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Patricia Johanson's House and Garden Commission

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About the Author

Xin Wu is Assistant Curator of Contemporary Landscape Design Collection and Coordinator of East Asian Garden Studies in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. Stephen Bann is Professor of Art History at the University of Bristol.


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 and 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 and Garden Commission: Reconstruction of Modernity," 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 and tar." Johanson never returned to the art world, but in establishing an ethical dimension with

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