New York

Robert Ryman

John Weber Gallery

Probably more than any other paintings, including Ad Reinhardt’s, Robert Ryman’s fulfill Reinhardt’s claim of what paintings should be by saying what they shouldn’t be. In one sense, it is easy to approach Ryman’s paintings in terms of what they are not, because so much that is conventionally present in paintings is absent from his. Perhaps this absence of many conventional elements gives a clue as to why painters, generally speaking, tend to disregard Ryman’s work, and artists who otherwise have no use for painting make his paintings an exception. In the usual sense, there is not much in a Ryman painting, only the straightforward application of white paint to a surface; thus, speaking of them has always been difficult. But if Ryman has severely reduced the terms of painting to what seems a ground zero similarly reached by Malevich and Reinhardt, “ground zero” means not the attainment of nothing, but the point beyond which painting cannot be reduced while remaining painting and sustaining development. The reduction of terms here is not reduction for its own sake nor for the sake of avant-garde audacity. Rather it means the possibility of refocusing on aspects of painting too subtle to be experienced within a more com,plicated situation. In these terms, Ryman can be allied with Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, and in a certain sense, with Mark Rothko. If intimacy was the desired product of Rothko’s scale, intimacy can also be seen as the product of the reduced terms of the paintings of Ryman, Martin, and Newman.

In Ryman’s case, as almost nothing is there, what is there—white paint on a surface—counts heavily. Normally, to describe a painting as “paint on a surface” is to leave a good deal out; it is to say what is obvious, what is already understood if we’re talking about painting, but it is not to say anything about a particular painting. To say that Ryman’s paintings are “white paint on a surface” is to omit only what distinguishes one painting from another, and while they are all white paint on a surface, all instances of “white paint on a surface” are clearly not alike. The general adequacy of “white paint on a surface” as a description of Ryman’s paintings suggests what is probably the greatest difference between Ryman and the general run of formalist painting (which is almost to say, from the rest of painting). That is, Ryman’s paintings exist as physical situations without an attempt to disguise their status as physical objects, thereby taking on the condition, much feared in the late ’60s, of objecthood. Because the surface is as significant a term in Ryman’s paintings as the paint, the application of the dreaded notion of objecthood is inevitable. This is particularly evident in Ryman’s recent show at the Weber Gallery, and most surprising in the large group of etchings. The prints are made by the imprinting of white ink on a square etching plate onto the paper. If most of his work is “white paint on a surface,” these works are “white squares of ink from the same etching plate on paper.” Within the group of etchings, the kind of paper, which is to say surface, varies, as well as the size of the paper and the location of the imprint. Also, more than one shade of white ink is used. While the description “white squares of ink from the same etching plate on paper“ applies to all the etchings, as in the case with the paintings, it does not account for the differences. In fact, each print is unique. As these prints are clearly about the imprinting of a constant square of white ink on paper surfaces, their physicality is maintained. The surface printed on is at least as significant as the nature of what is printed. With sufficient determination one could probably consider Ryman’s prints “pictorially,” but not easily; the prints not only offer no temptation for “pictorial“ consideration, they are strongly resistant to it.

It is not inconsistent to say that Ryman has made white paintings for a long time, and has always been interested in color. (See his interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May, 1971.) Despite theories that white is not a color in the spectrum, and that white is the absence of color, “white” is a color in the language. However, the occurrence of whiteness as a property of a physical object is accounted for; the word “white” denotes that occurrence in just the same way as the word “red” denotes an instance of redness. Ryman’s insistent use of white paint presents a situation for focusing on color, paint, surface, and how the paint is applied to the surface; his color is a product of the conjunction of those four terms. The same method of applying the same kind of white paint to a cotton canvas and to a linen canvas of the same size produces two distinctly different paintings, different particularly with respect to color. When only the surface is varied within so reduced a situation, it is possible to focus on the color of the surface itself, and in relation to the white paint, in a way not otherwise possible. The shift from cotton to linen canvas is surprisingly dramatic. Obviously the possibility for variation within these four terms is infinite, but the point is not in presenting variations, nor in seeing how many paintings can issue from so reduced a situation. Rather it is one of recognizing that only a few terms are needed, and more than a few terms only cloud and complicate the experiencing of subtle distinctions.

Ryman has painted two enamel rectangles on the wall, whiter than the white of the wall, and painted the area around the rectangles in latex less white than the white of the wall. The rectangles are almost square; one of them is entirely surrounded by the off-white, and the other surrounded on all but its uppermost side. The off-white latex never touches the enamel rectangles, and the white of the wall forms a line between latex and enamel, mediating and contrasting the whiter and less white paint. The outer edges of the off-white painted area are casual and rough and at no point touch the edges of the wall. The off-white area’s trailing off diagonally on the left side adds ambiguity and shows that the boundaries of the work cannot be identified with the boundaries of the off-white latex paint. But, because paintings are hung on the adjacent wall, it can be assumed that the work stops at the corner intersection of the two walls. In earlier Ryman paintings directly on the wall, the wall often seemed less a part of the painting (except as the surface of “white paint on a surface”) and more as a frame surrounding the work. However in this work, the white wall is more than just a surface for the application of white paint; it has already been a surface for white paint, and in this sense, it is both white paint and the surface for white paint. It is part of the painting as both terms in “white paint on a surface.”

Bruce Boice