The Harrisons' 'Survival Piece #5: Portable Orchard' on display at the Whitney

Art installations from emeriti professors Newton and Helen Harrison still having an impact in the art world

Newton and Helen Harrison
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison (Courtesy of The Harrison Studio)

Survival Piece #5: Portable Orchard conceived and designed in 1972 by leading pioneers of the eco-art movement and UC Santa Cruz emeriti professors Helen Mayer Harrison (1927–2018) and Newton Harrison (1932–2022) will be exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York starting on June 29, 2024. 

Survival Piece #5: Portable Orchard marks the first standalone museum presentation of the fully realized indoor citrus grove. It is curated by Kim Conaty who was recently promoted to the role of Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator at the Whitney Museum.

Portable Orchard is the fifth installment of seven in the couple's Survival Pieces series. The project explores the need for a productive and sustainable food system in an imagined future where traditional farming practices are obsolete and human survival cannot be taken for granted. Stretching across the Museum’s eighth-floor gallery, this installation of eighteen live citrus trees rooted in self-contained planters with individual lighting systems reflects a survivalist alternative in the face of environmental decline.  

Other works in Survival Pieces include a hog pasture, a portable fish farm, and an indoor farm.

“We made it because we thought: ‘All the orange trees in Orange County are disappearing. The orchards are being cut down.’ So we made an orchard for the museum that would be the last orange orchard in Orange County,” Helen said in a 2013 interview with Artists on Art discussing the original installment of the piece.

The Harrisons are survived by their four adult children, two of whom are continuing to oversee their parents’ vast amount of work. “My junior high school job was building fish tanks,” says Joshua Harrison, one of the Harrisons' sons. Joshua and his siblings spent their childhoods helping their parents construct art. “My older brother and I were just reminiscing about how we were building Portable Orchard.”

Newton and Helen met in 1950 and later married in 1953. They spent many of their early years together teaching, and became increasingly successful as artists in the early 1970s. Before their time in Santa Cruz they worked at the University of New Mexico then UC San Diego where they stayed for 25 years. They have had numerous international solo exhibitions and their work is in the collections of many public institutions including the Pompidou Center, Paris; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Nevada Museum of Art; and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2013 the Harrisons became the first recipients of the Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography, and Stanford University Libraries acquired the Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, an extensive archive that documents their life and work with a significant amount of audiovisual material and born-digital files.

In the 1980s, when asked what made their work art and not science, Newton told the New York Times, “When you read Dostoyevsky, why aren’t you calling it social science? He took his own transactions with the world and transposed them into images and stories. We do the same. The best description we can make of ourselves is as storytellers of a sort.”

The exhibition at the Whitney is one of several showings of the Harrison’s work which will be on display around the country. This is due in a large part to the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at UC Santa Cruz, which was founded by Newton and Helen, and is now run by their son Joshua. The center mainly focuses on continuing the Harrisons' work of combining ecology and art by bringing together scientists, artists, and politicians.

Since Newton’s passing, Joshua and his brother Gabriel have sorted and cataloged hundreds of pieces of art in their parents’ collection. Though Newton and Helen are gone, their legacy will continue to live on.

More Information

The Whitney Museum of American Art

99 Gansevoort St.

New York, NY 10014

June 29, 2024 –January 1, 2025

Other Art Showings

August 2024 Brackish Waters, Cal State Dominguez Hills University Art Gallery
& California Wash, Santa Monica

August 24,  2024 Sketches for Sensorium, Allosphere - UC Santa Barbara
Nanosystems Institute (part of Future Tense) (selected dates in
Sept, Oct, Nov and Dec)

August 24, 2024 Future Tense, Beall Center for Art and Technology, UC Irvine

Sept 15,  2024 Helen and Newton Harrison - Survival Piece #1: Hog Pasture
Various Small Fires, 812 North Highland Blvd, Los Angeles 

September 19 La Jolla Historical Society

September 20     California Center for the Arts, Escondido

September 21 San Diego Central Library Gallery

September 28 UC San Diego Mandeville Center Art Gallery

Sept 2024 Kunsthal Charlottenborg Biennale Future Ours (Public Art
Connecting Art & the UN Global Goals) NYC & Copenhagen