IF YOU WALK DOWN THE BOWERY IN NEW YORK CITY, you can’t miss the enormous piece of sculpture shooting skyward out of the New Museum’s second floor. Rose II is a nearly three-story valentine to Manhattan by Isa Genzken. Sure, the Berlin artist might have chosen to render her love in the form of a fat red heart, but sometimes there’s no substitute for saying it with flowers.
In recognition of this, Lancôme has collected the rose-inspired works of 20 photographers—including Patrick Demarchelier, Brigitte Lacombe, Nick Knight, and Peter Lindbergh—and come out with a handsome limited-edition volume, Rôses by…, and a world-traveling exhibition that kicks off at the Herzog & de Meuron–designed 1111 Lincoln Road during Art Basel Miami Beach.
The most famous rose in art, of course, doesn’t display so much as a single petal. Marcel Duchamp’s cross-dressing alter ego, Rrose Sélavy—pronounced éros, c’est la vie—vamped in drag for Man Ray’s camera and signed a perfume bottle that purported to contain a fragrance called Belle Haleine, or Beautiful Breath. It wasn’t the heady scent that Duchamp enshrined, but rather a prankster’s sensibility that would waft through the next century of art.
That doesn’t mean other artists haven’t stopped to smell the rose’s delights. For every hard-hearted foe of sentimentalism who subscribed to Gertrude Stein’s deadpan deflation of romantic allure (“A rose is a rose is a rose...”), there have been entire schools of artists who went weak in the knees over the flower’s singular seductions and pungent sexiness. Georgia O’Keeffe stuck throbbing roses against the chalky skulls of dead steers, caressing the inner petals with luscious white paint. Ansel Adams shot flayed roses against deeply veined pieces of wood. In a different register entirely is the 2,600-pound painting The Rose, labored over by legendary Beat artist Jay DeFeo for eight years, in which a luminous burst of energy blossoms, petal-like, from a blinding center. For DeFeo, the rose had become a dazzling stand-in for the atom bomb.
Artists like O’Keeffe, Adams, and DeFeo returned to the rose simply because it’s an alluring and totemic thing to look at. But many others have interpreted the flower more along Genzken’s lines—as a token of affection. Roses may be beautiful to behold, but they’re even more powerful when given away. Dan Flavin’s early sculptural piece Barbara Roses—an artificial rose encased in a lightbulb and planted in a flowerpot—was a charming and funny eponymous tribute to a supportive critic. And when in 1972 the most important German artist of the postwar period, the political provocateur Joseph Beuys, produced the first of his multiple-edition Rose for Direct Democracy—each work consisting of a single stem placed in a graduated beaker-like cylinder—he made it clear that the rose could express so much more than mere romance: It could be a gift from the artist to society.