If cities had such things as official botanicals, New York City’s might be the flower bouquet. Its neighborhoods, especially in this time of development boom, are constantly changing; the population always in a state of flux with people coming and going. But in all that movement are moments of beauty, albeit ones that are often as fleeting as the cut blooms.
In The Floral Ghost, recently published by Planthouse gallery, author Susan Orlean considers one of Manhattan’s fading wonders, the Flower District of West 28th Street in Chelsea. According to the New York Times, there are just 32 vendors left in the district, when there were once 60. (Perhaps coincidentally, the book has just over 30 pages of art and text.) Planthouse itself was forced to relocate last year from its Flower District space to another place on West 28th Street, citing the “area’s burgeoning hotel construction.” The book evolved from a 2014 exhibition of the same name, which preceded their relocation and featured a limited-edition portfolio with Orlean’s essay and the work of several artists, including Philip Taaffe.
Accompanied by Taaffe’s monotypes that depict floral abstractions in washes of bright color, Orlean describes her first visit to the Flower District when she was a newly arrived “callow girl hoping to make something of myself here.” She was surprised to find the gritty sidewalk almost swallowed with plants of all shape and color, with exotic blossoms perfuming the storefronts. Orlean would later write her 1998 book The Orchid Thief on the black markets for aficionados of the rare orchids, including the hunt for a prized “ghost” orchid in the Florida swamps.
With Taaffe’s flat monotypes that have a similar feeling of a coded rhythm as his paintings, the phantom she considers in The Floral Ghost is the ritualistic “magic of transformation” taking place daily on the otherwise nondescript street. There, its flower wares “would be made into something singular and beautiful for someone, and it might last just a moment, as so many singular and beautiful things do, but the image of it, flower and leaf, would last.” The district itself may also never return to its former lush glory, like a flower cut at its peak, but The Floral Ghost captures one day of its thriving history through one person’s ephemeral memory.
The Floral Ghost by Susan Orlean and Philip Taaffe is available from Planthouse.