Leo Lionni:

March 15 - May 31, 1990

Curated by Nina Castelli Sundell


For Kokai, 1982, 23" x 33"



—Nina Castelli Sundell

Leo Lionni's drawings appear timeless, inevitable, yet their subject is time and mutability—objects extracted from time, shaped by time, or existing in a hypothetical universe parallel to our own; a universe whose rules are perfectly coherent but just a little strange. For the past twenty years, Lionni's drawings have focused on two subjects: one biological— the imaginary plants whose taxonomy is exhaustively described in Parallel Botany, and the other in a sense geological—drawings of stones: fields of pebbles, elaborate stone gardens, one or more stones magnified and scrutinized in detail. A subcategory of this genre consists of drawings in which organic or inorganic intrusions modify the field of stones. (In a third group—one is tempted to call it miscellaneous—shells or grasses are laid out on the ground or become the ground.) Most of these drawings are metaphorical, dealing with ideas of perfection, isolation, interchangeability of natural forms and artificial structures, change, life and death.

Lionni is a quintessentially 20th-century man. As an adolescent, he showed his paintings with the Futurists. His innovative work in advertising and design dominated the look of American print media for three decades, establishing new standards of sophistication and elegance, indirectly but profoundly affecting the way we perceive not only specific products but the world itself. Yet this man, triumphantly at ease in the age of mechanical reproduction, makes drawings whose meticulous draftsmanship resembles that of Durer: drawings like those of Renaissance artists or 17th-century botanists absorbed in the discovery of nature, in love with its endless variety.

He was always interested in natural history. As a child he had a terrarium, collected shells and pebbles, creating a private world for the frogs and salamanders he caught in the marshes outside Amsterdam or bought at "Artis"—Artis Magistra Natura, a fascinating store near his school. At Porcignano, the Tuscan farm house where he has lived for the past 20 years, he is immersed in a natural setting rich in an astonishing variety of plants, shaped by thousands of years of human habitation. The relationship between nature and man is at the core of his work. From a very early age, he was accustomed to the discipline of drawing. He learned to draw from plaster casts. At school he recalls a greatly enlarged ivy leaf:

We learned to draw the veins, the contours, the bulges, and to trace the "outs" disappearing into the "ins". We were taught to judge curves and proportions by moving the outstretched thumb up and down the pencil, and when we had carefully outlined the shapes we would crosshatch the shadows, building up the blacks little by little... There was no talk of self expression then, nor of "creativity." We simply learned the craft of drawing and we tried to draw well. The pleasure of performance was a natural, lifelong goal for me.

Six Suguriae, c. 1976, 20 3/4 x 27 3/4"


At the Ryjksmuseum, he drew from casts of classical sculpture, and discovered the "gentle spaces" of Dutch landscape painting, paintings that seemed to him much like his terrariums, "but two dimensional, and with the added mystery of immobility and silence." ("Artis Natura Magistra," Chelsea 44, 1985, p. 10.)

Lionni's drawings are quintessentially, exquisitely handmade. If many of them are about time, they also incorporate time. The slow, laborious process of making them, the exercise of draftsmanship, remain central to the work. "In the struggle and pleasures of making art, the high point of my pleasure is manual performance," he says. (Interview with the author, January 1990)

A series of drawings made in 1981-82, which includes From Scratch and Artis Magistra Natura II, reveal and celebrate this process. First the shapes are delicately outlined; then each pebble is drawn in ...smooth, individual, unique, left to right from top to bottom so that the artist's hand will not smudge the image. In spite of their illusionistic precision, the drawings are made from memory. They reproduce mental images, remembered or imagined with absolute clarity. "I make something stand still in my imagination and then I just copy it," Lionni has said . "That's something I've done since I was a child."
("A few Good Ideas: The Work of Leo Lionni," Print XXXIV:III, May/June 1980.)

Until 1970 most of his work consisted of stylized portraits of imaginary people, reminiscent of the funeral masks of the Fayum or of Byzantine mosaics. Then he began to make portraits of imaginary plants, or rather, hypothetical plants that might exist if the laws of nature were just a little different. The botanical drawings in this exhibition are a part of a series of works including paintings, prints, and a considerable body of cast bronze sculpture, as well as Parallel Botany (1976), an extraordinary book that details the discovery and taxonomy of these purely imaginary organisms. While the plants in most of the earlier drawings in the show also exist as sculpture, the drawings are not studies for the sculpture: they are different images of the same species.

Sette Foglie, 1972, 18 3/4" x 14"

In Lionni's botanica, known elements of terrestrial plants are reshuffled in new configurations and fused with forms that are man-made or could be imagined only by sophisticated 20th-century man. (Portions of some sculptures are cast directly from nature; others include human artifacts such as ball bearings.) For all their strangeness, these plants are essentially friendly. They are surrealist, in the tradition of Ernst and Magritte, but without the menace. Spiritually, they are much closer to Paul Klee or Alexander Calder, two of Lionni's favorite artists. Some of the more anthropomorphic types, like the Seguriae, are vaguely reminiscent of Walt Disney.

Nothing in art is as bizarre as the exotic specimens you can see in the Botanical Garden, or indeed, as the plants in your own back yard if you examine them closely. The sense of discovery and the spirit of wonder that inform Lionni's drawings, as well as their meticulous execution, resembles 17th- and 18th-century botanical illustration. This kinship, particularly evident in Sette Foglie, where the leaves in question are presented frontally, enlarged, as though they were scientific specimens, with an elegant antique border, becomes even more explicit in Parallel Botany, a truly erudite book that parodies scholarship past and present at the same time as it celebrates the romance of discovery and the delights of classification.

Lionni's invented plants, previously embodied as individual bronze sculptures, drawings, or pseudo-botanical illustrations, were combined in 1976 in Project for an Imaginary Garden, a three dimensional science-fiction landscape whose strangeness consists in the contrast between similarities to familiar organic forms and the clearly visible operation of a synthetic imagination. Cast in bronze, it looks like the maquette for a movie set. The two garden drawings in the exhibition give some idea of its flavor, but do not capture the miniaturization that is an essential part of its charm. Indeed, ambiguities of scale add substantially to the fascination of Lionni's drawings as well. Are Seguriae 12 feet high? Twelve inches? They could be either, or less.

A Matter of Time, 1981, 23" x 33"


Botanical imagery predominated in Lionni's work throughout the sevens ies. In the eighties, a new series of works begins: works he thinks of as "portraits of the earth." Imaginary plants give way to pictures of stones: fields or piles of pebbles; stone pavement, or individual stones, smoothed by the action of time or marked with mysterious shapes that could be fossils, or perhaps carvings. Superficially, these drawings seem more plausible than Lionni's impossible plants, but they, too, are entirely imaginary. The most striking are at least as impossible: configurations of pebbles that would never occur in nature, stone gardens that no amount of artistry could bring into being. Less whimsical, they seem less surreal than the botanical drawings, but they are in some ways even more profoundly strange.

In some, imperceptible organic forces—tree-roots or tiny worms—disrupt the earth's surface. In others, human detritus is miraculously transformed. The insulation on discarded electrical wiring becomes a sloughed snake-skin, reintegrated into the natural universe by the passage of time; a crumpled scrap of paper turns into classical drapery on a tesselated pavement. An almost circular slab of stone, displaced like a man hole cover, reveals a neat mound of pebbles below the level of the ground. Lionni's pebbles resemble the stones used in Japanese landscape gardens. Each is elegant, polished, individual, as seductive as those special treasures collected at the beach in childhood. He has done numerous drawings of single stones, or sequences of isolated specimens. In For Kukai, the stones piled upon one another were inspired by the memory of the simple funeral monuments in a cemetery dedicated to the Japanese hermit-poet who was the founder of Esoteric Buddhism. Durable, smoothed by the slow passage of time, the stones in these drawings are imperfect objects in transition towards perfection. The drawing of a stone originates in a circle; the pebble aspires to become a sphere.

"A pebble," says Lionni, "is the outcome of negative growth." Many of his drawings look at decay as a symbol of life. "Nature is imperfection—that's an idea that fascinates me: the kind of imperfection we strive for in art...the impression of perfection through unbalanced means." These serene, mysterious images are not imitations of nature; they are nature's parallel.

Artis Natura Magistra 2, 1982, 46 1/2 x 34"