PRINT September 2002


Last spring at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Robert Ryman realized the third incarnation of his Prototype paintings, multipanel works that the artist executes in situ on the gallery walls. JEFFREY WEISS, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, examines this latest permutation in Ryman’s ongoing exploration of his medium.

PAUL VALÉRY WAS INTRODUCED TO Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés” by Mallarmé himself in 1897, shortly after the poem had been completed. In his memoir of this first encounter with what he perceived to be a stupefying masterpiece, Valéry described Mallarmé’s manner of reading “in a low even voice, without the least ‘effect’ and almost to himself,” representing a complete “absence of artifice.” This struck him. “The human voice seems to me so lovely in itself taken as nearly as possible to its source,” Valéry wrote, “that professional speakers who claim to improve and interpret, when they only overload and corrupt the meaning and change the harmony of the text, are almost unbearable to me—particularly when they substitute their own lyricism for the real rhythm of the combined words.” Meaning dwells deeply within the work’s form, and conventions of declamation obstruct the apprehension of form in its pure state. Mallarmé had made this clear by enunciating in a voice that was as close as possible to being noninterpretive, even (by conceit) nonperformative. In the context of “Un Coup de dés,” such a voice was also near to silence, which the poet had described as the ground of his great poem.

Valéry’s Mallarmé renders our Robert Ryman. Over the course of four decades, Ryman has brought painting as close as possible to its source. He does so by engaging it as a demystified procedure of fundamental steps. These include not only the very application of pigment, which is managed with a take-nothing-for-granted literalness that can make other kinds of painting seem presumptuous or mannered, but also the choosing and constructing or handling of various supports (single or multiple panels of stretched and unstretched canvas, paper, cardboard, steel, aluminum, vinyl, and fiberglass, among many others) and the technical means of fastening or fixing them to the wall. As a result, appearing as they do in an utterly exposed state, the elements of painting are allowed to find something like their real rhythm. Above all, since he asks painting to express only itself, first and last, Ryman’s mode of address is free of declamation: not interpretive but revelatory. For us, one result—to further draw on Valéry’s vision of the state of language after Mallarmé—is the stunning apprehension of a medium that has become almost unfamiliar, “a new kind of matter, scattered in heaps, in tracks, in systems.”

With what language do we describe a new work by Robert Ryman, in an age when the advanced practice of painting is said to dwell in the realm of the endgame? A century ago, modernism’s new articulation of means signaled the critique of certain conventional forms and genres, while in our own time the critique itself is said to have run its course. The advent of the monochrome expresses this condition, but it is not a condition that Ryman’s work—which is often wrongly ascribed to monochrome painting as a genre—shares. Far from acknowledging a state of exhaustion, Ryman has posited that a thickening of means alone, through which the elements of painting develop an individual and collective presence wholly independent of image or effect, could distinguish painting from picturemaking—even abstraction. Ultimately, in making the medium of paint look like a new kind of matter (an act of defamiliarization that ultimately serves to refamiliarize), the art has turned out to be generous and restorative, and prodigiously complex. It also constitutes a form of liberation: Our experience of Ryman’s work has been one of painting in a state of grace.

Ryman’s most important new work, Philadephia Prototype, 2002, is the latest of three recent paintings that have been designated “prototype” (he first used the term in the late ’60s as a way of specifying test panels that were selected to serve as models for subsequent works). The first version, simply called Prototype, was produced for a Ryman retrospective exhibition in Munich at the Haus der Kunst in December 2000; Prototype II was essentially a reinstallation of the Munich panels at the Kunstmuseum Bonn, with some modifications, when the show traveled there in 2001. Philadelphia Prototype was created for Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last spring. Encountering it, one could grasp that Prototype lives in the world as a kind of recurring intervention. It more closely approximates the language of Conceptual art than we are used to in Ryman’s work because it exists not only in concrete form but also as a set of elements or principles that is repeatable, although modified to accommodate the space of a given site. Therefore, in certain respects, the three permutations that have been produced so far could be said to constitute fleeting manifestations of a work that also exists in a purely ideational state. The title perfectly reflects this ambiguity: In a manner of speaking, each incarnation of the painting, complete in and of itself, is also a “prototype” for the next.

So far the Prototype paintings have consisted of a series of square vinyl panels—between ten and thirteen in number, each nearly twenty-four inches on a side—that are evenly spaced in a single row around the comer of a room. (The vinyl supports, which are painted white, were originally blue in Munich and Bonn; in Philadelphia they were buff colored.) The configuration has been L-shaped in that the chosen corner comprises the meeting of a long and a short wall, the short wall having been installed each time with only two panels. In the execution of the work, the panels are attached to the wall with multiple short pieces of blue, half-inch masking tape placed perpendicular to the four edges of each panel at irregular intervals; two parallel vertical strips of dear, half-inch “magic” tape are each positioned roughly four inches in from both sides and runoff the edges at the top and bottom. Once the panels are mounted they are each painted in a succession of multidirectional strokes with a three-inch brush; the brush is made to exceed the edges by roughly an inch all around, creating a halo or border of pigment on the wall. In the process, pieces of tape are removed and other pieces added; when all of the tape is finally eliminated, it leaves behind areas that reveal the various layers of pigment down to the vinyl. Ultimately, the panels themselves are held to the wall by the adhesive property of the paint alone.

The work’s mechanics, deployed intuitively, are an essential component of meaning in the Prototypes. None of the techniques that Ryman applies in these paintings is entirely new to him. He has often used tape in the past, for example, to affix works on wax paper, some quite large, although it has rarely served such a prominent compositional role as it does here, where it fastens the support (temporarily) and creates line. He first taped and painted panels flush onto the wall in 1969, at Yvon Lambert in Paris and Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf, in a series of works referred to as “tape removal paintings.” Of course, the element of tape possesses an identity of virtually mythic proportions in the history of abstraction, from Mondrian to Newman to Mel Bochner. It is Newman’s application that first comes to mind here, since with the Prototypes Ryman appears to be quoting Newman’s fully extended line, or “zip,” which was created with the aid of masking tape. While Newman employed tape in various ways, some zips, like Ryman’s lines, were created in a subtractive manner with single strips of tape that, when removed, left behind areas of bare surface. Since Ryman’s paint is stiffer than Newman’s, his procedure produces an extremely shallow but tangible depth to the lines, which are both painterly and graphic in character and run like tracks through the pigmented field.

If Newman’s work is an archetype for the Prototypes, then the specific referent would be his Stations of the Cross, 1958-66, a painting comprised of fourteen stark panels in which fields, bands, and zips are manifested by various kinds of black and white paint and exposed primed canvas. The Stations of the Cross is generally installed around the perimeter of a single room, although that is not the way it was shown for the first time at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1966, where Lawrence Alloway, in consultation with Newman, placed the canvases in a long, broken row that occupied both part of the spiral ramp and a single bay. Although there is no obvious formal “narrative” in the Stations (the panels are numbered, but it is unclear how Newman intended the cycle to unfold as an experience through one’s passage from beginning to end), the composition of the individual paintings is radically different from one to the next, implying a sequential progression and even a cumulative experience of pictorial form. Apart from the palette, strict regularity is introduced only by the identical dimensions of the canvases and the intervals of wall space between them. If they are hung closely together, the intervals can be picked up by the progression of the painted forms, so that wall space becomes an element in the overall work, even as the intervals are set off by the depth of the stretchers and the fact that, in some cases, Newman has allowed his loaded brush to run from the edge of the surface plane onto the tacking margin, thereby designating each painting as a discrete or autonomous image in an otherwise continuous distribution of lines and bands.

Acknowledging Ryman’s closeness to Newman in the Prototype paintings allows us to grasp characteristics that establish essential difference. Most obvious is scale and format: smaller panels, in Ryman’s case, that are not vertical or horizontal but neutrally square. Further, Ryman’s, repetition of the vertical line, which occurs twice within each panel and is positioned in roughly the same places from one panel to the next, creates a serial doubling that eschews the episodic or developmental quality of Newman’s Stations (as well as,of course, the existential thematics that were sometimes claimed by Newman for his work). Ryman’s format is essentially repeated from one panel to the next, and, according to him, there is no prescribed order for reinstallation. Of course, the panels themselves are not identical; they were all produced through the application of a single procedure, but the result is a series of variations that express tolerances of difference embedded in a restrictive yet itself restricted seriality of means. So, for example, the distribution of tape around the four edges of each panel does not follow a prescribed pattern from one to the next. Moreover, each of the exposed lines is accompanied by the ghostly presence of a second—sometimes a third—thinly painted shadow line running beside it. The shadow line is produced by slightly repositioning strips of tape between multiple applications of paint. In each panel, one panel is always somewhat more complexly shadowed in this way than the other.

Creating and installing a Prototype actually constitute a single procedure. This includes the sequence according to which the panels are first attached to the wall and painted: In Philadelphia, Ryman began with two panels in the corner—one on each of the two adjacent walls—in order to establish a comfortable distance between them, which comes to roughly one-half of the panel’s width. The measured intervals that will govern the entire painting (thirty-one centimeters in Philadelphia, as the artist spontaneously recalled in conversation with me) are derived from this initial act. Three panels were then added on the long wall, at which point the artist began to paint. Further panels were added in subsequent campaigns of work, expanding the piece. In determining the final number, a generous amount of empty wall space was left at both ends of the row—a “breathing space,” as Ryman calls it.

In contrast to the Stations, the spaces that separate the panels in the Prototype paintings are integrated into the work: While Newman’s stretched canvases possess body, which distinguishes them from the wall, Ryman’s vinyl squares are as close as possible to being flush with the wall plane without actually losing their identity as autonomous objects. This is essential. Ryman activates this closeness by making the support and the wall share a layer of paint. The act of applying paint so that it exceeds the edges of each panel and runs onto the wall is an extrapolation of the role of the tacking margin in painting after the New York School, which initiated the abandonment of the picture frame; for Rothko and Newman, this would open pictorial space out onto the wall plane and into the actual space of the room. That move is literalized by Ryman’s procedure, which further serves to transform the three surfaces—paint, panel, and wall—into multiple layers of a single entity. The flushness is emphasized by those unpainted areas around the edges that mark where pieces of tape originally held the panels to the wall. By applying paint both as a surface and as a fastening system, and by indexing these functions with the exposed areas of removed tape that run off the panel onto the wall, Ryman defines the reciprocity of paint/panel and panel/wal1 as being both formal and mechanical—a kind of physical binding. A Ryman Prototype holds itself up. Beginning with the tape-removal paintings, this improbable feat—which is, above all, a stroke of superb wit—has represented a historical development in the philosophy and practice of painting.

Again, none of the mechanicalprocedures in Philadelphia Prototype is unprecedented in Ryman’s work. Coming to Ryman solely in search of novelty (of which, in his work, there is often a good deal) is, however, the wrong way to address the art since it implies that the invention of a device has always been an end in itself, of value largely for its surprise factor. What is at stake, instead, is visual and conceptual fulfillment rather than novelty, discoveryrather than invention; the origin of a device is simply the beginning of an interrogation. Here he has physically expanded the reach of the tape-removal process through the addition of the Newmanesque lines. In previous paintings of this kind, only four pieces of tape held the panels in place during the process of painting—two each on the upper and lower edges; now, the proliferation of tape, which leaves negative traces (on the panel and the wall) around all four edges, implicates the full perimeter of each panel and, by extension, its relationship to the room; the vertical lines, which bring us back to the top and bottom, reference the perception of actual weight and gravity in relation to the body, something that is heightened by a slight buckling of the vinyl squares that occurs over time and could be observed in the Philadelphia installation. Works of this type in Ryman’s oeuvre have always occupied a state of duration; in the Prototypes, the vertical lines channel this quality through the entire surface of each panel and onto the wall. In this way, Ryman is internalizing, even allegorizing the practices of both Newman and Mondrian: Their taped and painted lines were-intended at least in part to imply extension beyond the work itself, while Ryman’s are bound to—and candidly articulate—the physical conditions of the work, including the force of gravity against which it is being held up. Ryman’s lines are, of course, never premeasured to achieve an orientation that is exactly parallel with, or identical in distance from, the vertical edges of the panels. In fact, these distances vary throughout the work within a margin of roughly one inch, while the lines are consistently closer together at the lower edge than at the upper one, an extremely subtle discrepancy that probably reflects a shift in the artist’s perception of distance when he lowers his gaze from top to bottom during the procedure of aligning the tape. That is to say that the vertical lines in the Prototype paintings also allow process and means to reflect the body’s influence on acts of perception. In this way, contingencyis embedded in the structure of the work.

Future Prototypes will not necessarily be installed into and across a comer; as Ryrnan explains, works of this kind could be made to occupy a single wall or three contiguous walls. The proportions would be maintained, with the number of panels expanding or contracting according to the space (in the two- and three-part versions, one wall would always bear only two panels). Already, between Munich and Bonn, two panels were dropped to accommodate the dimensions of the room; according to the artist, any existing version could also be reduced and reinstalled to fit a single wall. The L-shaped configuration of Prototype in its first three manifestations is significant, however, because of the way in which it asks the painting to hold actual space. A single-wall installation would readily succumb to flatness; extending the work around three (or four) walls would essentially function the same way, since the complete piece could be viewed as a whole only by scanning or walking through, a process that would respect the wall as a perimeter—a continuous flat surface.The corner installation allows the piece to occupy the wall as an intersection of two planes. If the Prototypes represent a philosophy of painting as a series of autonomous but reciprocal surfaces, the comer heightens our appreciation of surface as an entity that belongs to ambient space.

The actual experience of a Prototype painting is measured by the process through which it came into being, a process that consists of a series of exposed, retraceable steps of taping, painting, and aligning the row. The temporality of the piece reflects the labor, a form of real time that is divisible by the number of panels and the procedures required to execute each one. While apparent seriality implies speed, the extremely subtle, handwrought differences that occur from panel to panel check this initial impression and induce slowness. Ultimately, in viewing the work, there is no correct direction—no forward and back (in contrast to the Stations). This reflects Ryman’s process as well: The panels were not created in stria succession but in a series of passes that find the artist building out from the corner and then doubling back to retape and repaint. On another level of visual experience, the vertical lines function as visual stops that establish a separate rhythm both within individual panels and between adjacent ones; incorporating the measured intervals of wall space, the distance between the right-hand line in one panel and the left-hand line in the next creates a third unit that is not quite, but nearly, square, and this asks us to scan the work for a secondary pulse.In addition to the temporality of process, then, the lines introduce a polyrhythmic experience of time that has not previously been available in Ryman’s multipanel works, a critical component of which is “empty” space.

Philadelphia Prototype glowed. Ryman is acutely sensitive to granular variances in surface texture. There the vinyl was matte in finish, like the paint that was selected for the walls; the artist then applied a low-gloss pigment—an acrylic polymer—to the panels. The result was an immensely subtle play of absorbent and reflective surfaces throughout the row, modulated by the changing density of the paint. When viewed from an oblique angle—standing at the far left of the work and looking in the direction of the gallery’s front window—the vertical lines and other matte areas of unpainted vinyl were optically related to the wall, from which they were separated by the glossy pigment on and around each square. This effect was heightened when the interior lights were extinguished and the painting was seen in natural light alone, especially toward dusk, at which point the oblique vantage momentarily felt like the primary one. Ryman speaks of nuances of difference from panel to panel that establish “movement” across the surface of the work; this is certainly as true for the element of light as it is for the variations in the placement of tape. But there is almost no instance of pictorial space in Ryman’s works that is not also an extension of actual space. In this case, the distinction between matte and gloss also served to wed the painting to the wall, and this enabled Philadelphia Prototype—optically as well as physically, through the bonding of the panel to the wall plane—to open onto and embrace the entire room. Such presence, achieved as it is through under- statement and delivered in an expository rather than rhetorical mode (the low, even voice), can be startling.

These elements of process, surface, temporality, space, extension, and light are the genetic source of content in Ryman’s work, which concerns itself with the primacy of these means in painting of any kind. Almost uniquely unattached to iconography or conventional imagemaking, they are laid bare. Ryman frequently describes a certain aspect of his own paintings—something that he first admired in Rothko’s canvases beginning in the late ’50s—as a quality of “nakedness.” By this characterizationhe means to identify a kind of visual and physical openness (partlyresulting from the unframed canvas) that situates the work in the realm of the beholder. It is an idiosyncratic word choice, which is why we stop short when we come upon it in a prose piece by Mallarmé, his preface to the first publication of “Un Coup de dés” In this essay, the poet accounts for his “blanks” (blancs, in French), the empty white spaces that occur throughout the radical typographical distribution of lines across the gutter in a succession of two-page spreads. Versification, he explains, has always historically required such blanks, which hold the lines “like a surrounding silence”; with his new poem he does not mean to “transgress against this system, but simply disperse it. “Visually, as he explains, the empty spaces of the double page shape the temporal experience of the poem, successively inducing the reader to speed up, slow down, or scan; moreover, they also permit “some simultaneous vision of the Page,” which has now replaced the stanza or the line as the quantifying unit of the poem. The text, in turn, moves in depth through the space of the page, surfacing and dissipating “as the writing shifts about around the fragmentary halts of the sentence.” In this regard, “everything happens by a shortcut hypothetically; storytelling is avoided.” These means, and the sense of the poem as it is read through them, constitutes for Mallarmé a “naked use of thought” (emploi à nu de la pensée).

Mallarmé’s exposure—spatializing the text by opening it up to the physical and visual space of the book, thereby allowing sound and meaning to be experienced in multiple dimensions at once—is literally and figuratively an expansive act. Likewise, when a painting is made to adhere itself to the wall through a workmanlike action of the brush that joins both surfaces, thereby initiating a latent and logical yet entirely unforeseen extrapolation of the properties of the medium, then a system—one that underlies the historical practice of painting—is not being transgressed but dispersed. When the act of reading painting across intervals of wall plane (the gutter) makes available a simultaneous apprehension of independent yet reciprocal surfaces that are themselves contained by a larger ground of ambient space (the blank), then attributes that have always been embedded in both panel painting and fresco painting are extricated from “storytelling” and are laid out across the work’s conceptual plane. In Ryman’s “realism”—a focused, delighted attention to the dynamics of the medium and the condition of its own being—the means of painting are liberated when they are allowed to represent themselves at play. So self-evident has this move been over the years that, without ever having recourse to rhetorical flourish, the dynamics of Ryman’s work can now deepen, yet effortlessly command an entire room.

With what words do we describe a work such as Philadelphia Prototype? Is Valéry’s struggle toward eloquence in the face of unheralded clarity—“this radiant dispersion”—anything like our own? Ryman’s wager, that painting about painting can be an open system rather than a closed one, is renewed in an era when the practice of painting is often pursued as a primarily skeptical or ironic, and melancholic, operation (Richter, Reed, Tuymans), and one often mediated by photographic vision. In the Prototypes, Ryman’s devices are variously familiar to us, but their application, which qualifies the work as a labor of compression as well as an encounter with unfolding breadth, proves that there is perhaps much we need reminding of, and much we still do not truly know.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of modem and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.