The Art of the Garden

The Art of the Garden

The Norton Simon celebrates Nancy Goslee Power’s winning design for its sculpture garden, which turns 15 this year. 

By Bettijane Levine 02/26/2014

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When the Norton Simon sculpture garden first opened, critics praised the beauty of its design and the genius of its designer, Nancy Goslee Power. With wondrous ingenuity, she had integrated sculptures made by some of the world’s great artists with nature’s own spectacular living sculptures — trees, shrubs, grasses, plants, vines — creating a garden haven that speaks of the seasons to the soul.

Since then, thousands have visited, but most who tread the meandering paths to gaze at the massive Henry Moores and Aristide Maillols are unaware that the garden is a Southern California interpretation of Giverny, Claude Monet’s famed botanical bower on the outskirts of Paris. And it’s probable that most visitors nowadays have never heard the name Jennifer Jones, an Academy Award–winning actress who married exceedingly well — to industrialist Norton Simon — and traveled the world with him assembling one of the world’s finest private art collections, which found a home on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.

After Simon’s death in 1993, his widow, who was the museum’s board chairwoman at the time, hired architect Frank Gehry to reconfigure the museum’s interiors and asked Power to redesign the sculpture garden. But the commission came with a caveat: “Nancy, darling, I want a garden just like Claude Monet’s Giverny,” cooed Mrs. Simon. The request seemed a bit bizarre, Power has said, since Paris and Pasadena have totally different climates, and Monet’s garden had no sculptures to contend with. What Power came up with to meet this odd demand has turned her into a rock star in the world of horticulture and landscape design, and a heroine to many who may not know her name but have found serenity and even solace in the now world-renowned Norton Simon garden.

This fall, the museum will celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the garden’s renovation with special events to highlight its various delights. “We’ll have concerts, readings, drawing classes, walk-throughs, family events,” says Leslie Denk, the museum’s director of public affairs. Eminent photographer Tim Street-Porter has been photographing the garden for a year, chronicling its different aspects as the blooms change with the seasons. The museum will publish his book later this year, as part of the anniversary celebration.

The 79,000-square-foot sculpture garden is, in essence, an outdoor room, with a multilevel “ceiling” of sheltering trees and sky. Surrounding a central freeform pond that’s alive with lilies, reeds and grasses, Power has arranged 180 different species into mounds, masses, clusters and groves of growing things, each positioned to bloom at different times and heights, each meant to highlight a specific season and complement specific great sculptures — by Moore, Maillol, Auguste Rodin, Jacques Lipchitz, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and more — which Power has “planted” in their own separate spaces, as if they had risen organically on those spots.

In an interview with Arroyo Monthly, Power explained that full-size cardboard maquettes of each massive sculpture were built to help her design the garden. “We moved them around from place to place, to see where each sculpture would look best” before deciding on final placement, she says. For the sculptures’ bases, she used massive pale granite rocks she discovered in an old Fresno quarry, abandoned since 1929. The same granite, used as garden benches and for a fountain at the edge of the pond, adds to the garden’s unity and serenity.

Power’s choices of what to plant where have been heralded as transformative by peers in the world of garden design. Maillol’s 1938 nude female, titled L’Air, floats as if suspended on a cloud of lavender. The artist’s goddess-like figure completed the year before, La Montagne, is positioned so that her hand seems to be reaching for a pond lily. Each artwork seems somehow connected to the artistry of blooms nearby.

The Norton Simon garden was the first public garden Power had ever designed, and she tackled it in her late fifties. Until then, she had worked her magic only in home gardens, winning accolades from a variety of Social Register clients, architects and artists.

The museum assignment was a whole different ball game, she acknowledges, and one she’d waited for all her life. “Even as a little girl, I couldn’t stand the [world’s] inequality. I wanted everybody to have enough money to have nice houses and nice gardens, and enough food on the table,” she says. In grade school, she read biographies of famous people who had tried to make the world a better place. “In my teens, I started reading utopian novels. And later on, when I started doing private gardens, I did them in the hope that it would lead to doing public gardens… so that everyone could enjoy them, not just a special few.”

The museum challenge was especially daunting because the original building and its garden had been built in the 1960s to house the former Pasadena Art Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art. When Norton Simon took over in 1974, the modern structure and garden seemed to clash with his collection of European and Asian art, some dating back 2,000 years. Neither the building nor the garden was warm or welcoming, and both seemed at odds with Simon’s extraordinary collection of Impressionists, post-Impressionists and Old Masters. A concrete rectilinear pool took up much of the garden space, surrounded by large flat areas of grass.

While Gehry’s commission was to reimagine the building’s interior to better harmonize with Norton’s artworks, Power dealt with the specific request to mimic Monet’s famous garden. She knew instantly that what grows at Giverny, in the countryside just outside Paris, is totally unsuitable for Southern California’s climate. “What grows there certainly would not grow here,” she says. So she decided to take “the essence of Giverny” and give it her own spin, using more appropriate plantings.

The garden’s focus is the pond Power designed. She calls it her boldest move, because it meant removing the angular modern pool and replacing it with a Giverny-like free-form body of water. In her 2009 book, Power of Gardens (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), she writes that she “worried about the shape, as so many ponds do not look as if they belong where they are. They just look hokey, with… shorelines rimmed in river rocks of all the same size: no beach, no boggy plants, no mystery. I went to my large atlas and traced lakes from all over the world.” She eventually came up with the shape she wanted and proceeded to bring it alive with both Giverny and the Delaware native’s own childhood in mind. “I had been to Giverny many times,” she writes. “I had enjoyed the fullness, the overblown masses of color and the sheer abundance, and I loved the murky pond with water lilies. It touched down deep into my Tidewater memories of messing around in ponds, marshes and creeks. As a child I had the freedom to wander all over the place, as long as I was home in time for dinner. Water lilies and bald cypresses in the ponds have always been my favorites, so mysterious and mesmerizing. I could float in a canoe or lie on a dock and watch the life of mammals, reptiles, insects and plants around the water…”

Soon after the sculpture garden’s new pond and plantings were fully installed, she writes, “a great white heron sailed onto the water… and his approval let me know that we had built a natural pond just for him.”

The redesign brought Power international acclaim, prestigious awards and many new public and private commissions, including a master plan for the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Her talent is innate, unmarked by formal training. After a few years at finishing school in Italy, she spent a decade as an interior designer and magazine editor in New York, where she married British film producer Derek Power, with whom she moved to California. They have since divorced. Now 72, she has lived in Santa Monica, where she set up her design practice, for many years. She says she recently sold her office building, dismantled her staff and returned to designing solo. Her private client list remains private, although it’s public knowledge that she still works with many A-list architects and affluent homeowners. “I do a lot of work in Montecito these days,” she says, and she is “fully involved” with clients and commitments in L.A. and the Norton Simon garden, which she still oversees.

Perhaps her favorite long-term project is one that’s not accessible to the viewing public. “It’s a vineyard at a private Bel Air house — the Moraga Vineyard,” she says. “The land is so beautiful, and I’ve worked with these clients for over 30 years.” The property was sold to Rupert Murdoch last August; she declines to comment on Mr. Murdoch’s horticultural tastes.

One of Power’s biggest fans is eminent California historian Kevin Starr, who has said: “Nancy Goslee Power is to landscape what Frank Gehry is to architecture.” Power posts that quote on her firm’s website, justifiably proud. But to one recent garden visitor, musical allusions (Bach and Mozart) came more readily to mind. Even on a drizzly, winter day, with none of the riotously colored flowers in bloom, the garden has a haunting, dreamlike quality that embeds itself like music in the mind.  

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