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Presence of Plants in Contemporary Art

June 22 - September 17, 2023
All Special Exhibition Galleries

Presence of Plants in Contemporary Art features work by contemporary artists who practice with living plant material. These artworks invoke themes associated with the fragility of life, the impossibility of permanence, and the construction of personal meaning through memory. Rather than using nature as a subject for depiction—as occurs in traditional landscape painting—these artists incorporate and manipulate plant species to help us reflect on the meanings and associations that influence our relationship with the natural world.

For these internationally-recognized artists, plants provide a medium for expressing individual identities, shared narratives, and collective memories. From an image born of growing grass to a cinematic reflection on eco-queer themes, to a suspended vertical garden on the Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façcade, these thought-provoking and beautiful works mirror the transitory existence of the artists who cultivate them and the audiences that experience them.

Isabella Stewart Gardner constructed her art museum to center horticulture as a ‘living art,’ placing the blooming Courtyard at the heart of her galleries and cultivating numerous species of plants to establish a living collection that still exists today. This exhibition exemplifies the Gardner’s long tradition of interdisciplinary experience by uniting contemporary artistry with its horticultural and garden arts. This summer, join us to explore the emotional resonance and material expression of plants as art.

The exhibition highlights established works and site-specific installations from British team Ackroyd & Harvey; Welsh conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans; Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Piero Golia; Swedish artist Henrik Hakansson; and Brooklyn-based multi-media artist Rashid Johnson in the Hostetter Gallery. Johnson's work – Antoine’s Organ (2016) – will be animated on weekdays and Thursday evenings with contemporary jazz piano improvisations. A film by Hong Kong-based video artist Zheng Bo is featured in the Fenway Gallery, and a new artistic commission by Natalie Jeremijenko on the theme of plants is presented on the Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façcade.

Please note: The soil and other living materials on view in Presence of Plants in Contemporary Art will be composted at the end of the exhibition. As this phase of life ends, they will transform to support new growth.


View Gallery Guide


Header image: Rashid Johnson (b. 1977, United States), Antoine’s Organ, 2016. Black steel, grow lights, plants, wood, shea butter, books, monitors, rugs, piano. © Rashid Johnson. Photo © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Exhibition Related Programs

Live Matter: Contemporary Artists on Plants in Practice

Thursday, June 22, 7-8:30 pm

Celebrated exhibiting contemporary artists Piero Golia and Natalie Jeremijenko join exhibition curators Pieranna Cavalchini, the Gardner’s Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art, and Charles Waldheim, the Gardner’s Ruettgers Curator of Landscape and Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, to discuss art born of living plant material. These artists will share more about their remarkable interdisciplinary creative practices and what plants can teach each of us about our place on this planet. Register here.

Seeding Change: The Politics of Plants

Thursday, September 14, 7-8:30 pm

How are designers, gardeners, growers, and others who work directly with plants developing adaptive strategies to weather change? Join Rosetta S. Elkin, Uli Lorimer, Erika Rumbley, and Charles Waldheim, as they discuss the politics of plants and questions of collective memory, environmental crisis, and social change. Register here.

Contemporary art projects at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are supported in part by the Barbara Lee Program Fund. 

The Artist-in-Residence program is directed by Pieranna Cavalchini, Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art. Funding is also provided for site-specific installations of new work on the Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade on Evans Way.

The Museum receives operating support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is supported by the state of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts.