Wolfsonian–FIU to Present Interdisciplinary Survey Following Tropical Plants from the Jungle to the Home

Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern opens October 16, 2015 and
features rarely seen objects from around the world, many on public display for the first time

Exhibition celebrates the pervasive, cross-cultural influence of Latin American plant life on
U.S. and European fashion, art, cinema, architecture, and design

Philodendrons and other Central and South American flora take center stage at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University this fall in a sprawling exhibition that charts the migration of tropical plants from their native habitats to North American and European gardens and interiors. Spanning three centuries and drawing together objects from the Amazon, Caribbean, and beyond, Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern explores this often-overlooked, Pan-American cultural exchange to deconstruct the “social lives” of the plants, from their influence on material culture to their impact on diverse fields ranging from the visual arts, architecture, film, and fashion to the agricultural, industrial, and medical sciences. The exhibition will be on view from October 16, 2015 through February 28, 2016 and illustrate the myriad ways philodendrons shaped Western ideas of the tropics—becoming an evolving symbol for what is exotic, Latin, and modern.

“We are excited to present this exhibition in Miami, a gateway to Latin America where these plants originate,” said Wolfsonian curator Christian Larsen, who organized the exhibition. “Philodendrons now grow in the U.S. like weeds and decorate every home—they are so common that they go unnoticed. By focusing our attention on the way they have inspired artists and designers, we tell a story of Pan-American exchange and American notions, including stereotypes, of the tropics.”

Philodendron culls together approximately 150 objects including paintings, sculptures, mosaics, wallpaper, textiles, design drawings, furniture, fashion, film, photography, and scientific artifacts. Select works from The Wolfsonian’s collection will be complemented by major loans from private collections, archives, and renowned institutions around the world, including original works and reproductions from the American Museum of Natural History; Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro; Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Getty Museum; The Museum of Modern Art; as well as Miami-area organizations such as the Bass Museum of Art, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and HistoryMiami.

The exhibition opens with the roots of the tropical plant craze as early as 1693, when botanists began to identify the more than 900 species of the Philodendron genus for governments seeking natural resources to fuel colonial empires. Botanical illustrations, landscape renderings, herbarium specimens, field notes, and photographs collected during scientific expeditions—as well as objects made and used by indigenous peoples of South America—inspired Americans and Europeans. Western artists, designers, and architects such as Frederick Edwin Church, Henri Matisse, and Dorothy Draper embraced and transformed these symbols to represent national and even gendered identities, adapting and popularizing tropical iconography as abstract emblems signifying that which is foreign, other, or “primitive.”

Highlights of this section are:

  • Never-before-seen images from David Fairchild’s 1932–33 Caribbean plant hunting expedition;
  • A rare, feather-and-cord headband made by the Amazonian Karajá people, using philodendron fiber; and
  • A 1935 etching by Henri Matisse—an early example of the artist’s frequent use of philodendrons as a study of line, form, and weight in his compositions.

Philodendron then traces the plants’ influx into mass media in the 1930s, when tropical imagery was incorporated into cruise advertising, home décor, and even on paperback romance novels. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, its ubiquity blossomed—appearing in the sensual set designs of Hollywood cinema, glamorous hotel lobbies and mezzanines, and in the open floor plans of modernist homes, where the hardy houseplants softened stark spaces with their organic forms and blurred the division between indoors and outdoors.

Key works include:

  • Roberto Burle Marx’s abstract masterpiece paintings Still Life with Philodendron I and II (1943), here marking their debut in the U.S.;
  • Digital photographs of modernist spaces by celebrated architectural photographer Julius Shulman, revealing the use of tropical plants in mid-century landscape and interior design; and
  • Original design drawings for Bacardí Imports Headquarters, a landmark of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard that marries 1960s American corporate identity with Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand’s fantasy of tropical plants in an iconic blue-and-white azulejo façade.

Now, contemporary artists like Gabriel Orozco; architects such as Herzog & de Meuron; industrial designers; and fashion brands from Versace and Margiela to American Apparel ensure the Philodendron’s continued legacy, elevating its influence to the global stage and cementing its position as an iconic design motif still in vogue today.

Contemporary works on view in Philodendron are:

  • Karl Lagerfeld’s portrait photography of Michele Oka Doner (1999);
  • Cadeira Deliciosa (2014), an indoor/outdoor chair by São Paulo-based designer Fernando Jaeger, with Monstera deliciosa leaf-shaped perforations that are specially designed to lighten weight and allow drainage;
  • Jumpsuit (2015), a collaboration between Rio de Janeiro-based fashion label Osklen and the Inhotim botanical garden and art park in Minas Gerais, Brazil;
  • A large-scale, panoramic photomural sculpture of the Brazilian rainforest by artist Claudia Jaguaribe (2015); and
  • Erdem’s Look 3 from the celebrated designer’s 2015 Spring/Summer collection, which drew inspiration from nineteenth-century botanical illustrations, Victorian conservatory architecture, and the 1951 adventure classic The African Queen.

The Wolfsonian will also extend Philodendron beyond the museum’s walls by partnering with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden on a digital app. The mobile tour, paired with museum-style, pop-up labeling installed on site throughout the Garden’s grounds, approaches the botanical specimens as art objects, drawing connections between each physical plant and its sociocultural context.

An illustrated catalogue with essays by Larsen, botanist Mike Maunder, and others will accompany the exhibition. The museum will celebrate the opening of Philodendron with an open house reception on October 15 as well as special programming including a Takeover Tour led by a guest tour guide; an adults-only Craft + Craft art-making workshop; a panel discussion; and a free family day and film screening. A full schedule of programming will be posted as confirmed at



Claudia Jaguaribe, detail of Quando Eu Vi Series I [When I See Series I], 2015. Inkjet print with diasec mount. Courtesy of Claudia Jaguaribe and H.A.P Gallery.

Exhibition Support
Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern is made possible by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. Founded in 1998 to honor Emily Hall Tremaine, the program rewards innovation and experimentation among curators by supporting thematic exhibitions that challenge audiences and expand the boundaries of contemporary art.

Leave a Reply