Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

No Heaven on Earth

Kim Todd, Maurice Manning, and Nicole Rudick


In Maria Sibylla Merian's first caterpillar book, printed in 1679, a garden tiger moth lives parallel lives. On one side of a stalk of blue flowers is the expected metamorphosis: a heap of pearly eggs, a tiny caterpillar, a swirled pupa, and a black and tangerine moth. On the other, a fat caterpillar crawls under a blackened pupa, open and empty. A larva of a different species has sucked the life out of the would-be moth and produced its own minute black fly. The split image arrests time: Emergence, transformation, and decay transpire on a single page.

An avid naturalist, Merian hatched hundreds of caterpillars and depicted their changes. These insect portraits evolved over her lifetime into the stunning watercolors she created for her book The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, the fruit of two years' research in the South American rain forest. Here, on folio-size pages, bananas dangle, cockroaches seek bristling pineapples, and a tarantula preys on a jewel-tinted hummingbird. A branch laden with scarlet and golden flowers supports multiple molts of the yellow Arsenura armida caterpillar, from striped and armed with spikes to smooth and spotted just before turning into a spectacular neotropical silk moth.

Ella Reitsma's Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science (Getty, $45) centers on the workshop comprising Merian and her daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. The women collaborated on some images, recycling old ones and rearranging them on the page, and signed many watercolors with the mother's famous name to create a profitable business under the Merian brand. Both observation and production were hard work, involving eye-straining hours waiting for a butterfly to appear and then capturing its antennae with a single-hair brush. But nothing in these shimmering watercolors evokes drudgery or dust. The fluttering moths and buzzing flies dart at us from the past, from a time when art and science were closer kin and few knew what lingered inside a cocoon—and what emerged was always a surprise.

–KIM TODD

A few years ago, I was hiking in the Big Horn Mountains, which rise from the red scrubland along the north-central ledge of Wyoming. I walked up Medicine Wheel by way of a steep path that looks like a ramp to heaven (or nowhere). At the top, there's a flat space and a jumble of white stones laid out in a circle, and to the north beyond lies the prairie of Montana, an immense stretch of land, flat and horribly featureless, or so it appears. It's a landscape that forces silence and stillness on those who behold it. The plane of the ground is ironed out, with only a few wrinkles remaining beneath the heel of the sky—a geometry of a scale that defies imagination, but there it is, so obviously sacred and menacing.

We are drawn to landscape because its forms—smooth or rugged, vast or pinched—are original and singular, and in its eloquence and rarity and ultimate vulnerability, a landscape asks us to preserve it. The land illustrated in The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie (University of Nebraska Press, $40) makes just such a claim. From the pens of writers such as Judy Blunt, Rick Bass, Thomas McGuane, Barry Lopez, Richard Ford, Gretel Ehrlich, Peter Matthiessen, Richard Hugo, and James Galvin and through the stark lenses of photographers Lee Friedlander, Lois Conner, and Geoffrey James, we deeply inhabit the American prairie, a seemingly immutable place of hardscrabble ranches, rivers, bears, birds, and wolves—a land so patiently alive we might miss it. As Jim Harrison says of his sojourn through this countryside, "Those who think of the area as desolate are ignorant of earth herself." He is right. The prairie is daunting, to be sure; it is a landscape that begs for a human presence, and for the rugged few who accept the invitation, there is strange, abundant delight.

–MAURICE MANNING

In 1969, Patricia Johanson was a young artist on the verge of success. Five years earlier, she had been included in "8 Young Artists," the first exhibition of Minimalist art. Then, in 1968, her work appeared in the landmark show "The Art of the Real," at New York's Museum of Modern Art, alongside abstractions by Tony Smith, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, and others. That same year, she drew notice for Stephen Long, a plywood and acrylic ribbon running along sixteen hundred feet of abandoned railroad track near Buskirk, New York. The sculpture's contiguous strips of red, yellow, and blue responded to changes in natural light. This work put the twenty-eight-year-old artist at the forefront of the nascent Land art movement and brought her to the attention of editors at House & Garden, who sent her a letter in March 1969: "Dear Miss Johanson: Would you like to design a garden for this magazine?"

Johanson's acceptance of the proposal would both redirect the path of her career and redraw the lines of Minimalism. In Patricia Johanson's House & Garden Commission: Reconstruction of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks [distributed by Harvard University Press], $45), Xin Wu, a curator of contemporary landscape design, gathers the 146 extant sketches (out of 150 made; none were ever realized) together for the first time. The innovative plans, executed in colored pencil with notes scribbled in the margins, propose transformative environments that often use figurative forms—"Water Gathering Sculpture" takes the shape of a centipede for its main channel and runoff furrows—to express a metaphysical relationship between nature and humans. In this way, Johanson intended to challenge Minimalism's "anthropocentric separation of subject and object." The results are practical and poetic—and occasionally adversarial: "The visual beauty of a garden of pure color would be outweighed by the noxious destructiveness of sulphur & tar." Johanson never returned to the art world, but in establishing an ethical dimension within the Minimalist vocabulary, she rewrote its tenets and proved that life truly begins in the garden.

–NICOLE RUDICK

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