Moore to love

The New York Botanical Garden opens its gates to master sculptor Henry Moore.

OH HENRY! Oval with Points (1968–70) was inspired by an elephant skull.

OH HENRY! Oval with Points (1968–70) was inspired by an elephant skull. Photograph: Anita Feldman/Henry Moore Foundation

There were considerable logistics involved in transporting 20 monumental sculptures by the late Henry Moore from London’s Kew Gardens to the New York Botanical Garden for the Bronx institution’s new exhibit, “Moore in America.” The pieces, some of which weigh nearly 5 tons and measure more than 20 feet tall, had to be shipped across the Atlantic and couldn’t be driven over roads with low clearance. Once at the garden, workers had to carefully choreograph their cranes so that plants weren’t trampled when the sculptures were hoisted into position. And though the show opens Saturday 24, the precautions aren’t complete: A lightweight fiberglass sculpture, Large Reclining Figure (1984), will have to be strapped down in the event of strong winds.

The fruits of these labors, says Henry Moore Foundation curator Anita Feldman, is an exhibition that greatly enriches both the artwork and the flora. “There’s an incredible natural harmony at play. Moore’s works make these wonderful frames for the landscape,” she explains. “And the garden setting completely changes the art. This is one of the few places we can do a big outdoor show like this. The pieces just eat space.” The park’s varied terrain is also well suited to Moore’s sculpture, which was inspired by bones, rocks, driftwood and other natural forms.

The NYBG has served as a lush, tree-lined gallery in the past—works from MoMA’s Rockefeller Sculpture Garden were housed there during the museum’s 2002–03 renovation, and Dale Chihuly’s glass curiosities were prominently displayed in 2006—but this is the grandest presentation in recent memory. “The sculptures are spread across even more of the garden,” says Todd Forrest, NYBG’s vice president of horticulture and living collections. “And while the Chihuly show was stunning, it was clearly an addition. Moore’s work is more complement than contrast.”

Placement was a key issue for the curators: Forrest presented Feldman with a range of locations, and she chose the work best suited to a particular space. Two Piece Reclining Figure: Points (1969) is located in front of a series of craggy rocks that mirror its sharp features, for example, while the rock garden was chosen for the site of a rotund Seated Woman (1958–59). “She’s very quiet and contemplative, and has this wonderful bronze patina,” says Feldman. “It’s perfect for that spot. You wouldn’t want her in the middle of a field—she’d be lost.” Feldman didn’t plan a specific order for the sculptures to be seen in and, while there is a map available with a suggested route, Forrest says he hopes visitors approach the pieces on their own terms.

“Moore in America,” which will only travel to the Atlanta Botanical Garden before the sculptures are returned to their permanent home at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, England, is by no means a retrospective of the prolific artist, who died in 1986 at age 88. But it is emblematic of his art starting in the 1950s, when he began producing large-scale works suitable for outdoor settings. Forrest’s favorite in the collection is Oval with Points (1968–70), a large bronze figure eight near the Tanyosho pines in the Ross Conifer Arboretum—he calls it “a bold, muscular beacon” that draws patrons from the visitor’s center, which is in its direct sight line. Feldman is partial to the spacious Large Two Forms (1966) on Daffodil Hill. “It’s completely unexpected—it looks different from every angle, which is the beauty of showing outdoors. And you can walk inside it and be totally enclosed by it.”

Of course, we’ll never know what Moore would think of Feldman’s choices. But he once opined that he “would rather have a piece of sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in or on the most beautiful building I know.” How fortunate, then, that these works are in an environment that is itself a work of art.

Moore in America” is on view at the New York Botanical Garden Saturday, May 24–Sunday, Nov 2.