Proposal for a Museum: Arden Sherman, Mise en green

January 31, 2013  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series
Later this year SFMOMA will close for an ambitious expansion planned to last nearly three years. Reflecting on the closure, grupa o.k. asked several friends and colleagues to imagine their own proposals for a museum in San Francisco. Today’s proposal is by Arden Sherman.

Pablo Picasso, _Guernica_ (installation view, SFMOMA), 1937

I started to notice the plants a few years ago when I began my research on exhibition photography. I was looking at old photographs of gallery installations, and frequently I noticed, in the margins of images, potted plants in the galleries alongside artworks. They fascinated me as a design element — as common, and seemingly unnoticeable, as the walls themselves. I observed them in exhibitions at all kinds of institutions, from historic museums of religious antiquities to the Museum of Modern Art. I wondered about the role they played in these spaces of exhibition — what their relation to works of art and forms of spectatorship might have been — and puzzled over their absence in the galleries of today.

_100 Drawings from the Museum Collection_ (installation view), October 11, 1960–January 2, 1961, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: George Barrows

The museum’s defoliation happened later than one might guess. The infamous “white cube,” first articulated in the early years of MoMA, would regularly incorporate a plant (or three) into its cool geometry during its first few decades. Modern art museums only began to exile greenery in the late 1960s; by the mid-1980s it was as if they’d never been there. There are likely a number of reasons for this banishment: there’s obvious risk to housing organic matter so close to precious works of art, which tend to be susceptible to damage by moisture and insects. And as the market prices for artworks entered a boom, museums became more guarded about the condition of their objects. Meanwhile temperature and atmospheric controls were perfected and the art museum became an ever more controlled environment.

Nam June Paik, _TV Garden_, 1974/2000; video installation with color television sets and live plants; dimensions variable; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; © Nam June Paik; photo: Ellen Labenski, New York

Perhaps paradoxically, in the very moment of plants’ eviction, artists began to incorporate living matter into their work. Hans Haacke grew grass on a mound of dirt (Grass Grows, 1967); Hélio Oiticica mounted a stereotypical “tropical” environment with requisite verdant palms (Tropicália, 1967); Jan Dibbets produced grass piles and grass rolls; and Nam June Paik set flickering television screens amongst an exuberant jungle of living plants (TV Garden, 1974). One might assume such practices aimed to renounce the antisepsis of the modern museum by summoning up an organic nature it had long repressed. But photography proves that vegetation had only just left the building.

Installation view of Hans Hofmann exhibition, September 11, 1963–December 1, 1963, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Soichi Sunami

Why is it that plants, once so unremarkable, might now be seen as too risky, or too embarrassing? Why is the agency of the organic accorded only to artists? Extreme efforts are made (in certain cases) to “make green” a building’s internal structure and architecture (through LEED certification, etc.), yet this abstract “green-ness” is counterbalanced by a taboo against actual green things in display space — why? And so I propose the return of plants to their former humble spot in the corner, miming the cosmic splat of Hans Hofmann or peeping out from behind Guernica. After all, ficus trees deserve to be part of culture, just as much as the rest of us.

1964 exhibition at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Arden Sherman is a curator and writer. She runs the online exhibition project Mise en green. Find grupa o.k. on Tumblr, and read other proposals here.


  1. Jan Says:

    Garry Neill Kennedy did an exhibit and associated artists’ book based on gallery plants. The book is somewhat rare and I haven’t been able to find any good images online, but here are a couple links:

  2. grupa o.k. Says:

    Thanks Jan. we’ll ask Mercer Union if they have any images of this show.

    In other news, Barbara Kruger’s famous slogan keeps running through our head, as if spoken by ficus: “We won’t play nature to your culture.”

  3. Arden Sherman Says:

    Thank you Jan

  4. grupa o.k. Says:

    Comment via

    “The hanging of Guernica was incredibly controversial in San Francisco. The director of the city’s Legion of Honor museum (which focused on showcasing European art from the Middle Ages through the early 1900s) wrote letters to the San Francisco Chronicle calling the showing of Guernica “unpatriotic,” especially in a port city with so many military bases.

    SFMOMA’s founding director, Grace McCann Morley, disagreed. The museum made national news in 1940 when, on the closing of the exhibit, 1300 visitors sat down and refused to leave “till they had had their fill.” They were allowed to stay and look. But beyond the hanging of Guernica and her clear appreciation for it, the reason I love Grace McCann Morley is that her dedication to illuminating war via art went hand in hand with her populism, her focus not on civilian donors but on what her city needed – she had SFMOMA provide free art therapy classes to soldiers and sailors returning from the Pacific front.”


  5. Caitlin Cunningham Says:

    INCREDIBLE! I would love to see the Garry Kennedy exhibit as well, please post if you find images.

  6. Rudolf Frieling Says:

    Too obvious to include? Marcel Broodthaers’s “Un jardin d’hiver,” 1974, see a pic here

  7. P. Sherman Says:

    I am all for Keepin’ the green in Art galleries. Nice write up.

  8. Arden Sherman Says:

    Thank you Rudolf, I will post to the Tumblr this week!

  9. Gene Pittman Says:

  10. grupa o.k. Says:

    Thanks Gene for the link, I imagine we (and Arden) have you to thank for turning up the Walker photo above in your research. We particularly like this passage: “In these images they [the plants] seem to act as the stand-ins for the patrons, sometimes aloof and in the background or congregating around the radiator as if in discussion. And then there are those that are really into the work, standing in front of a sculpture’s light, their shadows enveloping the work.”

  11. Arden Sherman Says:

    Hi Gene,
    Yes, that Walker blog post has been a big part of my research and became a staple in the beginning of Mise en green!
    Thank you for sharing! I’ve posted a lot of the archival Walker images on my blog.

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