Far from lumbering or slumbering through the pandemic, Madison Cox is elbow deep in different projects.
During an interview Tuesday from Marrakech, where he oversees the Majorelle Garden, the garden designer discussed what has been a very productive year. He is also director of the Saint Laurent Museums in Paris and in Marrakech, and president of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. Cox was married to Bergé, who died in 2017.
Until a year ago, Cox was on an airplane two or three times a week buzzing between Europe and the U.S. finessing different garden projects. With an active office in Manhattan, he routinely jetted from the West Coast to the East Coast, Portugal, the south of France, Morocco and other locales. Despite being grounded for the past year, he has multiple projects underway in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Florida and other cities. “It’s been quite exciting to realize that I don’t have to be on a plane all the time,” Cox said.
Through his work at the national garden in Morocco, Cox is reimagining ways to attract local visitors as opposed to international ones, which was the norm before the pandemic. In 2019, there were 1.5 million visitors. After the borders closed last March, global travelers naturally became scarcer. Only 56 of the 1,000 visitors who toured the gardens last Sunday were international ones, he said. Attendance has climbed steadily since the reopening in October. Establishing partnerships with institutions nearby and abroad, such as the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean in Marseille, France, has helped to create some dynamism at a time when most of the world is not traveling, Cox said.
Plans are underway in Paris to orchestrate a series of exhibitions that will open in January to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house. The first fashion show was held January 1962. Saint Laurent became the first fashion designer to have a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in 1983, thanks to the stewardship of Diana Vreeland. That was a springboard to numerous other exhibitions in Beijing, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and other places including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Richmond and “of course a very large one in Paris,” Cox said, “I thought there’s no way that we can replicate a large retrospective exhibition. It’s been done many times. Let’s do something different.”
As a result, a Moroccan exhibition curator has devised a series of shows in leading Paris museums to mark the anniversary, including the Pompidou Center, Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum and more. “It will be the first of its kind, which is very, very, very exciting. So we’re very busy at all levels even though we’ve been all locked down and can’t go anywhere,” Cox said.
Slated to open simultaneously during the week of Jan. 29, the unveiling “will be quite something,” Cox said. “I think we will all need scooters to scoot from the Picasso Museum to the Musée d’Orsay to the Museum of Modern Art. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Whether it be the garden in Marrakech or the museum in Paris, Cox said the only way that either can be alive in the spirit and creativity of Saint Laurent and Bergé, or to mean anything to future generations, it to evolve.
“One of my goals was to take this kind of private garden that was open to the public into something more than that today. It is rich from a botanical point of view, which is why I’ve hired a brilliant young botanist. So it really becomes much more than just a pretty place to walk, but it also becomes an educational tool and something that Moroccans can feel a sense of pride,” he said.
To that end, certain plants are being labeled so that local visitors understand they are plants that come from their country, a region and the continent. “Quote unquote exotics” and greenery from abroad are also being identified, Cox said. Classes in botany, gardening, land management and additional subjects are being offered.
Similar logic applied to the upcoming anniversary plans in Paris. While a 60th-anniversary exhibition at the YSL Museum could have been done, Cox said he felt it was important to take the concept out of those walls to exhibit the designer’s work in context or in a dialogue with some of the artists or institutions that inspired him. While transmitting or passing on information is key, so is creating something that is alive, Cox said.
Another project he is digging into is having the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Laurent Le Bon, curate an exhibition in the temporary exhibition space in Morocco that hopefully will bow in 2023.
Meanwhile, the employee base for the gardens has grown from 48 to 196 people in the past 15 years or so. Gardeners were a natural addition, but staff for security, the museum, education and botany have also been hired. “It has a life of its own. It’s no longer the place that it was in that sense, a private retreat,” Cox said of Majorelle when Saint Laurent and Bergé were alive.
As for the pandemic-induced resurgence in gardening, he said, “It’s very interesting. Seed companies don’t have seeds anymore, because so many people are buying them. Garden books are in more demand than ever. The garden is one thing but also we’re becoming more and more aware of land management and how we are going to manage that. Also, there are courses in reforestation. People are becoming more sensitive to the natural environment and the protection of the natural environment. As the years go by, you hear more about global warning,” he said.
Acknowledging how the pandemic has people tending to their windowsill boxes or backyards like never before, Cox said, “It’s a hopeful evolution. Let’s hope it will bear fruit, if it’s not too late.”
As for any fool-proof advice Cox offers weekend gardeners, he said, “Oh, I would say, ’Take copious notes and don’t give up.’ Hope springs eternal.”
Admittedly not very systematic when it comes to taking notes, Cox said, “My notebooks tend to be a mash-up of things. It’s always fun to go back to see what time I seeded tomato seeds as opposed to this year, the year before or two years before.”
Another page-turning project will be compiling a book of Saint Laurent’s sketches, including fashion, architectural and erotic ones. On the horizon for the next three or four years, Cox addressed the sensitivity regarding the latter, which included a trove that went missing, reappeared at a Swiss art fair a couple of years ago and vanished again. Noting how other great artists like Picasso published erotic sketches, he said, “I completely understand Pierre Bergé’s and Saint Laurent’s refusal at the time to even discuss the matter. They were of course privately made sketches by Saint Laurent. But I think if one draws back with distance, they [see they] are a part of his creative genius just as a fashion sketch [is]. We have uncovered an enormous number of sketches that he did of architecture relating to the period where they bought their second house in Marrakech, which had a garden,” said Cox, adding that led to a plethora of sketches of gardens, pavilions and fountains.
While next year’s anniversary exhibition is his primary focus, a very large retrospective exhibition will open in Japan in 2023, Cox said. After the Saint Laurent Museum opened in Marrakech four years ago, he has spent much of the past 18 months putting together protocols and procedures in line with museum institutions. “That’s also being done for the simple fact for the institution to have structures that will hopefully ensure its future.”