New York

Robert Ryman

Fischbach Gallery and Dwan Gallery

Robert Ryman’s white paintings at Fischbach have no space in them, but the exhibition that they comprise has a marvelous feeling of depth to it owing to the fact that it changes as one spends time with it. On entering one sees an array of paintings, all of them in white on gessoed canvas, one wall being unlighted, and they all look alike except for their sizes. But before long they begin to sort themselves out until each canvas appears as a distinct deviation from their original appearance of consistent whiteness. Pure white then comes to seem like an abstraction, something approachable only as a limit, like the line with which one depicts the edge of a form. A kind of pulse is set up among the square canvases of varying size and one notices that the variations in hue are so subtle even when they can be clearly seen that they cannot be “remembered” by the eye for comparison between any more than adjacent canvases. I found it impossible to tell whether the paintings on opposite walls were in the same or different whites; meanwhile the white of the shadowed wall was to that of the illuminated walls almost as the dim tones of the gessoed canvases were to the paint on their surfaces.

Ryman’s white paintings seem to make more sense of the idea of serial work than almost anyone else’s do. The curious thing about these paintings is that they do not seem to depend upon the white of the gallery room to make them work; they work because they are all there. Whether their order is arbitrary or in some way necessary one simply cannot tell; all one can be sure of is their interdependence. Most striking perhaps is the way they energize the gallery space after a while by being entirely exterior to themselves. Watching them differentiate themselves from mere white is like seeing entropy reversed.

Ryman had another series of pieces on view concurrently at Dwan. These were more concerned with the nature of surfaces as, so to speak, the other halves of paintings. Here he seemed to be translating certain figure/ground ambiguities into the terms of the materiality of surfaces and paint. In a way the most elegant piece in the show was a series of vinyl squares that were taped to one wall, and painted all over with polymer which, when dried, held the panels to the wall by their edges. The masking tape was subsequently removed, exposing four bits of unpainted surface on each panel and forming a kind of composition on each.

Kenneth Baker