PRINT September 1996


ROBERT RYMAN’S FIRST SOLO exhibition, in 1967, immediately drove me into perplexity with its apparently willing carelessness. I was confronted with a series of 48-by-48-inch sheets of thin, cold-rolled steel, all nearly identically painted with a wide, white-paint-loaded brush that had left overlapping, horizontal tracks of loose and fugitive strokes, sometimes moving from edge to edge, sometimes just trailing off across the support. Having recently opened a gallery that had been instantly identified with the term “Minimalism,” I was inured to the tired quip “I guess the show’s not up yet.” Now, faced with what I took at first to be a mindless repetitiveness, I was asking myself the same demeaning question: “Where’s the art?”

The previous Ryman paintings I had seen were endowed with a visibly purposeful structure and a creamy, homogeneous surface more readily identified as white, as well as being on conventional supports. In spite of their heady neutrality, they glowed with an immaculate light that pulsed with comforting references to the likes of Kasimir Malevich and Mark Rothko. But these more recent paintings, with their unkempt, thin, striated strokes, on extremely thin supports, looked more like the surface of a palette upon which a brush had been wiped clean.

The vagrant repetitions within each painting and from painting to painting, as well as the slapdash execution, undermined the possibility of the uniqueness of each work. Neither the scumbled near-whiteness nor the slow, passive meandering of the strokes’ horizontal trajectories could muster much emotional resonance. Metaphor was frustrated, transcendence out of the question. They might have been critiques of formalism’s pure concentrate of painterliness; but, no, they still seemed primarily to be a kind of deadpan, generic abstraction. Perhaps Ryman’s subversion of individuality and the possibility of creating a masterpiece inclined to a Pop irony I had not previously taken into account.

Standard, each one was titled—a standard painting, just as I had thought. But, of course, there are no standards, as Duchamp and a host of scientists and philosophers have made quite clear, in the course of this century. Maybe the title implied a question mark. Maybe I should let my eyes take over.

Each Standard had a different measure, rhythm, and its own panoply of nuance. As I was to learn later, these paintings, his first on unconventional supports, required a Sisyphean effort to make the strokes hold a purposeful place on the slippery surface. Many attempts were made before the final 13 passed Ryman’s muster. Gradually the series came to be seen as an interrelated group of improvisational riffs on the support’s planar rectangularity, layered with ever more melodious richness. Direct, deceivingly effortless, and, finally, pleasurable, there ensued a sensuous enlightenment that might have bespoken Ryman’s sitting in Matisse’s armchair.

The support’s thinness and bonding with the wall now set wall and paint- ing in dialogue; the wall became central to the activity of painting. Objective structuring and materiality were bonded with improvisatory subjectivity. The painting as membrane or as X-ray of the wall changed my relationship to that wall and the space it defined, which was the space of the activity of painting. Everything that Ryman did, and still does, acts as a unit of making—whether his signature, the date of the making; the surface texture, color, and structure of the support; or the means of adhering that support to the hosting wall, with which it interacts. His investigations are not in quest of a transcendent essence but are revelations of process and everything that impinges upon its materialization in the viewer’s space. Ryman added to the repertoire of painting’s materiality while relentlessly, analytically, and lyrically celebrating the mystery and obviousness of the primal act of mark-making. His “Standards” set the standards for many of my subsequent confrontations with the interdependence of conceptualization and physical pleasure.

Klaus Kertess is the author of Joan Mitchell, forthcoming from Abrams, in the spring of 1997.