Will Ryman’s Bowery studio lies just down the street from a 16-story luxury condo complex, the New Museum, and the Sunshine Hotel, one of the city’s last remaining flophouses. The block is a kind of ground zero for Lower Manhattan gentrification — the contrast between wealth and poverty at its most vivid — and seems to have influenced the giant urban rose garden that fills Ryman’s studio. One hundred plaster roses, some of them seven feet tall, sit atop a small forest of twisting steel stems, all duly thorned and painted chlorophyll-green. Handmade and vastly oversize detritus surrounds them: pizza crusts, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, half-eaten hot dogs, a bag of Wise potato chips. Together, they conjure up a rat’s-eye view of a seedy metropolitan flowerbed, forcing one to confront the grime and neglect that persist in spite of the city’s efforts to rejuvenate the landscape.
Ryman — the 39-year-old sculptor whose installation “A New Beginning” is on view at Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery through October 10 — has been observing the city’s rapidly changing scenery since birth. A big, friendly, soft-spoken guy with spiky hair and a goatee, he hails from a prominent New York art family: His father is the minimalist artist Robert Ryman, best known for his all-white paintings, and his mother, Merrill Wagner, is a celebrated painter of abstractions on steel. As a child, he crawled on legendary sculptures by Tom Doyle, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt that lay around his parents’ Greenwich Village apartment. Explaining the gaps in his knowledge of art history, he says, “I grew up around people making art, not studying it.”
Ryman came to sculpture late, and through the back door. In lieu of college, he took playwriting classes at local theater companies, and began familiarizing himself with absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. The idea that life is absurd and inherently without meaning, unless one dedicates oneself to the common good, appealed to him. He spent the next 12 years writing short plays that explored this worldview.
His relationship with the theater was strained from the start, however. “My playwriting teachers had these strict rules for plays,” he says, as we step across the dirt-colored metal tiles anchoring each flower to the ground. “If there’s a gun onstage, they said, it has to go off — a phone, it has to ring. There’s gotta be a plot turn on page 27, and again on page 77, otherwise it’s not a script.” He felt less adept at structuring plotlines, he says, than “just spitting out situations.”
Actors posed a problem as well. He felt that the attempt to communicate inner life through shouting and dramatic gesturing sacrificed the reality of human behavior. The absurdity of theater, in other words, often overpowered the absurdity-of-life aesthetic he was going for. His 10-minute play The Encounter, which debuted at the Trilogy Theater in 1999, concerned two drunks in a field who see something in the sky but can’t tell what it is. “The actors were either screaming or forgetting their lines,” Ryman says, “and the fake boulder on stage looked like a big sponge.” He laughs. “Basically, I wanted to do away with the script, the actors, the director, knock down the fourth wall, and just create a world for people to exist in.”
Which is what he did in 2003. In his newly acquired studio, Ryman erected 10 different “sets,” and invited everyone he knew over to hang out. One set, titled The Pit, was an assortment of clay-colored papier-mâché figures standing at the bottom of a sealed white room, looking helplessly up. A well-known art dealer was in attendance, and she requested The Pit for her summer show. To Ryman’s astonishment, the piece was eventually chosen for P.S.1’s Greater New York Show in 2005. “I’d always wanted to sculpt how my characters felt, to allow the scenery to tell the story,” he says. “I realized I’d been a sculptor trying for years to write plays.”
Those years have obviously influenced his art. The industrial flowers at Marlborough have about them the paradoxical pinch of a Beckett sentence: happy and sad at once, embodying the idea articulated in Endgame that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Cheerful-seeming from a distance, the roses make no attempt to disguise their ragged consistency up close: Rebar pokes through the aluminum mesh petals, which are loosely bound together with epoxy resin and hastily painted with flat pinks and reds. A look inside reveals not a spiral of smooth folds, but what look like torn and crumpled cardboard boxes. It’s as if the flowers, full of self-loathing over their true identity, have come to identify with the trash beside them. Which is funny, in a depressing sort of way.
“A New Beginning” is, as the name suggests, a departure from Ryman’s previous work, most notably for its lack of humanoid figures. The Bed, part of the “Tuesday Afternoon” show at Marlborough in 2007, featured a 26-foot-long papier-mâché man lying half-asleep in bed, his posture suggesting someone enduring, but also slightly enjoying, a bad hangover. The Sidewalk, from the same show, conceived a number of stoic pedestrians — a watch dealer, a jogger, a homeless man — lost in (or incapable of) thought amid the chaos of city life. In “A New Beginning,” the viewer becomes the installation’s main character, responsible for determining his or her own role in this bizarre, hallucinatory garden.
When I visit Ryman at Marlborough days before the opening, the arrangement of the pieces is different from how it was at his studio: The flowers are clustered around the gallery’s white columns, and the litter more neatly arranged beneath the overhanging petals. “They didn’t want people stepping on the sculptures,” he explains. He understands, of course, but having to compromise the reality of the garden irks him a bit. Later, he takes out his laptop and shows me a digital model of the 30-foot stainless-steel roses he wants to install along the medians between 50th and 57th streets on Park Avenue. The Parks Commission, envisioning the uplifting effect, is enthusiastic, he says.
“I was thinking of putting a crushed Coke can or cigarette butt inside a few of the flowers,” Ryman adds, grinning, “so, you know, only people in the offices above can see them.”
‘A New Beginning,’ through October 10, at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, marlboroughgallery.com