Robert Ryman is always testing things. In 1953, while working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, he bought some paint and brushes because he “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.” Not much has changed since that first foray nearly 60 years ago. Despite all that he has done, or perhaps because of it, Ryman remains at the beginning. Even after all these years, all these tests of materials and conditions, I don’t think Ryman believes that he has learned how to paint, become more than a student. There is no claim to mastery, no sense of progress, no attempt to develop a style, no isolating of a theme or subject. There is only the artist setting out, committed to testing the materials he has gathered together with the thoroughness of a scientist. Curiosity is his only guide as well as exacting teacher.
The reason Ryman has neither moved on nor reached a conclusion is because, as he wrote in a statement for this exhibition: “I am not a picture painter. I work with real light and space, and since real light is an important aspect of the paintings, it always presents some problems.” Changing conditions, and their potential for chaos, are problems that never go away. By pressing up against this situation, the way a work is mounted on the wall, for example, Ryman has shown a pointedly humorous awareness of the tension between control and the impossibility of it. He knows that some situations may be more ideal than others, but he also recognizes that more often than not he has no control over how the work is displayed once it enters the world. (He is the opposite of Clyfford Still, in this regard.) Preparation, rather than destination, is what matters. (How much control you might possibly be able to exert in a contingent world requires you test your materials, and get some sense of what they may be able to survive without losing your original intention.) In this sense, Ryman is the opposite of Leonardo, who worked with unstable materials, and whose mural, Last Supper, continues to disintegrate right before our eyes.
While Ryman is preternaturally sensitive to the fragility of things, and to existence itself, he has never succumbed to any of the narratives that offer security from this heightened consciousness. This, more than anything else, is a stumbling block for even his most ardent champions, all of whom try to make him and his work exemplary of a narrowly focused narrative, the hero of the story they believe in. If Ryman is a hero, which he is to many, he is one of the most reluctant ones to appear on the scene since the birth of modernism in mid-19th century Paris.
I was reminded how much the exterior world comes into play when I went to see Ryman’s most recent exhibition of nineteen works, which consisted of two distinct bodies of work, one of which could be broken down into two discrete smaller groups. As I was looking at the first work in the show, a small MDF panel on which the artist applied enamel, epoxy, and shellac, laying a glossy surface over a matte one, I started looking at the light overhead, determining how much of it was aimed at the paint. I felt that the space was too dark, the light too gray, even dingy.
Ryman’s works quietly but insistently call for enhanced looking, of becoming aware of the relationship between the physical and visual, substance and light. Because he believes in giving as good as he could possibly get in this dialogue between artwork and viewer, he is extremely economical in the way he transfers his heightened sense of light and materiality to the very things he is working on. There is no elaboration—everything feels necessary to the experience. And it is experience, not an idealized definition of painting or the paint plane, that sparks his curiosity. He wants to see something that he hasn’t seen before. This is what he wrote about the work in this exhibition: “When I was beginning to work on the small wood panels, I thought I would also do some drawings on Tyvek, an industrial material made of spunbonded Olefin. It is very thin and looks like paper, but is strong and not affected by moisture and repels dust.” You can’t get more matter-of-fact than that. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “No ideas but in things.”
In a world in which artists are supposed to announce their aesthetic affiliations, Ryman is an anathema. He has never bought into any of the narratives others have placed him in, never become what others claim he is. As he wrote out in large letters on two of the pieces made of Tyvek, the work is a “TEST.” More than just testing “how the paint worked,” Ryman has after all these years reached a place that is highly responsive to, while rigorously aware of, the inextricable relationships of subtly different states. Nothing stands by itself. For him “thick” can only be experienced in relationship to “thin.” I became more acutely aware of the color of the wood on which the glossy enamel had been brushed; the slightly different consistency and color between the final layer and the one beneath, its edges peeking through; the glossy smoothness of the paint in counterpoint to grain of the wood panel. “Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing 18” (2008) had two glossy grayish-white vertical rectangles floating within a matte-white squarish-rectangle. The longer I looked, the more the vertical rectangles proved difficult to focus on, and actually see. They were slight irritations surrounded by calm. At slightly larger than a foot square, and made of humble materials (acrylic, BIN, enamel and shellac on wood), it was a Rothko without tears. This wasn’t the artist’s intention (how could it be, without devolving into parody?), but it was there, as a residual thought. Of Ryman’s use of white and his palpable manipulations of light with aluminum, glossy and matte surfaces, I was reminded of Seurat’s methodicalness as well as the girl’s white dress glowing amidst the buzz of colors in his “La Grande Jatte.” Light, that most elusive of all phenomena, is their primary concern.
Ryman’s work offers many substantial pleasures, if we are open to it. Without ever suggesting why, he conveys that everything is connected. Leaving his exhibition on a snowy day, the streets slushy and wet, I realized once again that I haven’t learned to see what’s right before my eyes, and even if I manage to stay open to the world, I never will. Such is Ryman’s exhilaration.