg.org