One of the finest public sculpture gardens in the United States has just gotten even more magnificent.
In fact, with the May 15 opening of its long-awaited expansion, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art takes its place among the top tier of its kind anywhere.
Opening to the public after a nearly 18-month-long construction process, the 6.5-acre expansion adds 26 new pieces to the original Sculpture Garden collection. With a handful of exceptions, most of the pieces date from the last 15 years, with several commissioned in the last few years expressly for the garden.
Like the original garden, which opened in 2003, the expansion will be open seven days a week and will be free of charge to visitors.
From an aerial view the footprint of the garden resembles two giant wings extending from the back of the main museum building. The original garden and its new section are connected by the existing lagoon, which has been deepened in parts and regulated by a system of sump pumps and a weir, or low dam.
While the extension is also accessible via three entrances around its perimeter, including one near the new Louisiana Children’s Museum, the most dramatic way of entering it is via a walkway from the original garden which extends along a canal underneath Roosevelt Mall. The walkway dips slightly along the route, and thanks to a retaining wall along its length you get the pleasantly disorienting sensation of walking beneath the water line en route to the new garden.
That walkway is one of several engaging design features that define the extension, which feels less like a straightforward addition to the original garden than a redefinition of the entire park space that surrounds it. Far from being an intrusion, it integrates beautifully with its surroundings. (Even the existing inhabitants of the park seem to agree: On a recent preview visit, several ducks could be seen resting comfortably amid the areas still under construction.)
Low fences and a relative lack of dense planting means that the greater landscape of City Park remains a dominant presence, and the new garden even affords views of some of the art deco bridges in the park that were previously difficult to appreciate.
In turn, the more than two dozen pieces new to the collection are integrated into the environment in what its designers call “character zones,” which give each one room to be appreciated on its own while fostering an almost endless combination of juxtapositions with other pieces and their surrounding landscape.
One of the first pieces visitors will encounter when entering the new garden via the canal path is Thomas Houseago’s “Striding Figure (Rome I)”, a hulking giant who appears to be captured while charging ahead into its surroundings. A closer look reveals the artifice used to create the character: Its “skin” has been peeled away in sections to reveal the armature of rebar supports beneath. It’s a sculpture about the process of making sculpture, and a fitting introduction to the pieces that follow.
Likewise, Fred Wilson’s “The Mete of the Muses," in which a reproduction of an ancient Egyptian female figure is paired with her classical Greco-Roman counterpart, challenges assumptions about historical standards of beauty, and the construction of art history in general.
They’re just two examples of the kind of sculpture that characterizes the Besthoff collection as a whole, which tends towards art that isn’t afraid to provoke or discomfit. Look no further than Katharina Fritsch’s “Schädel/Skull," a stark white skull perched serenely on its own small island in the lagoon by a gently curving walkway. It’s equal parts kitsch and an affecting memento mori, or a reminder of the transience of life amidst the natural beauty and other works of art that surround it.
New commissions by women artists have a particularly strong presence. A glass bridge by Elyn Zimmerman with motifs referencing the historical waterways of southern Louisiana extends across a branch of the lagoon. Teresita Fernández’s “Viñales,” a 60-foot mosaic comprised of tens of thousands of delicately tinted ceramic tiles, occupies the entranceway to the new garden’s sculpture pavilion, where inside Maya Lin’s map of the Mississippi and its tributaries, likewise comprised of thousands of individual glass components, winds along the walls and ceiling of a cool, serene space overlooking the expanse of the garden outside. (The pavilion, which will be a multiuse exhibition and event space, has already staked its claim as the best place in the city to offer respite from the sun on a hot summer day.)
Other highlights include Jeppe Hein’s gloriously dizzying “Mirrored Labyrinth,” a spiral of reflecting surfaces that promises to be among the most Instagrammed works in the new garden; Shirazeh Houshiary’s “Exuvae,” which emerges like a strange shimmering stalk from the mulch surrounding it; Beverly Pepper’s “Split Ritual II,” a pair of mute sentinels surveying the landscape; and pieces that have previously been displayed elsewhere, including Yinka Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture V” (moved from its previously forlorn placement on the lawn outside the original garden entrance) and Hank Willis Thomas’s “History of the Conquest” (which was exhibited outside the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade during Prospect.4 in 2017). Both are given renewed life and presence in their new installations.
If the Sculpture Garden hasn’t already been high on your list of things to show first-time visitors to the city, there’s no excuse now. Long one of the crown jewels of New Orleans’ cultural scene, the garden’s expansion adds strengths to strength —- and the result is something we can all be proud of.
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