What Lies Beneath the Roses
“The rose petal, the milestone, or the human hand are as important as love, desire, or the laws of gravity. Thinking ceases to be unifying or making a semblance familiar in the guise of a major principle. Thinking is learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment.”
[Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus]
The rose is a two-faced beast. In an effortless, all-encompassing maneuver, it moves from commercial token of love and seduction to emblem of martyrs. The flower’s form compounds this ambivalence by provoking a contradictory response. Red petals radiate from the heart, while the stem’s prickles discourage any desire to hold her. Owing to this back-and-forth of affect, from allure to aggression, the rose’s record is one of enduring fascination.
Since January 25, not one, but nearly 40 rosebuds put forth new roots in the grassy median of Park Avenue—right in time for Valentine’s Day. Sculptor Will Ryman personally planted 38 gargantuan rose blossoms and scattered 20 curvaceous chairs in the form of petals along the Park Avenue Mall between 57th and 67th Streets. Some of them soar above 20 feet while performing a serpentine dance, thereby playfully disrupting the linear flow of traffic. Structured as eight clusters of four to six, the blooms are composed of weather-resistant fiberglass resin and mounted on stainless steel stems. The warm palette of pink, rose, and red shades generate stark contrast with the snowy white landscape of the past month. Occasionally, a brass ant, aphid, ladybug, or bumblebee can be seen crawling on top of a blossom, or hiding in between petals at pedestrians’ eye-level. The beautiful is made strange.
The remarkably irregular surfaces give each bud its own character; unlike Yoshimoto Nara’s White Ghost—two glossy fiberglass statuesthat previously oversaw the avenue—The Roses were entirely handcrafted and painted by Ryman and his assistants. Although the project demanded the use of industrial materials instead of the plaster, wire mesh, and PVC tubes Ryman regularly uses, the mark of the hand remains an indispensable aesthetic element for Ryman. The underlying ethic is simple: “When the hand is absent, the humanity is lost. Sculpture is all about the hand, the tools, and you. Just like my dad’s paintings are about paint, brushes, and him. That’s all it is. And I think people appreciate that when they see it.”
As the son of painters Robert Ryman and Merrill Wagner, the world of visual art is anything but new to him. Nevertheless, the formative influence of the absurdist tradition, including Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus, remains his primary frame of reference. Ryman was a playwright for 12 years, yet it has been a decade since he wrote his last play. A twist of fate caused the turn to sculpture, providing new possibilities for his dream to invent “a new way of theater.” The Roses are for Ryman what The Chairs are for Ionesco:
The two main characters are waiting their whole life for the great Orator to come explain the meaning of life to them. When he finally shows up, they kill themselves, expecting to find his answers in the afterlife. But his speech turns out to be nothing but garble, nonsense; it’s just noise…Ultimately all words are meaningless. That’s why I wanted to remove them.
With The Roses, Ryman feels as if he finally realized his dream of a total environment: There’s no script, no plot, neither a stage nor a pedestal, and the thousands of guest actors passing the revue are oblivious to their roles.
The public reactions have been as divergent as the meanings of the rose. “Something to smile about for a change! Delightful!” one observer exclaimed. “I know I am new to the game, but I just do not get it,” another blogger confessed. The satisfaction of the pleasure-deprived citizen met with the stupefaction of a reflective viewer. For the former, Ryman’s Roses roused a romantic, happy-go-lucky sensation. The latter wondered, conversely, what makes these flowers so special that 10 streets of an uptown boulevard are dedicated to them until the end of May?
Are The Roses designed to be purely pleasurable on a visual level? Or is there perhaps a less palpable layer of meaning hidden beneath the sunny surface? Although centuries old, the well-known words of the medieval mystic Angelus Silesius still ring true: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms,/It cares not for itself, asks not if it isseen.” Jorge Luis Borges considered this stanza a summation of poetry itself, and it could analogously embrace the freedom of art to be both utterly meaningless and unconcerned with its appearance. Surely in 21st century art, too, The Roses are allowed to be themselves, whether that be instantaneously eye-catching or something more opaque. Yet the site-specific installation is not devoid of meaning—quite the contrary.
Ryman has indicated that his project draws directly from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, an outlandish coming-of-age story “about a dark society, a primal underworld,” as Ryman describes it, which opens with a low-angle shot of a flawlessly landscaped rose bed adorning a white picket fence house:
The film tells the story of people living underneath the surface of the American Dream… As the camera pans down, the flowery music starts growling, and it keeps going underneath until you see the worms and the bugs squirming in the dirt. So there’s this ideal way of life that everybody wants, or everybody is supposed to want. But what’s primal and what’s just as real, probably even more so, is what’s underneath. The dirt and the worms and the bugs are holding up the flowers, right?
In the fairy tale of public art, Prince Charming must always rescue Sleeping Beauty from the Monster, not the other way around. Simply put: the Park Avenue Roses ended up less dark than originally projected. This becomes clear when one compares them with Ryman’s earlier works. The Roses is, in fact, a magnified version of a garden that was shown in A New Beginning, Ryman’s solo exhibition at the Marlborough Galleryin 2009. Of the more than 100 roses that were on view, some still stand in full bloom at Ryman’s Bowery studio, not far from the New Museum. Insects, replicas of cigarette butts, Starbucks coffee cups, and empty beer cans manifestly surround these infant Roses (2009). This garden of would have been even stronger when compared to the statuesque elegance of Isa Genzken’s “Rose II” (2007), a single aluminum rose standing 28 feet tall, seemingly pinned on the outdoor ledge of the New Museum like a corsage to a grey tuxedo jacket. The omission of symbolic litter on Park Avenue is therefore noticeable, noteworthy, and ultimately unsurprising.
One could compare the modus operandi of public art in New York City with that of a major Hollywood movie: the director takes the wishes of the producer into account lest the whole be cancelled. As critic Robert Storr pointed out with delicious candor more than 25 years ago in response to Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc controversy: “In the country thatinvented the “Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker, a “Love Me or I”ll Leave You” response is a just invitation to be told to “Get Lost.” Doubtless, it would have been foolish to pass up on the chance to use the city as a scene. “The rose fits with Park Avenue, because it represents a similar elegance, a common romance. But then I added a mischievous, humorous ingredient to it—which is me,” Ryman laughs. Thus, The Roses are not entirely stripped of their uncanny qualities. The centerpieces of the classy boulevard are governed by the same pretty roses/ugly bugs duality, and, moreover, are literally blown out of proportion. The term “absurd” originally signified “out of harmony”—following this etymology, Ryman remains true to the absurdist tradition that first inspired him.
In the history of still-life painting, flower pictures have received a similarly ambiguous reception. The genre did have success, because many still-lifes were painted and preserved. Yet it often enjoys less respect than, let’s say, any representation of a human body. Many depictions of gorgeous and delicate things do imply a sinister underside: in vanitas paintings, flowers remind beholders of the transience of life. The flower’s expressiveness lies in her status as a synecdoche of nature as a whole. While the analogy may be tempting, The Roses, however, cannot simply be placed in such an anachronistic category. The first reason is that the term “still life” calls to mind a creation in the studio after a static model, whereas The Roses were literally conceived on the spot. More importantly, perhaps, the site came with a readymade audience that was constantly in flux. Motion is what drives the passers-by forth, and makes the stems do their curvy dance. Motion is what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson declared to be vital: “For the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude towards something that is moving.”
The viewer that Ryman envisions is not Charles Baudelaire’s famous figure of the flâneur, catching urban phenomenain a glimpse, strolling around, trapped in a drunken state, like a child in Wonderland, flickers between dream and reality. Rather, Ryman looks to Camus, who proposes a distinction between roughly two types of people walking this earth: the everyday man and the absurd man. The everyday man “does not enjoy tarrying,” but always hurries onward, under the impression that his days can be directed, while the absurd man sees everything in focus, without the filter of sense. The ideal beholder then will find herself in a transitional middle: slowing down, waking up, and smelling the roses. “I’d like them to stop and look inside the blossoms especially,” concludes Ryman. “When you get really close to them, you can see the amorphous sculpted shapes almost come to life.”