Growing a garden

In summer at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mark di Suvero’s large “Scarlatti” sculpture sits in a spectacular field of wildflowers. In spring and fall, the rusty horizontal I-beams contrast with the tender buds of new life and the final blaze of color. During winter, the snow makes a pristine backdrop for suspended steel.

Like all the art in the park, di Suvero’s work sits in a natural frame, with the surrounding land sculpted to create both vistas and niches.

The sculpture feels so suited to the site you can believe it walked over the hill and planted itself there, deciding this was the place to call home.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens were conceived as a place that would be appealing year-round, so the art is placed within settings designed to change with the seasons while giving the art its due.

The institution is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Sculpture was integral to the project from the beginning, when the West Michigan Horticultural Society asked Lena and Frederik Meijer for their support in 1990. The Meijers welcomed the concept of a major botanical garden and home for their growing sculpture collection. (Unlike most collectors, they always intended their collection to be public.) They contributed a considerable cash gift and their entire sculpture collection. In addition, Meijer Inc. offered a 70-acre site to the Horticultural Society for the project. The site has since grown to 125 acres of themed gardens in natural wetlands, woodlands and meadows, including a 35-acre sculpture park. There are also indoor galleries and an education center, as well as the Midwest’s largest indoor conservatory and an amphitheater presenting concerts throughout the summer.

The Sculpture Park, which opened in May 2002, is divided into outdoor galleries, including more formal arrangements where classics by Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth, Aristide Maillol and other early to mid-century beauties are set against landscaped backdrops. This varies from the more naturalistic, woolly setting for di Suvero’s “Scarlatti,” Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Plantoir” and other works tucked along meandering paths.

In September, a 5-acre expansion named “The Groves” was dedicated. The setting includes 28 species of trees grouped informally in groves with meadow grasses, shrubs, wildflowers and a 1-acre pond. It features new monumental works of contemporary art: “B-Tree II” by Kenneth Snelson and “Male/Female” by Jonathan Borofsky. At 32 feet tall and 42 feet wide, Snelson’s piece exemplifies the artist’s interest in nature, mathematics and architecture. Borofsky’s sculpture is the silhouette of a man and a woman intersecting each other perpendicularly.

Only five years old, the Sculpture Park is a relatively young public art collection. The program really took off when Dr. Joseph Antenucci Becherer, the first curator, was hired. The Meijers told him they wanted to create a collection of international significance, one focusing on modern and contemporary works from the period of Rodin onward. Curator Becherer says their attempt to build an encyclopedic collection shapes their acquisition choices, and this is a challenge, since many key artists’ works from the last hundred years are infrequently on the market. A staff of seven and an advisory committee also consider the uniqueness of their holdings; they try to not buy works that the public could see elsewhere in the region, such as in Maya Lin’s Ecliptic Park, also in Grand Rapids. The Meijers’ original collection of Marshall Fredericks’ bronzes is featured in the Children’s Garden.

Given the few short years they have been collecting, it is quite a coup that the curators snared artist Louise Bourgeois’ menacing but tender “Spider,” whose long, thin legs seem to barely make contact with the ground. They also purchased several key pieces by Henry Moore, and works by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Deborah Butterfield, Keith Haring, Juan Muñoz and Louise Nevelson, among others. Though the most recent contemporary work is underrepresented, that shifted somewhat this summer with the installation of works by Chakaia Booker, Tony Smith and Tony Cragg.

The collection’s sensibility is predominantly early modernist, with much of the work based on the figure, even when abstracted. An exception is the George Rickey “Four Open Squares Horizontal Gyratory — Tapered,” with the silver squares floating on rods in a pool of water, shifting slowly across each other in all four seasons. The ceramic egg-like forms of Carolyn Ottmers’ “Full Circle” are perfectly located on a slope behind a running stream. The less formal setting helps provide context, so viewers can better understand the goals of contemporary sculptors who are determined to defy the pedestal.

The indoor galleries showcase several annual exhibitions, mostly solo shows of international artists, including drawings and photographs of sculptures. In January, Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy will have his largest U.S. exhibition here, and will also permanently install stone arches in the park. Since most of Goldsworthy’s works are constructions in nature from such ephemeral materials as ice, leaves and branches, photographs are the only way to see them, short of a trip overseas.

Autumn — the poet’s spring, as the ancient Persians called it — is a time when some of us are charmed by the tragedy of life going underground. But winter doesn’t have to be about dormancy, and looking at art shouldn’t be seasonal. Also, the opportunity to watch a young collection grow is really engaging, sort of like adolescence is more fun to watch than middle-aged maturity. Even for those of us who have a taste suited for high-concept art, variations in diet are good. Grab a coat and get to Grand Rapids this season.


Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, 1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE (North of I-96, between Bradford and Leonard streets), Grand Rapids; 1-800-957-1580.

Gerry Craig writes about art locally and nationally. Send comments to [email protected]
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