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At 37 feet tall, Jeff Koons’s flower-draped ‘Split-Rocker’ demands a whole lotta love

In spring, it’s all hands on deck as the groundskeeping staff at the Glenstone museum in Maryland races to install 24,000 plugs of annual transplants into the skin of the sculpture “Split-Rocker.” Originally planted with the aid of ponderous scaffolding, “Split-Rocker” is now planted by technicians aloft in cherry pickers. What took a week to plant now requires one very full day. (Jennifer Heffner/For The Washington Post)

Even if it were not alive, the sculpture known as “Split-Rocker” would be a mind-blowing thing. At 37 feet high and set atop a domed hill, it is surely the most playful if not wondrous piece of artwork at Glenstone, the world-class private art museum on 200 acres in Potomac, Md. And yes, “Split-Rocker” is alive. From mid-spring to mid-fall, 24,000 annuals produce maybe a million blossoms to turn the sculpture into a tapestry of nature’s modulated hues.

Crowning a meadow to the side of the Glenstone entrance, “Split-Rocker” is bemusing and strangely powerful, but it has felt like something of an aside as you make your way through the vast campus to the Gallery, the lakeside exhibition building. This is about to change.

A major expansion of Glenstone, in the works for five years and due for completion later this year, will shift the center of gravity away from the Gallery to a new museum that is seven times as large, with “Split-Rocker” becoming the signal sculpture on the landscape, offering its gaze and orientation directly to the new building. This anticipated role drove founders Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales to acquire the work and place it in its prominent spot in 2013.

“Split-Rocker” is the creation of Jeff Koons, perhaps America’s most famous contemporary artist and one of its most polarizing. To some, he is a genius who elevates the banal into work powerful enough to alter our imagination and to rekindle childhood wonderment. Others see him as an artist who skillfully caters to an art market where the hyper-rich go to have fun while investing their money.

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Koons is best known for his “Balloon Dog,” fashioned from highly polished and colored stainless steel. Its orange version, one of five, sold for $58.4 million in 2013, making it the most expensive sculpture by a living artist. At 10 feet high, “Balloon Dog” is big but not monumental. Its mirror-like curves provide sharp, dis­cern­ible surfaces. By contrast, “Split-Rocker” reads as a gigantic fuzzy green folly on the landscape.

As you approach “Split-Rocker” up a curving path, you see that it represents the heads of two child’s rockers, sliced nose to nape and stuck together. One is of a toy pony, the other a dinosaur. The two sides don’t quite align; the eye of the dino points forward, the eye of the pony looking out. They each have an identical yellow handle.

Art scholars see something of cubism in its fragmentation, but without the angst. Its playfulness is undeniable, and while it forces the viewer to think about the shallowness of our consumer society, it does so without apparent irony or subversiveness. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl has written: “It takes real effort not to enjoy the charm” of “Split-Rocker” and its predecessor, “Puppy.”

For Emily Rales, the museum’s director, “Split-Rocker” also brings together the three essential worlds of Glenstone: art, architecture and garden.

She calmly pondered “Split-Rocker” on a warm, breezy morning last May: “We always knew this would be a site for a major piece of sculpture because it was at an elevation above everything else. We looked for a long time for a showcase sculpture like this and eliminated a lot of things, and this finally came to us for sale. It was in the possession of a French collector, and we knew immediately when we saw pictures of it that it would be perfect for here, its scale and the way it combines horticulture with art. It brings everything together in a beautiful way.”

I asked her how much it cost as a sense of crassness washed over me. “I can’t tell you that,” she said. “It was quite significant. What we were most worried about was the maintenance, because that’s a cost that never goes away.”

The gardener in me wanted to know: How do you grow the blessed thing? Stuffed with tender annuals, it must be replanted each year.

If you know how challenging it can be to keep a hanging basket of half a dozen plants going through the season — with the constant demands of watering, feeding, deadheading and grooming — imagine what that must be like with many thousands of annuals, and most of them reachable only with a cherry picker.

To wrap my head around it, I asked to be there for its spring planting, undertaken after the last frost of the season. In addition to Rales, the team included manager of curatorial affairs Nora Cafritz, deputy superintendent of grounds Matt Partain and several technicians aloft in cherry pickers. Oh, and “Split-Rocker’s” very own gardener, Chris Ryan.

To install the sculpture, Glenstone first had to build a platform of architectural concrete measuring 30½ feet by 36 1 /2 feet. Ryan positioned a footstool so we could climb onto the platform for a closer look. He knows “Split-Rocker” inside out. Literally.

I clambered atop the plinth and followed him into the beast. You enter in the small gap between the contours of each head. It is like stepping into a cave, or maybe the way a mouse feels were it to nest in a motorcycle helmet. The interior is cluttered with a metal superstructure fashioned from steel pipes. If you had X-ray vision, you could see that the stainless-steel shell is a honeycomb of 240 compartments, each containing potting soil, irrigation tubes and the plant roots. The exterior wall consists of a blanket of perforated geotextile fabric through which the annuals are planted.

Inside, ranks of white PVC pipes with red valves attest to an elaborate irrigation system, with 37 zones. Each watering takes more than 700 gallons, and provides Ryan the opportunity to add fertilizer and fungicide, both organic. The compartments drain back into a cistern to control and conserve the water. Often, the pipes weep down upon him, which might be welcome in the heat of summer except the droplets often contain fertilizer made from liquefied fish.

In spring, the sculpture was naked in its outer fabric, sort of like a sheep after shearing, though it was a deep green with areas marked by sections delineated in thick black lines. These zones dictated the color of the flowers and were chosen by the artist. If the blooms were the pigment, the planting team became the artist’s brushes.

In general, the left side, that of the dinosaur, is smothered in hot colors. The right side, the pony, has a cooler palette of blues, whites, pinks and lavenders.

“Jeff was very involved in the first planting, and since then we have been able to maintain his vision,” said Cafritz. “This is a little like painting by numbers, so we know every color at every step.” She was clad all in black, including her vinyl gloves, which made her yellow safety harness pop. I noticed that Partain, decked out in khaki, was also wearing a harness, but in a screaming lime green. Perhaps it was the distorting backdrop of the sculpture, but the scene took on a dreamlike quality. I imagined the pair of them rappelling up and down “Split-Rocker” as if they were in some Cirque du Soleil number. It was a ridiculous notion — they were readying for the cherry pickers — but I wondered if the mojo of the sculpture had been creating its own aura of surreality.

Thinking about the plants would bring me back to Earth. They were arranged carefully in their flats by color. Various annuals were mixed together; the blends consisted of five to seven different annuals, but all of the same approximate hue. They would be matched to the appropriate area of “Split-Rocker.” These mixtures, not yet in bloom, had been assembled earlier by the Glenstone team working with its grower, TSB Enterprises, in Middletown, Md.

They included verbenas, begonias, marigolds, vincas, impatiens, lantanas, bidens, petunias and calibrachoas. Some were suited for the shadier sides of the sculpture, others for the full afternoon sun, about 15 plant species totaling 70 varieties. I asked if I could plant a section, and soon I was coaxing marigolds and New Guinea impatiens from their cells and threading them through the holes toward the base of the dinosaur side. I firmed the soil around the roots, knowing that they would dry out without good contact. It’s not every day that you help Jeff Koons realize his artistic vision. I kept the thought to myself.

I returned six weeks later on a hot July day to see how the plants had filled out. Blossoms of differing colors and wide-ranging forms entirely covered the fabric skin. From afar, the color organization was evident. The muzzle of the dinosaur was draped in yellows and golds, but the side of the head was a cascade of hot pinks, red and orange. On the pony, the mane was marked by pink and white stripes falling vertically. The side of the face was a medley of coral pink, magenta pink, blues, lavender and white.

As I got close to the sculpture, however, its forms blurred into a waterfall of mixed annuals. Close up, it had morphed from a piece of art into flower beds in strange planes. I could see the enormousness of Ryan’s challenge.

“Split-Rocker” is so large that it is no one thing, horticulturally. The flowers under the chin function as a huge hanging basket. The sides are what gardeners today call a living wall. The top is an undulating rooftop garden, one surely with issues of unrelenting sun, high wind and dryness. Conversely, the flowers in the chin are cast in shade and prone to unavoidable waterlogging.

At the back, the vertical ridge of the mane produces an area that is in constant shade, not the best place for these sun-loving annuals.

Ryan spends many hours aloft in a cherry picker to stay in control of “Split-Rocker.” This is during hours or days when Glenstone is closed. (Note well: Glenstone is closed until May, when a new Louise Bourgeois exhibition opens. Admission is free, but visitors need an appointment.) He removes dead and congested plants, cuts off faded blooms and grooms areas that have become shaggy. He hand-waters many of the plants missed by the irrigation tubes.

Some just need to be replaced as the hot weeks wear on: The alyssum around the eyes, for example, might be replaced with vinca, or the bidens under the handles substituted for yellow flowering lantana.

The summer morning air was sticky and the temperature already 93 degrees, so we squeezed inside “Split-Rocker” to get out of the sun. I noticed two life-size, plastic peregrine falcons resting on a shelf within the skull. “The biggest challenge this year has been the starling infestation,” Ryan said. He had positioned the decoys on “Split-Rocker” to scare off the starlings, which had begun to build nests and were pulling plants out of their sockets. “I started with one, but I thought they were getting used to it,” he said. “Sure enough, it worked.”

Through the season, he may replace as much as 5 percent of the plants to fill gaps caused by natural losses. “It’s typical to lose flowers; there’s no way to keep them all alive.” Deer have been known to reach the platform and munch on some blooms, but rarely.

Ryan studied plant science at the University of Maryland and thought he would wind up as a golf course grounds­keeper. When he’s at parties and the like, I asked, how does he begin to explain what he does for a living? “Most people don’t believe it’s a job,” he said.

In November, the freezes turn the annuals brown and lifeless. After they are all removed, Ryan confronts his principal winter chore: replenishing the soil lost to compaction and erosion. He uses the exterior planting holes to repack the boxes. He adds as much as seven tons of fresh planting mix each winter, stuffing in the soil with a stick. It’s a cold and bleak task. “There’s no break in maintaining a giant living sculpture,” he said.

“We did a study to see how complicated and expensive it would be to maintain this,” Rales told me. Even that diligence couldn’t anticipate the rigors of such a challenging horticultural feat. “It was definitely more than we thought it would be,” she said, with a laugh. “But Mitch and I couldn’t let go of this opportunity.”

“The first two years there were lots of mistakes,” she said. The first was erecting scaffolding to plant it, a problem now averted with the cherry pickers. “Originally, it took a week to plant it, and now it’s one day,” she said.

The annuals that flourished in France would not hold up as well in the heat and humidity of Maryland.

“We did a test with perennials one year,” Rales said. “It seemed labor-intensive and wasteful to plant every season. We thought we could achieve the same effect by planting selected areas with perennials. But it didn’t work; it wasn’t as crisp and precise.”

One year, a whole area turned brown as the plants succumbed to disease, but Rales was steadfast in her aversion to chemical fungicides. Even with the watering system figured out, the heat and humidity take their toll. Varietal selection is key to success.

“Every time I see a plant die I get a little worried, but I have learned not to worry too much,” Ryan said.

Koons’s obsessiveness with materials and fabricating techniques is well known and has brought him to moments of financial peril. When he was creating his “Balloon Dog” sculptures he reportedly first got a balloon artist to make 85 versions before he was satisfied, and then CAT-scanned the winner.

What strikes me about “Split-Rocker” is that once he unleashed nature on his work, he could no longer be Jeff Koons, the control freak. (I tried several times to reach him for this article but was unsuccessful.)

Koons put his own spin on it during an earlier showing of “Split-Rocker” at Versailles, when he told an interviewer: “The balance between control and giving up control reminds us of the polarity of existence.”

He has also said that the three states of being for this sculpture — creation, change and death — bestow on the observer a “concept of mortality and how life is a cycle.”

I suspect he had a limited understanding of what it would take to cultivate a Chia Pet that is channeling Godzilla. No matter, we’re glad it all came together to blossom on a hill in suburban Maryland.

As Emily Rales puts so well, “Who doesn’t love flowers?”

Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post’s gardening columnist.

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