The only thing that could make Will Ryman’s “The Roses” any more of a wondrous spectacle would be if Ethel Mermen was standing atop one of them belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” It’s truly such a sight to stand on New York’s Park Avenue between 57th and 67th streets and marvel at the artistry and feat of engineering (see installation pics in the q&a) that is Will’s gorgeous public art installation.
Complete with Mini Cooper-size bugs, these roses mean business – they are brightening up the landscape, laughing in the face of winter, and instilling passers-by with a feeling of hope and happiness. “The Roses” present something very different from the art of Will’s father, the highly respected minimalist artist Robert Ryman, who is well-known for his white-on-white work.
Will and I talked about how growing up with two artist parents (his mother is the artist Merrill Wagner) did influence his essence, but not his artistic style. In fact, he started out as a playwright and later became a sculptor when he wanted to bring some of his characters to life. His first figures, made from disassembled bookshelves and papier-mache, were created in the 600 square foot apartment he lived in.
But that was then and this is now, and now Will Ryman is a celebrated artist whose much, much larger-than-life roses are lighting up New York. I stand in awe not only of these works, but even more so in the courage Will found to put aside the artistic direction he thought was meant for him and alter his course…an inspiring lesson that makes the roses even more beautiful.
“The Roses” is your first public art project…did you have to approach it differently than a gallery exhibition?
The biggest difference is that with public art the four walls are removed so the environment in which it resides has a lot to do with whether it’s successful or even seen. The whole point of this project, because it was going to Park Avenue, was that it had to comment on that strip and fit into that area of New York. Park Avenue is known for its floral displays, so that’s why I chose roses. And the large scale was important because if the scale was smaller I don’t think it would be interesting, and if it’s not interesting it’s not noticed.
And speaking of surroundings, Park Ave is such a busy area, are you also trying to make a statement like “slow down; stop and smell the roses?”
Not really. I think a lot of my work in the past has been on the darker side, and for this project I just wanted it to be uplifting, especially with the times we’ve been having. There’s no political statement involved, just a new take on a symbol that’s global.
What are you hearing – what’s the reaction?
I’m hearing that people are enjoying the sculptures themselves and the color in the winter time — it’s making winter easier to tolerate. I envisioned these sculptures in winter with snow on the ground and cloudy skies. I don’t know how it would work in summer, I don’t think it would have the same impact.
Have you hung out on Park Avenue to see how people respond?
I’ve been there several times to do some maintenance and every time I’m there there are a lot of people taking photos and climbing on them. People seem to be enjoying and interacting with them. A lot of my work is intended to be interactive and many times my work isn’t complete until people are engaged with the piece.
Much has been written about the bugs, that there might be a sinister meaning behind them. Any truth to that?
I got inspired to do this piece based on the opening shot of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. The camera pans across this “perfect” scene with the house and white picket fence, and then you see the perspective underground, under the roses where the bugs are. That’s what inspired me. I wanted the underworld life present…the part we don’t usually see.
I also included the bugs because I wanted people high up in buildings to have a dialogue with the sculptures, as well as the people on the street…it’s a different perspective.
This is a huge installation – 38 giant flowers plus 20 petals. How did you make them?
KB Projects in Green Point, Brooklyn did the fabricating – they’re in the business of fabricating art work. I was there helping them build the roses and they were very good and worked very very hard on this.
How do you concept your work…do you sketch it out or start with words because of your writing background?
I kind of describe it with words maybe, but I often just start working with materials and start building until I know what I want. When I do big scale like this I usually start with a model. With these I made 12-14 inch maquettes, twisted the stems into the shapes that I wanted them to be, and enlarged them by fabricating them from scratch. A lot of engineering was involved. Mostly I like to be spontaneous and keep going until I see what I want.
Let’s talk about influences. Both of your parents are artists. As a child, this must have influenced you?
Yes, though they didn’t really influence what I made or didn’t make. I have two brothers who are artists who would say the same thing about themselves. I think the fact that my work is so different from my parents’ art proves that.
What did have an influence on me is that growing up we were around the process of making art all the time. We were in my parents’ studios and we were encouraged to be creative and to make things. I built things all the time as a kid. Their friends were also artists so were engaging all the time with this world.
What stuck with me is that it’s all about the process and the perseverance — the act of making something is really what rubbed off on me. Nothing aesthetic rubbed off on me, but we were raised to follow our intuition and our own creative urges.
You clearly had a lot of influences in the visual arts as you grew up, but who influenced your interest in words as an art form earlier in your career?
A lot of playwrights and philosophers, some who influence my visual art, too, like Eugene Ionescu, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, David Lynch’s films. They influenced my way of seeing the world from an absurdist philosophy, which says that life is meaningless and, therefore, absurd unless you give it a specific meaning. I try to portray that with some lightness.
You were a playwright before taking on sculpture as your art form. Have you ever gone the other way and created a sculpture that you then tried to write about?
I’ve never had a desire to do that. I do write down ideas about what I want to make, but now I can depict my vision visually.
You father, Robert Ryman, is described on MoMA’s website as being an artist whose work is a “quest for pictorial expression.” It seems that your work is on the other end of the spectrum…like an extreme or exaggerated version of reality. Do you think this contrast is intentional on your part?
No, we’re just two different people. I love his work. Of all the minimalists I know, I think he is far and away the best. I like the minimalist movement, but it’s not where I come from.
As a child of artists, what is something really helpful that your parents did for you as a kid that helped your love of the arts?
Just that we were around it all the time and if you’re around something all the time as a kid it rubs off on you and becomes natural to you.
What else are you working on?
I’m doing a show at the Fairchild Botanical Garden in Florida. It’s 80 acres and I’ll be doing an installation there. Some of the roses from Park Avenue will travel there, but I’m also creating new art for the installation which opens in December 2011.
My favorite snack is: Doritos
Don’t ask me to: Become an accountant
I would put into a time capsule my: Whole life
My favorite place is: New York City
When I have a creative block I: Eat
My favorite mantra is: It’s about last man standing – it’s about perseverance, it’s an endurance game