- Robert Ryman: Used PaintOur PickBy Suzanne Hudson
- Robert RymanBy Janet Boris, Walter Hopps and Deborah Schwartz
Important Art by Robert Ryman
Ryman considers this painting to be his first "professional" work. Though primarily orange, small points of green paint can be seen, mostly at the edges of the canvas. Inspired by Abstract Expressionist works at MoMA, Ryman bought some art supplies from a local store. He later recalled his thought process when approaching his early works: "I thought I would see what would happen. I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. That was the first step. I just played around. I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces."
Unlike almost all of Ryman's later works, this piece is essentially a study of color and the interaction between pigments. It appears at first glance to be monochromatic, but a closer inspection reveals the subtlety both in texture over the surface as well as in the variations in tone. At the edges of the canvas, the orange contrasts sharply with the green paint behind it, and in certain areas, such as the bottom right, it is possible to see where thinner regions of orange paint have begun to blend with the layers of color underneath them. Also unlike Ryman's other works, there appears to be no underlying "strategy" that creates a sense of unity; instead, there is an uneven application of thickness to the canvas. This, however, forecasts the way that Ryman's use of paint in his mature work tends to be nearly sculptural relative to the picture plane, and like the rest of Ryman's work its form assumes that of the square canvas, devoid of representation.
This work from 1960 shows the development of Ryman's mature style and his habitual use of white on a square canvas, but it also suggests a lingering influence from his early experiments with color, as the edges of the canvas reveal layers of blue and green underpainting. It also points to Ryman's debt to the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, characteristically termed "action painters" by critic Harold Rosenberg due to the way their painting revealed the process of creation. Ryman's work constitutes "action painting" in the sense that it indicates how the thick layers of white are built up with a knife or another tool, with more paint deposited towards the upper left corner, thus making the composition appear "off center." Even a neatly painted white rectangular form is visible along the bottom edge, along with the green and blue streaks, making evident each method that Ryman has used in compiling the final product. Also like the Abstract Expressionists, Ryman inserts his bright yellow signature at the bottom, signaling the work's completion.
Ryman's use of color here also serves a second important function, which is to reveal the substantive nature of the materials. Though traditionally white is treated as a background or for its distinct absence of other characteristics, here its application on top of the blue and green parts of the painting reveals its active quality, with distinct mass, shape, pliability, and opacity that proves its ability to literally cover and fully hide the other regions - as well as to seemingly "pull" the center of the painting up towards the top corner.
This painting emphasizes the importance of color in Ryman's work; even when the key color he uses is white, shade and tone are always carefully calculated. Here, the thickly laid white paint acts as a type of screen for the red, purple, and yellow hues behind it. The screen-like quality of the white painting dovetails with the title, possibly a reference to Ryman's attempt to become a professional saxophonist. By 1962, he had abandoned his musical career for one as an artist, thus relegating the former to the background with respect to his new profession.
The textured surface of Untitled (Background Music) seems to ripple if the light changes in the gallery space, emphasizing the importance of the work's context for the viewing experience, but also the general experience of background music, which by its nature is always partially blocked or indistinct for the listener, due to the screen created by distance or interposed barriers. The work presents the viewer with a set of choices, since it is possible to ignore the overlaid white paint to focus in on the regions of color, and vice versa. Much in the same way that one can "tune out" background music by refusing to strain one's ears to capture the sound or, alternatively, focus on the background music completely.
Finally, the "rippling" of the color in the painting parallels the way that some clips of background music seem clearer than others depending on the screening conditions and variability of volume. Such variation can be extended to a sense of randomness in both the nature of improvisational jazz music as well as the absence of any clear logic in the painting to undergird the way that Ryman covers the colored paint with white. The random quality is underscored by the square format of the canvas, which presents no obvious orientation for up, down, left, or right for the way that the painting must be hung.