- Robert Ryman: Used PaintOur PickBy Suzanne Hudson
- Robert RymanBy Janet Boris, Walter Hopps and Deborah Schwartz
Progression of Art
Untitled (Orange Painting)
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.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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.
Oil and gesso on canvas - Dia, New York
Untitled (Background Music)
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.
Oil on canvas - Dia, New York
Arista is a painting that provokes far more questions about the nature of art than it answers. The work includes a six-foot square section of linen that has not been stretched over a canvas frame. The painted fabric is stapled to the gallery wall and bordered by lines drawn on the wall in blue chalk. Peter Schjeldahl correctly comments that "the lines suggest a guide to placement", but also argues that they are in themselves "the most interesting feature of the work." The unstretched fabric and chalk lines give the piece an air of being incomplete, as one traditionally assumes that the chalk lines would be erased and the painted fabric itself placed within a frame. This raises a series of important questions: does the work only exist as a whole when it is fully installed? Is it destroyed if it is re-hung on a different wall or in a different gallery? And, as a result, how do we know when the painting is truly finished, and how should we even properly describe the painting's dimensions? How integral are the staples and the original chalk lines to the work (can we really treat the chalk lines as "guides"?), and, since the chalk lines can easily fade or be erased if touched, Ryman also introduces a temporal dimension to the work: can it be altered and still be considered whole?
On the other hand, Arista also critiques the nature of the gallery itself and the respect accorded to art displayed there, and by extension, the artist himself. Must paintings be traditionally hung and therefore removable in order to be examined? Does permanently stapling the painted surface to the wall necessarily "cheapen" the experience of viewing or the treatment of the work? Or does it suggest a deeper sense of belonging because of the difficulty in removing or even shifting the painting? And, ultimately, does Ryman himself assume a greater degree of control over the museum due to the way his work governs the ability of the staff to set up and arrange exhibitions?
Oil on unstretched linen with staples and chalk lines - Dia, New York
Unlike paintings such as Arista, which is stapled directly to the gallery wall, Counsel sits slightly away from the wall, raised from the surface by steel brackets. The brackets are visible at the top and bottom of the painting, drawing attention to the work's interaction with the space around it and the importance of its physical presence in the gallery. Most importantly, on this level Counsel plays with the traditional notion of framing even more than Arista, since a frame can both refer to the way the painting is encased in a type of boundary that often accentuates its presence and can refer to how the surface of a canvas or substrate is supported by a backing structure, in this case the durable and plainly visible (though not obtrusive) brackets protruding above and below the linen.
The raised bracketed frame, of course, introduces the question of whether an encasing frame raises the profile of a work within the gallery to a greater degree than the way that Ryman has chosen here. But the positioning away from the wall also points to the "constructed" as opposed to painted nature of the work. The brackets and bolts are industrially manufactured, and in combination with the square format of the painting suggest a sense of standardization, as if it has been factory-produced. Yet, this is held in tension with the revelation of the hand of the artist in the way that Ryman has laid the white paint on the fabric, building it up thickly in the center and tapering it off, so that its coverage stops before reaching the edges. In perhaps the ultimate display of artistic process, the work appears like a tabletop with a base substance poured onto it and ready to be worked and shaped, but permanently frozen in a moment of preparation and hung up for posterity.
Oil and enamelac on linen with steel fasteners and bolts - Dia, New York
This is one of several works that Ryman made during the 1980s that he called "three-dimensional paintings," existing somewhere on the boundary between painting and sculpture. Critic Lidija Haas claims that Accord, and other Ryman works from this era, "feel like gentle jokes as well as experiments: is it a painting or a frame, or a podium on which an artwork will be presented to you?"
Like many Minimalist works of the 1960s, Accord straddles the boundary between art and object and asks the viewer whether or not these categories are mutually exclusive. Even more so than Counsel, Accord appears as if it has been industrially manufactured, with a precision to the cuts of aluminium and the steel bolts. It is only upon closer inspection that the brush strokes of Ryman's characteristic white paint become visible, hence the way that the hand of the artist seamlessly finds an accord with the process of factory production.
On another level, Accord even turns the idea of hanging artwork in the gallery on its head, as the work's form and bolted attachment to the wall make it appear like a template for a section of signage or a metal panel ready to be installed for a utilitarian purpose, like housing a vertical set of elevator buttons, both of which are objects that could be seen in a museum or gallery. In this sense, Accord also refers to the way in which Ryman's work seems to blend into its own surroundings, thereby questioning the function of gallery display as a frame or podium intended to increase rather than reduce an artwork's visibility.
Oil on aluminum with steel bolts - Dia, New York