The New Norton Simon Sculpture Garden

By: Pamela Waterman

Pamela Waterman is a freelance writer who gardens in Pasadena, California. She has written frequently about gardens and gardeners in…

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The central pond at the Norton Simon Museum, with star sedge (Rhynchospora latifolia) in the foreground, backed by yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), waterlilies (Nymphaea hybrids), and sculptures by Aristide Maillol and Henry Moore in the distance. Author’s photographs

The central pond at the Norton Simon Museum, with star sedge (Rhynchospora latifolia) in the foreground, backed by yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), waterlilies (Nymphaea cultivars), and sculptures by Aristide Maillol and Henry Moore in the distance. Author’s photographs

Color sequences varied with the progression of each season accentuating the changes in light and weather.

Elizabeth Murray, Monet’s Passion

Located on a dramatic piece of land near the Arroyo Seco on the western edge of Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum is a California treasure. Constructed in 1969 on the site of Carmelita, one of Pasadena’s famous early gardens, the Pasadena Art Museum was reorganized and renamed in honor of its generous benefactor, industrialist Norton Simon, in 1974. His newly installed collection of art catapulted the museum into the top tier of smaller art institutions.

For the next two decades, Simon’s extensive outdoor sculpture collection was displayed in an area sandwiched between two wings of the museum building. Although the sculpture was first rate, the space housing the collection had a sterile appearance, often described as “corporate functional,” with its flat rectangular pond sitting in the middle of an uninspired grassy space. Few museum visitors were compelled to venture outdoors, even with the promise of works by Henry Moore, Jacque Lipchitz, Barbara Hepworth, and other world-famous sculptors.

When the museum began a $6.5 million renovation in 1996, the daunting task of giving life to the outdoor space and its sculpture was handed to Santa Monica-based landscape architect, Nancy Goslee Power.

Norton Simon’s widow, Jennifer Jones, a powerful force on the board of directors, requested a sculpture garden with a feeling like that of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny in France. Power’s first thought was “How can I get Giverny out of this?” Monet’s masterpiece exists in a totally different climatic and aesthetic setting from that of the Norton Simon Museum.

Nancy Goslee Power and her staff of nine have designed more than two hundred personal gardens, mainly in southern California. She is best known for her relaxed style, ingenious use of plants, and strong sense of color. Clients have only to visit her own garden in Santa Monica to see how successfully she blends plants to create a private garden world in a small space.

The central pond with the Norton Simon Museum galleries beyond; Aristide Maillol’s La Montagne sits at the left edge of the pond

The central pond with the Norton Simon Museum galleries beyond; Aristide Maillol’s La Montagne sits at the left edge of the pond

The Design Challenge

Power welcomed the assignment of creating a garden for an entire community. It gave her freedom from the narrower considerations of the needs of individuals in a private setting. Her challenge at the Norton Simon Museum became one of creating a space that would entice visitors away from the art inside the museum to the art outside. Large expanses of glass in the main entrance reveal the basic garden composition. In the past that first revealing glance had been sufficient to keep visitors indoors.

In addition to drawing museum visitors outside, Power needed to create a garden that would compliment the pieces of sculpture rather than compete with them. At the same time, she was being asked to address the wishes of board members who looked toward France for inspiration.

Loosely influenced by the design of Giverny, Power envisioned a free-form pond that would reflect the sky and clouds while reducing the glare off the dark tiled surface of the building. The flow of the pool and the placement of plants around it is driven by the existing trees and the necessity for showcasing seventeen large works of art. With the body of water as the organizing principle of the design, Power began to plan individual sections of the garden, each combining a dramatic palette of plants with the established trees. Interestingly, nature cooperated during the design. A large fig near the entrance blew over in a windstorm, thereby enabling the designers to bring the pond even closer to the glass walls of the museum entry.

Today the pond is a large, sinuous, shimmering body of water, alive with plants and wildlife. Teeming with water lilies, sedges, iris, and other water plants, it curves around one end of the building. Not everything is visible at once. A strolling path of decomposed granite leading around the pond permits visitors to leisurely discover the sculpture arranged throughout the garden.

In the strongest reference to Giverny, water lilies (Nymphaea hybrids) float en masse at the pond’s edge

In the strongest reference to Giverny, water lilies (Nymphaea hybrids) float en masse at the pond’s edge

The Spring Walk

Power demonstrates her flair in using color and unusual plants from the first step into the garden. The path through the Spring Walk reveals a grouping of small bulbs such as narcissus and fritillary adjacent to bog plants like golden-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium californicum), California gray rush (Juncus patens), and star sedge (Rhynchospora latifolia). In this first section of garden the pond plants include yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) and yellow and white water lilies (Nymphaea cultivars).

A few steps down the path the color palette shifts to plants that make a statement during the warmest months. Here Power has arranged orange hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa‑sinensis ‘Cherie’), lion’s tail (Leonotus leonuris), kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos flavidus), montbretia (Crocosmia hybrids), Rudbeckia ‘Sonora’ and ‘Indian Summer’, yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘TerraCotta’), and Gazania ‘Aztec Queen’. To provide a contrast to these bright flower colors, she used Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, with its chartreuse flowers, and succulent aeoniums in both green and black.

To assure that each piece of sculpture would blend harmoniously with the plants and trees surrounding it, museum staff made full-sized paperboard cutouts of the works. Before the heavy granite bases holding the sculpture were moved into place, the designers were able to visualize how each piece would relate to the others as well as to the garden setting.

Power found the large granite blocks used in the garden in a Fresno quarry, where they had languished since 1929. She was able to choose the perfect stone to fit each sculpture and found pieces to create the fountain at the rear of the garden. Additional stones are used as benches.

Aristide Maillol’s La Montagne (1937) with the bright colors of the summer garden beyond

Aristide Maillol’s La Montagne with the bright colors of the summer garden beyond

Somewhat obscured at the garden entrance, one of the most striking pieces of sculpture becomes visible in the summer garden. Called La Montagne (The Mountain), the work depicts a large goddess-like creature in repose, her hand reaching across the pond. This and other sculptures by French artist Aristide Maillol are cast in lead. Because the soft gray of the casting material and expressive modeling of the female figure gives the piece great dignity, Power placed La Montagne in a prominent spot. Other works in this section of the garden include Henry Moore’s King and Queen. The two figures rest on their large block of granite, nestled in the curve of the building as if watching the activity about them. It is one of seven bronzes in the museum’s collection by Moore, considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important sculptors.

Working With Existing Trees

At the point where the pond curves at the rear of the building, the existing trees are tallest and create varying degrees of shade. Near a dominating Port Jackson fig (Ficus rubiginosa), a cooling moon garden was designed with primarily white flowers to brighten up the area. Power combined white agapanthus (Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis ‘Albus’) with white ginger (Hedychium coronarium), hellebores (Helleborus hybrids), calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), and fairy lily (Zephyranthes candida). Henry Moore’s flowing sculpture, Reclining Figure, was strategically placed near an undulating limb of the fig so that the viewer would see the relationship between man-made and natural curves.

The stone fountain with sago palms (Cyca revoluta)

The stone fountain with sago palms (Cyca revoluta)

Across the path from the fig, Power placed the stone fountain and surrounded it with sago palms (Cycas revoluta). The plants of the autumn border adjacent to the fountain include bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), alstroemeria, cannas and euphorbias. A small hill behind the tree was terraced to create a sound buffer against the noise of a nearby freeway. A walkway on the hillside features large specimens of Brugmansia versicolor ‘Charles Grimaldi’.

Continuing on the path to the far side of the pond, the visitor arrives at the “hottest” part of the garden where stands a spreading coral tree (Erythrina crista‑galli). Like the hot spot in the center of English artist JMW Turner’s dreamy waterscapes, the coral tree is a focal point in this garden. Beside it rests another of Maillol’s works, La Riviere (The River).

A mature grove of lemon scented gums (Eucalyptus citriodora) provides a striking backdrop to the western edge of the garden. Power planted a subtle but lovely combination at the base of the trees, incorporating woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). A curving line of baboon flower (Babiana stricta) enlivens the eucalyptus walk in spring.

Aristide Maillol’s L’Aire floats above a cloud of lavender (Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Gray’)

Aristide Maillol’s L’Aire floats above a cloud of lavender (Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Gray’)

A seamless blending of plants leads to the Kashmir Cypress Garden with two centerpiece trees, deodar (Cedrus deodara) and Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmiriana). An harmonic planting of pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Gray’ with honey bush (Melianthus major) forms a pleasing gray backdrop to a third Maillol sculpture, The Aire. The reclining statue seems to float on a cloud of lavender.

The final section of the garden features a newly planted grove of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) with green and orange, tulip-shaped late spring flowers. The trees provide interesting visual frames for views back into the garden or across the pond.

A Hint of Giverny in California

When the museum finished the lengthy remodeling, visitors came in the front lobby, looked out, and headed straight for the garden. The vista they now see through the glass wall is tantalizing, mysteriously enchanting. In the foreground they spot small pond plants and grasses. In the midground they can detect bright flower color and, through a filmy haze of plants, the outlines of sculpture. The background is dominated by the silvery trunks of the lemon scented gums. The plants and trees seem to be in motion, sometimes from the wind, sometimes from the rush of small dragonflies that feed at the pond. In spring ducks glide through the water; egrets stand at attention; a great blue heron flies in for a visit.

Except for a few minor glitches early on, the garden is a resounding success. After the opening, there appeared to be too much decomposed granite from the pathways tracked in on visitors’ shoes. The garden was closed until a harder surface could be installed. A few plants did not adapt to their new home. But the overall reaction of designers, museum officials, and the public is one of exultation. The new garden is a great success, proviing a lovely setting for the art, and a place where people.

The sculpture garden at the Norton Simon is not an imitation of Giverny, although it certainly inspires the same sense of peace and repose. It subtly reminds us of Monet’s vision at the same time it reveals itself as an impressionistic garden true to its California setting and climate.