David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors. He shares here a recent visit to Abbie Zabar’s New York City apartment, in anticipation of the opening this summer of her exhibition Abbie Zabar: Ten Years of Flowers in Wave Hill House.
Abbie Zabar is an enthusiast for lithops (stone plants), as I am, too. These strange succulents of Southern African origin live half-buried in the highlands, pretending to be pebbles. In the last few years, however, the small garden encircling Abbie Zabar’s apartment in Manhattan has been dense with saxifrage, orostachys and euphorbia, small, succulent individuals that can be difficult to grow. She shared her tricks for sempervivum, or “hens and chicks,” so-named for the way that they branch out with satellite plants. And rounding the corner on the tight terrace, she was careful to point out the proud preponderance of alpine plants, “quite an achievement” in the muggy smog of a New York City summer. Partially due to constraints, and partially by preference, the garden is modest and restrained: her favored plants are often on the small side, and as she said, “I like green. Believe it or not, I’m not a flower person.”
It’s a surprising admission because for a decade Abbie Zabar has made weekly trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to sketch the floral arrangements in the entrance hall. Arriving early in the morning, she has even been allowed entry before the public for easier access to the arrangements (though the drawings have been made at all times of day). Zabar prefers wet media to dry, but she’s accommodated the museum’s policies and uses colored pencils—mostly: for the highlights, she likes the viscosity and matte-ness of white-out, which introduces variety to the surface of these small drawings. Pictured here is her drawing from October 21, 2000, created with color pencil on tinted paper. It is in the collection of Frances Williams.
The Met’s flowers are set in a cinquix, a classic medieval arrangement that puts a large bundle of flowers in the center and smaller satellites in the four cornices. The fund that has allowed for this robust but little-known tradition at the Met was provided by Lila Acheson Wallace. As Zabar puts it, Wallace “didn’t care about how many paintings of flowers there were in the collection; she needed live ones.” For many years, the Met’s florist was Chris Giftos, with whom Zabar is pictured here at an exhibition. Someone was quick to introduce them, after noting the dedication with which she followed and adapted his creations.
The elevator to the small apartment opens directly onto the terrace, unusually, so that visitors are greeted by an arrangement of boxwoods growing from repurposed olive-oil jars. The careful crafting of this entry is evident. Though she’s been trying to encourage vines to leaf out over her walls, they’ve been reluctant to follow the paths she’s devised in previous years: “You can’t force it; it will do what it wants.” If they did grow out, the fluttering foliage over the black wall would make the narrower corridor feel more spacious. Or take the troughs, for example, made from granite, tufa and hypertufa. When I asked about the “A” incised on the side of a stone one, she told me the story of the stonemason who’d gouged out the trough. On her suggestion, he had drilled in the initial free-hand: after all, “A for ‘Abbie,’ and also A for ‘Arturo.”
Her drawings, which seem like blurs of color on first inspection, gradually reveal layers of information about the structure of the arrangement, the artist’s mood and even the quality of light that day. That same intensive quality drew Zabar to Wave Hill’s gardens as a context for her work: “the more you look, the more you see. The plantings are very dense.”
A selection of Zabar’s gestural records of floral arrangements from the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be visible from June 7 to October 4, 2015, in the Tea Room of Wave Hill House.