PRINT May 1971

An Interview with Robert Ryman

Do you make white paintings?

No, it may seem that way superficially, but there are a lot of nuances and there’s color involved. Always the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through; the brown of the corrugated paper comes through; the linen comes through, the cotton (which is not the same as the paint—it seems white): all of those things are considered. It’s really not monochrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere. I could use green, red, yellow, but why? It’s a challenge for me to use paint and make something happen with it, without having to be involved in reds, greens, and everything which would confuse things. But I work with color all the time. I don’t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium. There’s a lot of color involved. I don’t mean color like red, green, and yellow; but, color, in that sense.

Does your use of white have any symbolic or mystical significance?


Do you mix any other colors into your whites?

No, usually it’s pure white and I let the surface be the color. For instance, with the Standard paintings, which are on steel, I used the gray of the steel; with the linen, I will use the color of the linen. In all these cases, it’s putting pure white on. But I did change the color of the white in the lithograph I just did. I warmed it; I put a little yellow in the ink of the lithograph because of the circumstances of the paper and how it was going to be printed. There are warm whites and very gray, cold whites and that depends on the brand of white or what kind of paint you’re using. But, I don’t pay much attention to that.

Do you prefer using a square format?

That’s pretty important. That seems to be the most perfect space. If you have an equal-sided space and you’re going to put paint on it and do something with it, then it seems like the most perfect space. I don’t have to get involved with spatial composition, as with rectangles and circles or whatever. Not all my paintings are absolutely square. I tend to have them that way, but sometimes they don’t work out that way. Sometimes they’re 291/2 by 301/4. They look square; actually, they’re not. It’s just because of the material that sometimes they come out that way. It is important; I do tend to keep them square.

How do you determine the size a painting will be?

That’s interesting. I don’t know myself exactly. It depends on the problem at the moment. Some things need to be a certain size. Some things need to be smaller than others in order to make the work more clear; sometimes they need to be very big. It has to do, pretty much, with the problem at the moment. It’s never arbitrary. It’s always decided on at the beginning (except, maybe, I’ll do a few little sketches or little prototypes, as I call them, on any kind of a size that I pick up at the moment—I’m not talking about that). When it comes to the finished thing, it’s always decided that it would be right if they were such and such a size.

Then, if you’re working within an established size, are your internal scale decisions made right away, in a sense?

There isn’t any established size, of course. The General paintings at Fischbach were all different sizes, but they looked very close in size (a half inch on each side). They were approximately four feet ranging up to five feet, which is not very large and which is not very small. It’s just the way I wanted it. The Veil paintings at Dwan were all different sizes, mostly small, 26 inches and some very small, 12 inches. There again, at that time, that was part of the problem, working with different sizes, which made each painting more personal and a little bit more difficult for me. I had to switch brushes and I had to change my concept of how it was going to work—and the scale. Whereas, if you’re doing all the same size, you don’t have that problem because you know it right away, which brush and whatever.

Are the walls on which the paintings are placed related to the works?

When you see the wall, the setting. the environment, it has a lot to do with the way they work. A lot of my paintings (I wouldn’t say most, a lot) can not really be shown to anyone in the usual way of dragging a painting out of the closet or the storeroom and saying, here’s a painting. My paintings wouldn’t work that way. You can’t drag a Flavin, for instance, out of the closet and say, here’s a Flavin. All you would see is a couple of tubes. It has to be on the wall, in a situation. Then, it’s complete. So the wall becomes very much a part of the work. But, I’m kind of tired of this wall business; I don’t mean it that way. It’s complete without the wall; but, it’s not really.

How has weight affected the appearance of your work?

There was the illusion of the steel paintings seeming very light. They’re very thin and very light, visually. Of course, actually, they were very heavy. The paper paintings were very light being paper. Maybe they seemed that way visually, but maybe they also had a heavier look to them, heavier than the steel paintings. I’m not really thinking about that so much when I’m doing the work. It just kind of happens that way because of the different materials. I’m not volved with making things heavy or light—at least, consciously.

Is light taken into account?

I don’t like theatrical lighting. I do a painting under a straight, uniform light and of course, if it’s seen in daylight, it’s a little different; if it’s seen under a spotlight, if it’s seen under blue lights, it’s different. I don’t consider that. That’s something else. That’s when it goes out into the world. If the painting is well done technically, it doesn’t matter what kind of light it’s under. It will still be OK, unless someone puts it under red lights or theatrical lighting. That will change the look of it.

Have the traces of tape near the corners anything to do with a conscious reaction to Cubism?

I’ve never thought about that; not that I know of, it doesn’t. Maybe someone could make something of it—which would be OK. The tape in the corners is simply put there first off, in order to hold the surface to the wall so that I can paint it. When the surface is painted, then the tape is removed because it is no longer necessary to be there and, of course, the traces of the tape are there. But, I’m aware that the traces will be there and that becomes part of the composition of the painting. It’s kind of a look at the process of the way it came about.

Did you originally want to use wax paper as a painting material?

The wax paper started with a very large painting in 1968, about eight by eight feet, on linen, which was stapled to the wall. I used a wax paper frame on it. It was called Adelphi. Since that time I have been aware of wax paper; I knew its possibilities. It just came up in these recent paintings. It’s not anything really crucial. I don’t really care that much about wax paper, if that’s what you mean. It’s a translucent surface. You can see through it, but it has a reflection. It’s shiny; yet, it’s very simple. It’s not like a plastic or something that would also be shiny and translucent. The wax paper is just such a simple thing—direct—and it can be replaced.

How is your work related to the process of its being made?

It has everything to do with it. When I begin, I’m never quite sure what the result is going to be. The process is actually making the painting, that’s all. I don’t have a plan beforehand. I have a certain concept, a certain feeling of what I want. There are certain esthetic problems that I want to solve. Sure, that’s a beginning. When I start doing it, I discover things that I hadn’t thought could be there; I changeit later on, until I end up with the final result, the final painting which I consider to be finished. That’s done.

Do you ever start out with making a series in mind?

I have done groups of paintings very much related to each other. For instance, there’s a group on paper; there’s the group on linen unstretched; the group on cotton (the General series); there are the Standard paintings on steel. It has to do sometimes with a space that you have to work with; sometimes not a space at all. I didn’t do the General paintings for anyplace in particular. They just happened to end up at Fischbach; they could have been anywhere. I just wanted to do them. Now, I’m working on four very large paintings, 12 by 12 feet, oil on linen (kind of traditional-type thing; not that the paintings are, but the linen is). They’re not for any space; they won’t fit into any of the galleries. Sometimes the space is considered, and sometimes it isn’t.

Have you ever tried to actually make a room into an environment?

No. It kind of happens that way sometimes, like with the corrugated and the Standard paintings. But that wasn’t the reason for doing the paintings, to make an environment. It just worked out. They could have gone in a completely different space and also have been seen.

Had you meant the Delta paintings to be related to a minimal esthetic or was there any kind of appreciation of Rothko in mind?

No. That came about because I used a very wide brush, 12 inches. I got it specially—I went to a brush manufacturer and they had this very big brush. I wanted to pull the paint across this quite large surface, 9 feet square, with this big brush. I had a few failures at the beginning. Finally, I got the consistency right and I knew what I was doing and how hard to push the brush and pull it and what was going to happen when I did. That’s kind of the way to begin. I didn’t have anything else in mind, except to make a painting. The Delta paintings were really pretty much the same procedure as the Standard paintings, which was pulling paint from left to right, horizontally across the surface. In the case of the Delta, I used oil with the very large brush and with the very large space (the 9-foot space). With the Standard paintings, I used enamel (flat enamel) and I used a three-inch brush and the consistency of the paint was completely different and I did it in a different way but it was essentially the same thing, pulling it across like that.

In a work like Exeter, are the tapes meant to function like a traditional frame?

Yes. The tapes, of course, did not hold the painting to the wall. There again, there’s the illusion, the possibility that the tape was holding it to the wall, but it actually wasn’t. The tape was only there as a frame, which is a compositional part of the painting.

Why did you use steel for the Standard paintings?

I was just looking for a very thin material that would stand up on its own without any backing. Masonite wasn’t so good and neither was aluminum. I thought, OK, steel is really very strong and very stable and very thin. That’s how it happened. I looked into it, tested it, and it worked out. It was very heavy, that was the only drawback. In the beginning, I couldn’t get them right. I had never worked on steel before, so I didn’t know exactly how to do it and how the brush was going to pull and how the paint was going to be exactly. First I did one in gloss and I didn’t like that, so I destroyed it. Then, I decided on the matte enamel and it was very difficult not to fuss with them and to go back. So, I did them three at a time. And sometimes I just couldn’t pull that brush the way that I wanted. It’s an amazing thing. It seems so simple: you just pull the brush; you get the consistency of the paint right; pull it across the surface. It seems like the simplest thing, but it isn’t. It doesn’t work that way when you’re actuallydoing it. So, I would miss a lot. I would pick one or two out of the three and destroy the third one. Then I’d work on another three. Maybe I’d get two out of that. Maybe I’d go back and destroy one of the three that I ended up with. It was a matter of visual decisions, of the way I felt I wanted it to be and I could feel pretty much all the time whether they were right or not, whether they worked smoothly.

When you made the Standard paintings, were you trying to get away from the notion of object-hood?

The traditional surface for painting has been canvas—and that’s either linen or cotton, stretched on a stretcher. It’s still used. I use it and so do most painters, simply because it’s the best: it’s the lightest, it can be constructed large or small, in all kinds of shapes. That’s why it’s used. But there are other things: paper, plastics, masonite, on and on. During the late ’50s, ’60s, Rothko was the first, I guess, to make the point that painting was an esthetic object. That point was made over and over again through the ’60s (I’m talking about abstract painters) and I had done it myself. The point had really been gotten across strongly that painting was an object. So, I wanted to make a painting getting the paint across. That’s really what a painting is basically about, whether you talk about figurative painting or abstract painting, when you really get down to it. I wanted to point out the paint and the paint surface and not so much the objectness. Of course, they are always objects. Any painting is an object; there’s no question about that. You can’t get away from that.

Was there much of a difference between seeing the Standard paintings in the installation at Bianchini and then at Heiner Friedrich’s in Munich and now the way they’re shown in the alcoves at the Guggenheim?

Yes, in all three cases the feeling was different. At Bianchini, they were all in one big room, so far apart. In Heiner Friedrich’s, they were in three rooms; there again, so far apart and so many on each wall and in each room. Although the rooms were open, you could see pretty much all of them as you went through, but it was different. At the Guggenheim, seeing them three in each bay, four bays along the ramp, that’s a very different feeling, too; it didn’t matter because the paintings were still there. The painting, I should say; it is one painting. It’s not 12 paintings. The painting was there in all the cases. It’s interesting to see them in different places.

Did you use gloss enamel and matte enamel in the General series for light effects?

I only used gloss enamel. The matte frame and actually the undercoat are enamelac. It’s a different thing; it’s not enamel. It’s a primer sealer which I used to seal the cotton, so that the enamel wouldn’t soak through it. I’ve used the enamelac before, so I was familiar with it. Iused it on the corrugated paintings. There again, I used it originally to seal the surface, but I ended up using it as the final paint. So, I had the enamelac which is a very matte, dry, kind of dead-looking surface. Then, I reversed it; then, you had the shiny enamel. The very glossy surface which does reflect the light and the enamelac which absorbs the light, I wanted that. If I had used matte enamel, well, it might have been interesting, too. But I wanted that reflection. I think it was more interesting to me, anyway, in the process of doing it.

Why were the General paintings exhibited at Fischbach with one bank of lights off?

That was on purpose. They were more peculiar, more sensitive than most because of the reflected surface of the paintings. They looked very different in daylight or under incandescent light or in the shadow light. They always looked different. So, I wanted to try and kind of point that up, if I could. I didn’t know how to do it. I just went in there and hung the paintings. I said, let’s just try and have all those lights off that wall so that we get the reflected light from the other paintings. You saw them in the shadow and they looked different than the others. That’s the reason. I just wanted to try and point up how different they would look under different lights.

Are any of your paintings, especially the paper ones, ever intentionally meant to be ephemeral or disposable?

No, never. They’re always permanent, if they’re taken care of.

How is that red vinyl painting on your studio wall related to those shown at Dwan?

That’s just a prototype you’re looking at; that’s not a finished painting. That one on the red vinyl was five panels; I think they were each 22 inches square. First, the surface was taped to the wall, as I said, to hold it to the wall. Then, the surface was painted and of course that’s very important, how the surface is painted. It’s not just a matter of covering it and it’s not just a matter of throwing some paint on it. The brush was chosen and the type of paint was chosen. It’s polymer paint because it works with the vinyl very well (it’s compatible with the surface). With the vinyl, the paint is put on in six coats: first, horizontally and then vertically, then horizontally, then vertically. The paint goes off of the edge and onto the wall, which forms a frame around the painting. Now, after the painting is finished, the tape is removed (because it’s no longer necessary to hold the surface). Then you see the original surface which is the red vinyl, which is a very dull matte red. That contrasts with the semi-glossy paint which I’ve mixed up (I mixed the paint myself because I knew I wanted it to contrast with that dull red). With five of those panels going along the wall, there would be these red traces which would visually kind or move along the wall. You would see the surface which is a kind of woven surface because of the horizontal/vertical brushstrokes. It becomes almost a fabric-like surface, but actually it’s just the paint because you see the original surface. Then, you see the frame which is on the wall, which is a fuzzy edge that goes along; this is a kind of traditional frame which all paintings have, unless they’re just put up naked like a Rothko. If you put a frame, like a gold stripping or a wood stripping around the painting, then that becomes part of the painting. As long as it’s there, you see it. When the strip or gold frame or whatever is removed, then the painting is naked and that’s the way we see it next time. It’s the same way with this. It has a fuzzy frame around it, which holds it to the wall; but, when it’s removed from the wall, it will lose its frame and it will he naked and it will be placed on another wall. It will never have another frame again, once it’s removed.

Why did you call it a prototype?

Because this was a test to see how this would look (I had the red vinyl). In fact, there were several prototypes. This is the last one that was done where I said, OK, that’s the way I want it, that’s the way I want the original to be. I could see how it was going to work. Getting the size of the tape: if the tape is too big or if it’s too small, I have to change it. If the consistency is not right, that changes the whole thing. How was it going to hang on the wall? All this had to be decided.

How are the prototypes eventually related to the actually executed paintings?

They’re essentially the same. I will take a surface and try to work out problems concerning the paint and the surface and the way I envision it will be in the final state. When I get it the way I like, I’ll call it a prototype. Then I know exactly the way the finished work will be. Of course, I don’t do prototypes for all of my paintings, in fact, for very few. Most of them are just done directly without working anything out beforehand.

Do you still go out and specifically look for new or unusual materials to paint on, such as the red vinyl?

No, I usually never do that. It kind of happens. For instance, with these very large, 12-foot paintings, the Surface Veil paintings that I did in oil, I just knew that size and I knew the paint. And I knew immediately that the material should be linen or cotton. So, I went out and found out where I could get 12-foot linen—which was kind of a problem actually, since they don’t have that too often. That’s the way the materials come about. It’s true, sometimes I will stumble on something by accident and I’ll think that would be interesting to work with or what could I do with this? That’s not the usual case. Usually, it’s decided that I want either a smooth surface or a hard surface or a soft surface, a certain textured surface to work on at the moment. Then I go around and see what’s available.

How do you know when a work is finished?

I don’t walk around and ponder and worry about whether a painting is finished or not, if that’s what you mean. That’s not the case at all. I know when it’s finished. In 1965, I did two paintings. One became an Unfinished Painting (that was the title of it). They were two related paintings. Both were the same size: 5 by 5 feet. One was done in enamel and one was done in oil because I wanted the reflection of the light with the enamel and I wanted the absorption of the light, very matte, with the oil in the second painting. They were both on the same surface linen. Now, with the one in oil, I had decided to do five coats; sanding each coat (letting each coat dry; sanding it) so I would get it very matte, finally ending up with the final surface. Well, I put four coats on and I sanded the fourth coat in preparation for the fifth coat. The fifth coat never went on because, I thought, it’s really finished. There’s no need to put that fifth coat on because it’s really better the way it is, with the fourth coat sanded. The linen was even a little torn by the sanding, you could see that. So, I never put the fifth coat on. I called it Unfinished Painting, but, of course, it was finished. That’s how that was finished; I didn’t determine that. I didn’t decide to do an unfinished painting. It just happened that way.

Now, it’s exactly the opposite with the unfinished paintings that I showed at Dwan. There, I decided beforehand that they would be unfinished because I thought, OK, I’ll put on three coats. If I weave the paint horizontally and vertically (there again, working with oil), three coats will give the right density to completely cover the surface and it will absorb the light the way I want it. Beforehand, I decided that with the first painting, I’ll put one coat horizontally; the second painting, one coat vertically; the third painting, which was finished (which was called Finished Painting) was the complete three coats. I had a little trouble; I made some mistakes on the first two. I destroyed them. Then, I finally got it. OK. One and two and three. They were called: Unfinished One, Unfinished Two, and Finished Three.

The way I work the painting is either finished or it’s destroyed. It’s a one-time thing. It has to be very direct; it has to be immediate, to the point. There can’t be any overpainting. When I do a painting, it’s a one-time thing. For instance, when I did the paintings on the paper panels, first they were taped to the wall (all the panels that I was going to use). Then, I painted them, knowing where to put the paint and the consistency and what kind and all that. They were removed from the wall and I mounted the paper on featherboard (each of the panels) and they were replaced on the wall. Then I saw the painting in its finished state for the first time because I’d never seen it finished until that point. It was either finished or it was a failure (there have been some failures and they were destroyed and I started all over again). So, there’s no problem about whether it’s finished. When it’s finished, it either is or isn’t. It’s right or not.

When someone looks at the paintings, say, on corrugated paper, do you think they should just see white gestures on a tan surface rather than skyscapes or studies of mist?

You mean like clouds? That I have no control over, what someone sees. You can fantasy about things. You can look at clouds and see faces in the clouds, that kind of thing. That’s not really there; it’s just the imagination of the viewer. I don’t intend that. What the painting is, is exactly what they see: the paint on the corrugated and the color of the corrugated and the way it’s done and the way it feels. That’s what’s there. Of course, you can listen to some music and think of a waterfall or this or that. But that’s up to that person. You can’t tell anyone how to look at something.

An older painter once said that he thought the trouble with the younger generation was that they looked at paintings and. said, wow! and not how? You’re concerned with the wow and the how, aren’t you?

Yes, that’s very important, the how. But what’s also important is the wow, too. There are very few times that you see something or that you can feel something strong enough to jump up and down about and say, wow, that’s really nice to see or that’s really a beautiful thing or that’s important. I’m not just talking about painting; I’m talking about living. When you can get excited about something, then that’s a very nice feeling.

Do you think the process involved in your work might be called the subject matter?

No. Of course, it’s always interesting to know what the process is. It’s like when you listen to some music—a Bartok quartet. You’re not really too concerned about what he was doing with the music; you’re not too concerned with how the quartet is interpreting his music; how the violinist is interpreting. You just listen to it and you’re either moved by it or not, depending on how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. Of course, it’s always interesting to know if you really want to go into it, if you’re an art historian or a scholar. It makes the work much more by going into the process and the why and the how and when. But it’s not essential at all. The main thing is you just look at it and you see or you have a feeling about it or not. That’s what’s important.