August 17, 2021

David Hartt: A Colored Garden Takes Root at The Glass House

Commissioned by The Glass House, David Hartt’s project A Colored Garden features the first artist-designed garden to activate the 49-acre site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in New Canaan, Connecticut. Hartt’s work explores histories lying dormant in the landscape with speculative narratives that provide a playful, exuberant, and vibrant counterpoint to the surrounding grounds.

Reflecting on the Glass House’s recent transformation from a storied private home to a publicly accessible historic site, A Colored Garden considers the site’s potential to foreground new possibilities for social, political, and cultural engagement in the contemporary moment.

A view of the David Hartt exhibition shows the oval landscaping of flowers with The Glass House in the background. The garden is along a hillside, hugging the land.

photo by: The Glass House

Installation view of David Hartt: A Colored Garden.

Encompassing photography, video, sculpture, music, and installation, Hartt’s research-based practice investigates the interplay between culture, the built environment, and the communities that shape and are shaped by these concepts. Typically, he begins a project by identifying a particular idea that he considers unstable and changing—for example, nationhood or late capitalism—and subsequently locates a site through which he can complicate and spatialize the idea. When speaking about his work, Hartt has stated, “I’m prompted to develop a practice from a sense of being overwhelmed by history. There is a need not to tear down but to reinvent and remap one’s own experience onto an existing infrastructure.”

Located in the southern meadow just below the Glass House, Hartt’s circular garden spans 40 feet and comprises an array of flowers—including peonies, daisies, zinnias, and phlox—that bloom sequentially, creating a variation of height, texture, and color. The selection of flowers correspond to the plant varieties found in the paintings of Charles Ethan Porter (1847–1923), a Black artist whose poetic still lifes, landscapes, and portraits were celebrated by well-known contemporaries such as Frederic Church, Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Mark Twain.

An image of a painting with a pale tan background and a maroon vase of peonies on a table. A pile of other flowers in yellow, white, and pale pink lie next to the vase.

photo by: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Inspired by the artwork of Charles Ethan Porter, Hartt's installation matched the selection of flowers in Porter's paintings.

Although Porter studied in New York and worked for a time in Paris, his work is firmly rooted in and inspired by Connecticut, where he spent most of his life. In an 1883 letter to Mark Twain, Porter wrote, "I am aware that there are a goodly number of my [Connecticut] friends and others who are anxious to see how the colored artist will make out, but this is not the motive which impresses me. There is something of more importance, the colored people—my people—as a race I am interested in, and my success will only add to others who have already shown wherein they are capable the same as other men.”

Hartt selected the title for this work—A Colored Garden—as a provocation that signals Porter’s identification as a “colored artist” as well as the garden’s capacity to function as a metaphor for race within the landscape.

Close up view of a pin peony from David Hartt's film on his work at The Glass House.

photo by: The Glass House

A detail view of one of the flowers in David Hartt's installation. Image taken from a film still.

When designing the garden, Hartt took inspiration from David Whitney’s contributions to the Glass House site. As a well-known curator and Philip Johnson’s partner for over 40 years, Whitney exerted considerable influence on the evolution of the landscape, including the creation of colorful gardens, many of which are no longer extant. The circular shape of the garden also echoes Johnson-designed elements within the site as well as Donald Judd’s site-specific concrete sculpture.

As part of a year-long residency, Hartt is working on a related film that reflects on the Arcadian ideals represented in the site’s landscape as well as The Burial of Phocion, a painting attributed to Nicolas Poussin that stands inside the Glass House. Hartt’s film will center on a performance of new music by the cellist and composer Tomeka Reid.

One of David Whitney's landscapes at the Glass House. The garden includes three rectangular beds with tall flowers in a variety of colors including blue, red, and white.

photo by: The Glass House

David Whitney's garden at Popestead, pictured here, is no longer in existance.

A view of the David Hartt exhibition shows the oval landscaping of flowers against the background of the broader Glass House grounds. The garden is along a hillside, hugging the land.

photo by: The Glass Hosue

Here visitors can see the ways in which Hartt's installation—seen here with the library in the background—references David Whitney's garden.

The roving camera will capture Reid’s performance and her exploration of the site’s pastoral context. At times, Reid will wear a mask designed by Hartt that is reminiscent of a work by Oskar Schlemmer, a polymath associated with the Bauhaus whose work Johnson collected and donated to The Museum of Modern Art. The mask also functions as a vessel that holds cuttings from the garden on top of the dining table in The Glass House.

Hartt’s poetic approach to the built environment reframes familiar ideas about site, history, and identity. In conversations about A Colored Garden, Hartt emphasizes that the project is not a form of historical recuperation. Instead, the project explores the creative potential of the Glass House site by decentering its dominant narratives and making space for the role of Black authorship. This work resonates with Hartt’s synthetic understanding of culture, in which “the voice, agency, geography, and temporality of others collude to produce a more compelling version of the world.”

Cole Akers is the senior curator and special projects manager at The Glass House, a National Trust Historic Site.

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By: Cole Akers

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