PRINT Summer 1972

Ryman, Marden, Manzoni: Theory, Sensibility, Mediation

THERE ARE SEVERAL FIGURES at work today who in their general abstract-reductivist drift, preference for a geometric format and use of monochromatic surface, can be seen to derive from the achievements of Malevich and of Mondrian, or in terms of a more immediate model, from Agnes Martin before she ceased painting in the late ’60s. The problem today is less one of securing an abstract morphology—this is a given—than one of clearly focusing on those features of concern to the nominal act of painting. In this respect the Robert Ryman retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum reveals a desire to deal with the separate options germane to painting and clarify an approach to art which denies that the act of painting is in itself significant. Conversely, the recent exhibition of Brice Marden’s paintings at the Bykert Gallery suggests that, no matter how reduced in visual incident, painting remains an esthetic preoccupation. Ryman is interested in painting as theory and one is therefore tempted to say that he is not interested in painting at all. Marden, on the other hand, is interested in painting as the expression of sensibility and as a result, he is committed to maintaining an inherited tradition. Both artists have concentrated their issues so closely, however, that they can be viewed as the opposing faces of a problematical region of discourse.

It is largely because Ryman’s pictures stop short of committing themselves as paintings that we have had to wait for his retrospective to appreciate the nature of his accomplishment. In his one-man shows, we were presented with individualized tentatives, the cumulative effect of which remained an elusive quantity. Seen chronologically, in the context of a retrospective, Ryman’s special particularities reveal a consistent theoretical position. By contrast, our awareness of Marden’s theoretical position would not be enlarged by viewing his work in chronological sequence, as the central option—sensibility painting—has been observable in his work since the mid-’60s, when he first absorbed the properties implicit in Jasper Johns’ use of encaustic.

Nonetheless, Ryman’s work accepts certain traditional issues; for him art still remains an expression of the painting support, of paint itself, and of manipulation with that substance. Above all, he places an unusual burden on the intellective processes. It is in preconceptualization as it affects the previous three constituents that Ryman is able to realize his art. The argument of a typical painting may be stated as follows: a surfacing of the canvas with three layers of white paint. A canvas with merely two layers is, in the context of the theorem, an “unfinished” work, although the visual impression is identical to a three-layered work. Only prior knowledge of the argument permits us to under-. stand its relative state of incompletion. Similarly, a painting may be understood to be a manual activity implicating hand, tool, and pigment. Ryman may determine as an act of preexecutive choice the kind of brushstrokes to be employed: strokes of certain lengths, strokes which are a function of how long the paint stays in the bristles (the duration of time wherein pigment is exhausted), and strokes in consonant directions. These decisions remove the brushstrokes from esthetic graphicism, from calligraphy, from sensibility. Though liberated from sensibility, however, the strokes still remain within a definition of what might reasonably constitute the act of painting. By contrast, Marden’s brushstrokes are a function of praxis; they rely on the very experience of painting. Before anything else his strokes are artistic gestures, despite the reductive orientation of his work.

These distinctions are not absolute. There are Mardens which, granting their general monochromism, are built up through several layers of dexterously handled paint that appears affiliated to a sharp degree of preconceptualization. The paintings in this vein which I most appreciate are some works of three years ago in which a small area at the bottom of the canvas is left uncoated to form a spattered and spotted band. The band serves as a record of the slow buildup of layers leading to the generally understated grade of monochrome, either olive, slate,or claylike in coloration.The spotting denotes that the monochrome was arrived at slowly; it leads to a soft and diffident surface of closely modulated values and thicknesses, a technique clearly in debt to the gray and green coloration of Jasper Johns’ paintings of 1955. It is worth noting that Ryman’s earliest mature work dating from 1958–59, also recently exhibited at the John Weber Gallery, obviously derives from the same source (as well as Rauschenberg from 1949) and deals in fact with many of the issues central to Marden’s current painting.

Likewise, in the most recent Rymans there are indications that sensibility is not an absolutely foreign condition. If it may be perceived that the most recent Mardens are moving from sensibility into theory (e.g. polyptychs of joined canvases or binary and tripartite compositions), so too the most recent Rymans suggest a transposition away from theory back into sensibility. For instance, the largest works in the Guggenheim Museum exhibition, the Surface Veils, three recent 12 foot square white paintings, indicate that a kind of soft Rothko-like field is emerging. This inflection may result from a scaling-up process; Ryman’s preferred sizes are those in which the actions are natural to a free arm gesture and no more, although the actions selected may in fact be quite small and therefore enacted within small formats. The new large paintings appear to be transpositions of small white studies executed on surfaces of a dry plastic fiber. The smaller compositions are executed with consonant strokes moving in one direction to meet strokes moving in another. In enlarging such visual propositions the surface of the canvas does not correspond to the surface of the plastic. The character of the paint, as well, has lost its correspondence to the dry white of the study and the tool proportion—large tool compared to small tool—seems in some measure “off.” In negotiating the discrepant relations, something of a sensibility-like intonation reemerges.

At this point it is less startling to note the antithetical positions from which these two artists work. What is more extraordinary is that there have been previous attempts to mediate sensibility and theory in the context of monochromism, a mediation affected not in an abstract-reductivist vernacular but within the context of the revived Dadaist postulates of the 1950s.

For Americans the obvious connection would be Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951. Though lost, their existence is well-documented. Marden’s close connection with Rauschenberg makes it impossible for him not to be aware of the works, but no doubt he would have known of them even were he not a personal friend of the artist. A European parallel to the Rauschenberg option is exemplified in the retrospective exhibition of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni recently held at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York. The artist died in 1963 at the age of 30. Like Yves Klein, Manzoni arrived at monochromism—his paintings are white, Klein’s are blue—in the late 1950s. Neither Manzoni’s paintings, nor Rauschenberg’s White Paintings for that matter, were statements about abstraction. The Rauschenbergs were screens which registered the shadows of spectators. Hence they functioned as isolated rectangles of environment. Said another way, they could be understood as unadorned stage flats related to the theatrical aspects of music and dance as evolved at that time by the artist’s colleagues, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Conversely, Manzoni’s monochromes, smaller in size, are compositions of an eccentric sensibility. By their resolute willfulness they resisted the monopoly of senescent European ver- sions of Abstract Expressionism—l’art informel or tachisme—which dominated progressive European taste in the ’50s in much the same way as the gestural aspect of Abstract Expressionism dominated the same period in this country.

By isolating the constituent features of art—color, line, or its sacred conventions such as base or frame—Manzoni broke away from this discredited modernism. Therefore the white monochromes of Manzoni must not be viewed as a body of images excluded from his other production, but as a parallel say, to the meter-long brushstrokes rolled up in tubes, or the elaborate joke representing The Base of the World, 1961. By isolating constituent features of art Manzoni paraded what he thought to be the essential futility of art-as-sensibility, a consciousness which finally led him to autograph human bodies, can his excrement, and sell his signature to other artists to sign upon their own work. Intriguing in Manzoni’s neo-Dadaist position is that his isolation of esthetic constituents, on the one hand, functions in a way parallel to Ryman’s preconceptual art and, on the other, postulates the validity of art through iconoclastic activity, an attitude that paradoxically reasserts the value of sensibility. Thus Manzoni’s Dadaism mediates otherwise antithetical extremes.

Manzoni is now out of the picture. He is interesting as an historical figure against which our problems are afforded definition. Nor is Ry-man’s or Marden’s approach to art the central critical issue today. The current problem is our sense of the virtually de-energized condition of painting, an apprehension perhaps so overwhelming that even our finest painters—and sculptors as well—can only confront it through oblique asseveration. Certainly Marden, who is after all a traditional painter, surely recognizes that a static attitude can only serve to neutralize his art. Ryman, in turn, must be aware that he represents an essay at painting from an abandoned context. While still admissible as a curious paradox, the internal contradictions of Ryman’s posture will in the end be a vitiating factor. But the end, of course, cannot be predicted. It may lead anew to what appears to be a pessimistic nihilism—but which in fact is an activist critique of culture—similar to the one adopted by Manzoni. Though there is nothing to replace painting except in fact what painting itself becomes, I nevertheless think that Ryman and Marden both measure from differing and mutually approaching ends the profound malaise into which painting has fallen. Their achievement therefore is no longer a function of the kinds of painting they do; it resides in the fact that they continue to paint.