New York

Robert Ryman

John Weber Gallery

Because of immense differences in the way surface is achieved in individual works, which make each painting affect experience in a manner that I’m obliged to describe as unique, Robert Ryman’s exhibition will almost certainly turn out to have been the most varied show of the year.

What unites this body of work, in my opinion, is a preoccupation with the mediated interaction between the painted surface and the wall in front of which it hangs. By this I mean that Ryman’s use of white paint—different kinds of white paint, and different applications of it—draws one’s attention to the conventional neutrality possessed by the whiteness of the wall, by contrasting this with the equally conventional—and no less inescapable—immanence of color in the pictorial object itself. Ryman presents the immanence of color, together with the presence of recognizably motivated labor, as those properties of the object which distinguish it from its architectural milieu. In Ryman, that which seems at first to suggest reification—the interpretation possible if one were to consider the white of the painting as no more than an extension of the white of the wall—is in practice a device whose exclusive employment guarantees the work’s autonomy. A three-canvas painting, made earlier this year, exemplifies this. In each canvas a shiny surface, which comes almost but not quite to the edge, has been painted on canvas-covered panel primed with matte white. The shiny surface is physically distinct from its ground—its paint has spread to obscure brush marks while that of the matte paint has not—and is a white which inclines to yellow, emphasizing the tendency toward blue of the matte under-painting, which runs beneath it and around the sides of the stretcher.

Ryman makes one intensely aware of the support—the panel or sheet of copper—as the infrastructure of that transaction between the wall and the pictorial object which is part of the content of any painting. In the work just mentioned, I think it’s relevant to observe that it’s the color of the matte paint—the color of the infrastructure—which provokes one’s experience of the color of the shiny surface. Similarly, the enameled surfaces of the works made on copper gain their color from the brownness of the latter material. It is, by the way, Ryman’s use of white rather than brown paint in these pieces which assures me that his work may be seen as involved with the wall in the way I’ve described. Were he not concerned with this, were he, for example, concerned instead with internalizing the structure of the work to the exclusion of situational influence or acknowledgment, he might have been expected to paint the copper paintings with a color that’s closer to that of the metal.

This is to say, Ryman’s use of white directs one toward a reconsideration of what goes into the act of looking at a painting in the third part of the twentieth century: the closeness of white to one’s sense of the wall allows for a comprehensive depiction of the contemporary condition of received conventions. His work engages one in a confrontation with versions of a general model for the reflexiveness which exists between the pictorial object and the viewer, which in Ryman becomes explicitly a confrontation between the specific and the implicitly anonymous. Two kinds of time, resident in two different materials and procedures, exist in each painting of Ryman’s and confront one another. The support, the sheet of copper or the panel, is always a cultured object which need not have been prepared by the artist. The surface added to it is always the repository for highly individual—in the sense that they’re intuitive—decisions and procedures. This dichotomy is, I feel, responsive to the distinction—in one’s own imagination—between oneself and the wall on which the work hangs. The interaction between the four elements involved in the perception of the work (the support, the painted surface, the spectator and the wall) brings to one’s attention other relationships between them too. The two elements that combine to make the work itself are, in a sense, known to the artist as the character of its spectators and the various places in which it will hang cannot be. Thus, varying degrees of specificity face varying degrees of anonymity and unpredictability.

Ryman’s use of white to exploit and manipulate the implicit anonymity of a portable painting’s spectator and physical location leads one, again, to Mallarmé, still the most articulate theorist of the conventionalized void, the white (blanc: blank) sheet of paper that both anticipates writing and offers relief from it. Ryman works with tiny distinctions, which, as they oblige one to see the painting’s surface as the product of an extremely sensitive and protracted activity that’s contrasted with the mechanical impersonality of the support, lead one to recognize that the space of painting is as much emptied by labor as it’s filled by it. Onto the whiteness of the wall, which anticipates the painting as the page invites the word, Ryman imposes a void that is the product of work, a whiteness that manifests action, and is mediated by a physical construction which itself acts on the surface to give it color. As I’ve said before in connection with Marden, whose work involves a separation of surface from support that’s led to an institutional deconstruction of a quite different, if complementary sort, serious painting seems to involve the manufacture of models for internal contradiction. In Marden, color, precisely that property of the object that Ryman is concerned to maintain in a state of immanence, is made into the most overt feature of the work; in Ryman, the subject is an abstract space given color by its literal support and its own materiality. His work, then, gives one that sense of idealist conventions modified and perhaps even provisionally reformed by exposure to the material world which distinguishes advanced thought in intellectual life as a whole. As it does so, it reminds one of the underlying truism that—as an act of cultural conservation, and thereby of conscious rather than helpless change art-making is inevitably a concern with the manufacture of signifieds responsive to a set of signifiers that are largely unknown, that we are never, by definition, wholly in possession of the conventions we inherit and manipulate. Recently, I was charged with “false consciousness”—a phrase of Marx’s for juxtaposing the name of a living artist with that of a dead philosopher-poet. (The term “false consciousness” has also been aired recently in the pages of this magazine as part of a gratuitous attempt to set liberal tokenism of a particularly self-deceptive sort against abstract—if we can really still call it that—art in general. Marx, who observed that the artist is obliged to immerse himself in his materials in order to go beyond his time, must be chuckling in his grave.) With regard to the charge against myself, I say to hell with that. The past is as good as the present can make it. The alternative view, roughly summated in the slogan “Every corpse a God,” proposes that we must feel inferior to history. And that is indeed a story we’ve heard before. Its implication is that we measure ourselves against a departed Golden Age, it is the keynote of liberal Idealism and produces institutions with names like “the Senate.”

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe