Critics’ Picks

Robert Ryman, Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8”, 1978, 
oil stick on paper, white painted steel frame with round bolts, 15 1/8 x 13 5/8” overall.

Robert Ryman, Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8”, 1978, 
oil stick on paper, white painted steel frame with round bolts, 15 1/8 x 13 5/8” overall.

Washington, DC

Robert Ryman

The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street NW
June 5–September 12, 2010

Robert Ryman’s “Variations and Improvisations,” his first-ever solo exhibition in Washington, DC, finds the artist exercising a seemingly quiet theme with considerable muscularity. Over the course of twenty-six paintings produced between the 1960s and the present, Ryman explores the white square, a subject he has worked with for his entire career. Several of the pieces on view are straightforward compositions, but the greater number reveal an irreverence that runs contrary to the white-square abstractions of artists like Malevich or Rothko. For Spectrum VIII, 1984, Ryman’s signature (plus the number 84) fills an aluminum square. Writ large, his last name stands in the place of the gestural abstraction seen elsewhere in the show. In the context of the exhibition, the empty space that his name occupies—a witty comment on the necessity of the signature—is the white square. An even more playful example, titled Spectrum V, 1984, features the word RYMAN along the perimeter, via marks that would seem to measure something missing from the aluminum panel—like the numbers on the face of a clock or the side of a measuring glass.

A white-on-white square from 2007 nearly invites the viewer into the kind of contemplative space that Ryman’s early AbEx contemporaries like Rothko had in mind. Yet Ryman’s serene brushstroke carries no more spiritual weight in the context of the show than Untitled #33, 1963, a crumpled strip of raw, ungessoed canvas covered with gloopy, comical dabs of white oil. Ryman’s overriding interest in defying the psychic connotations of the white plane is abundantly clear here: His white squares give no glimpse of the subconscious or metaphysical sublime. In works like Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8”, 1978—which features white oil stick on paper in a steel frame bounded by four built-in bolts—the square serves as the means to his formalist ends. Ryman’s series of variations takes an epic Abstract Expressionist trope and transforms it into a Minimalist parlor game.