House and Garden: Paula Hayes Brings the Tropics to Midtown

Coral, palm trees and a saltwater aquarium alight at Lever House

On Wednesday evening, last week, The Observer was standing in the lobby of Lever House, the iconic Gordon Bunshaft building at 53rd Street and Park Avenue, with the artist Paula Hayes. As officer workers filed through the airy, rectangular space, cool gusts of early autumn air swept into the room.

“We are standing on an island of tropical vegetation,” Ms. Hayes, 52, told us serenely. Underneath our feet was a soft black rubber floor adorned with blue specks. Nearby, PVC tubes stretched across the floor into what appeared to be a giant sphere wrapped tightly in Tyvek. The lobby’s angular furniture was covered with plastic.

Ms. Hayes’s exhibition, titled “Land Mind,” was set to open in one week (today, Thursday, Nov. 3), the latest in a series of installations that the Lever House Art Collection (initiated by collectors Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi) has sponsored in the building’s lobby. “There will soon be this glowing, surging life inside of this glass building,” Ms. Hayes said, smiling as she scanned the room.

The vegetation was scheduled to arrive on Friday, but Ms. Hayes and a small team of assistants had a lot to do before then. One adjusted blue lights in the ceiling as another spackled a white sculpture that hung from the ceiling, hovering over the sphere. Two were carefully playing with the lights inside an opaque acrylic basin attached to one wall, filled with succulents.

Ms. Hayes climbed on top of a wooden pedestal that held the sphere. “They used to milk cows on here,” she said, pointing to the wood, which was obtained from a farm in rural Pennsylvania. She pulled back some of its wrapping, revealing a transparent, cast acrylic tank that, in a few days, would be filled with salt water.

During the weekend, that salt water would enter the aquarium and circulated by the plastic tubes—“the umbilical cords,” Ms. Hayes calls them—throughout the run of the exhibition. “What I’m hoping to show here is how beautiful seventy percent of the Earth is—the ocean,” Ms. Hayes said. Bangaii cardinal, firefish, purple-faced firefish, shrimp, snails, clownfish and starfish would be a few of the tank’s new inhabitants.

“The lobby is often referred to as a fishbowl, because it is so open on all sides, but now there actually will be a fish tank in it,” Richard Marshall, the curator of the Lever House Art Collection, told us. “Artists often respond to the geometry of the place, but she’s taken the exact opposite approach, infusing nature into this sterile, modernist structure.”

Ms. Hayes isn’t the first artist to take a radical approach to the lobby commission. When British artist Richard Woods had the run of it two years ago, he papered its columns with patterned wallpaper. Liza Lou built a hulking cage covered with glass beads; Damien Hirst stocked it with cabinets housing pharmaceuticals and animal carcasses suspended in formaldehyde.

In contrast, Ms. Hayes’s sculptures—rubber planters, the acrylic planter and aquarium—are all curves and undulations, not unlike the wavy black lines of the Sol LeWitt wall drawing that is just barely visible on the second floor of the building from the lobby. Visitors will be able to roam through the foliage and peer in on the aquarium.

“It will be psychedelic but in a calming way,” Ms. Hayes said.

Also unlike those other installations, Ms. Hayes’s will require constant upkeep. The plants need to be watered, the salt water and sea life monitored. “I want people to feel there is this womb, this reef, we’re caring for here,” she said.

As it happens, Ms. Hayes conjured the idea for the installation in something of a womblike environment, while taking a bath. “I have a strange brain,” she said. “When I’m bathing in warm water, I suddenly see the whole thing. Poof!

A few nights before we met, she’d been watching a show on PBS called Radioactive Wolves, about the animals that have thrived at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear site. “It shows the world without us,” she said. “This beautiful world will be fine even if we aren’t here, but wouldn’t it be nicer to be here to see it?

Ms. Hayes has a studio in a small storefront on East 13th Street with a full-glass window in front that allows passersby to peer in during the day and see the artist’s clear glass terrariums filled with crystals or plants (her trademark works), lining metal shelves inside. Also inside are quietly strange objects like a birdhouse made from UV-stable plastic covered with autobody paint. Presiding over it all is a rambunctious Chihuahua named Diego.

Ms. Hayes entered the New York art world in the late 1980s, attending graduate school at Parsons. The artist Kiki Smith, with whom Ms. Hayes shares an Earth mother vibe, recommended her work to the Fawbush Gallery, and she had her first one-person show there, in 1992.

At the time, Ms. Hayes was making scatter art out of various items. “They were loose assemblages of found materials and drawings and glitter,” she said. She had a day job gardening, an interest that stretched back to her time in rural Massachusetts as the daughter of farmers. In the mid ‘90s, she decided to combine art and horticulture.

“I ended up in a lot of shows about ecology and the environment,” she said. “Wonderfully, more museums have been allowing living work into their galleries.” The Museum of Modern Art commissioned one of her works last year, and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, is currently hosting a solo exhibition, where a team of university students cares for the plants. Eventually, she wants to start a foundation that supports living art.

“The interaction between the caretaker and the work is strong,” Ms. Hayes explained. “There’s stroking, there’s massaging that goes on, as opposed to taming.”

Her works can function as consciousness-raising devices, bringing nature into the homes of collectors. “It’s been said that people buy my work not to be speculative but because they really love it,” she said. “The currency in the work is the involvement.”

So, too, with her living necklaces, some of which house tiny, wearable terrariums. “The status is showing off how well you cared for this plant,” she said. “It’s not a matter of, ‘I can have this, you can’t. It’s more like, this is a very beautiful adornment because I cared for it so well.’”

And several of New York’s most prominent art dealers—Marianne Boesky, David and Monika Zwirner and Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, among them—own site-specific gardens designed by Ms. Hayes, who operates independently, without a single primary dealer.

Her gardens tend to take on lives of their own. “I have had garden clients tell me, ‘We have really come to just love the way things are. They don’t have to be the same or perfect. They evolve.”

By Sunday night, the Lever House lobby had evolved. The floor was carpeted with a forest’s worth of plants: bamboo palms, banana palms, majestic palms, ginger, prayer plants whose leaves curl up at night, Mother-in-law’s tongue (aka snake plant), rubber plants, orange prince, dracaena with braided trunks, bird’s nest fern.

“I wanted texture and a warm palette, but with some neon,” Ms. Hayes said, surveying the greenery as though it were the surface of a painting.

The giant, pear-shaped tank, filled with over a hundred gallons of saltwater, was alive with activity, illuminated by special LED lights shining in from above. Shrimp with the delicate bodies of walking sticks were busy cleaning jagged outcroppings of living rock; iridescent fish zipped by; coral, in colors ranging from green to pale orange to muddy brown, bloomed. Just under the surface of the water, the end of a tube—that “umbilical cord”—gurgled away loudly. “Usually in a home aquarium people quiet the gurgle, but having had two children, I like the breathing and gurgling sounds,” she said.

At the other end of the tube was all manner of machinery—pipes, filtration systems—all of it in full, unapologetic view. In aquarium-ese, this is known as “life support.”

“Home aquariums,” Ms. Hayes reiterated, “are about hiding all of this.”

It was the day before Halloween, and, all afternoon long, passersby had been pausing to stare at the menagerie, Ms. Hayes told us. A man holding a giant pumpkin-shaped cupcake in one hand, and the hand of a little girl with a green-painted face in the other, had stopped for an especially long time. “It was surreal,” she said.

At her suggestion, we climbed atop the tank’s wooden support, and peered in, to see an electric-blue starfish huddling under a piece of coral. “Smell the water,” she said. “It smells like the ocean.”

We did. It does.

Photographs documenting the production of the acrylic aquarium are available here.

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