Critics’ Picks

Untitled, #33, 1963, oil on unstretched sized linen canvas, 5 3/4 x 6”.

Philadelphia

“Robert Ryman: Small Works”

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum
118-128 North Broad Street
October 13, 2006–January 28, 2007

Collectively, the twenty-six paintings and drawings in “Robert Ryman: Small Works” provide an excellent primer on this important artist and form a splendid temporary pendant to Philadelphia Prototype, 2002, a luminous ten-panel painting recently acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Nearly all date from 1958 to 1966 and feature the artist’s highly circumscribed yet richly nuanced inquiries into the relationships between paint (mostly white) and support. Significantly, several of the works have never been exhibited, while a handful of others have been shown only once before, at the revelatory 2004 exhibition “Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957–1964,” at Peter Blum in New York.

There are several jewels: Untitled study, 1960, a ten-inch-square sheet of Mylar with luscious white pigment creating contrasting shapes—a crisply defined square hovering over a roiling cloud form. The paint seems suspended on the transparent support, rendering it almost sculptural. Untitled, #33, 1963, approximately half the size of Untitled study and exhibited only once before, in 1972, is alone worth the visit. Where many of the works feel notational, this one is fully formed. On an irregular square of unstretched linen is a not-quite-square cluster of white squiggles. The chaotic harmony of textures and spatial ratios recalls ikebana in its tightly choreographed insouciance, but an ineffable quality makes the painting hypnotic and transporting.

Curator Alex Baker’s strategic selections, and the artist’s understatedly elegant installation and lighting, provide the exhibition with strong narrative structure and deftly highlight Ryman’s breadth of experimentation. There are only two regrets—there is no comprehensive catalogue, and the exhibition will not travel.