New York

Robert Ryman

Fischbach Gallery

Five years ago, Robert Ryman began to pare his painting down to apparent essentials, reducing it to a reiterative kind of manipulative experience of white paint on a two-dimensional surface. The Delta paintings—an alphabetical, non-referential designation—are three thoughtfully coated, nine foot squares painted in 1966. At that time one would have considered them as extravagantly desensitized although in 1970 they have a tender cast to them. The paintings are interesting because they are Ryman’s last complete stretcher-supported canvas series. By the end of 1966 his painting had become a bristly rebarbative scouring of varying kinds of white paint—often household enamels—applied directly upon sheets stapled to the wall, or, still later, affixed there with masking tape. Lastly, he painted upon the wall itself.

The conscientiousness of these developments always struck me, in Ryman’s case, as the best of all polemical solutions open to an artist who, in my awareness of his work, is no natural or immediately sensuous painter. The importance of his painting for non-stretcher-borne painting is self-evident if one regards the work of, say, David Paul or Richard Tuttle to be something more than passagère. I take this view considering the swarm of young artists committed to pictorializing trends in sculpture.

Still, despite Ryman’s obvious polemical success, I have generally been put off by his ungenerous surfaces and by his serialized structurings, which press for a part-to-part comparison in a peculiarly taxing way. In 1966 these systems were of course recognized as party to the Minimalist style. At present, however, Minimalism is remembered as an heroic, architecturally ambitious style which made greater sense in sculpture than in painting. What the current exhibition seems to suggest is that much of what we consider typical of the surfaces of pictorializing sculpture were in fact part of those painterly aspects of Minimalism which had been overshadowed by the monumentalism of the style. In this connection the long, dry, horizontal bristle marks in the white oil paint of the Delta surfaces, and a controlled application which delicately stops short of the perimeter, is particularly telling.

Robert Pincus-Witten