New York

Robert Ryman

Sidney Janis Gallery

After seeing Robert Ryman’s new painting I wanted to find one word that would explain how I felt about them.

I found a quotation in a catalogue of his paintings: “Basically, my work has to do with just making visual art, something that excites me, that excites me personally, then I feel, if that happens, if I feel good about it, that maybe someone else will. If it doesn’t work out that way for me, then I feel it’s a failure.”

The new paintings did not excite me, personally. Am I to conclude that Ryman must consider them failures (assuming that he ever discovers that I feel this way)?

I wonder how much we should expect an artist’s work to change. Once Rothko and Newman found their insignia, they never veered away from it in any drastic way, yet we don’t blame them for it. Is it hypocritical of me to complain that Ryman’s paintings seem all the same to me, and that is what makes them unexciting, if I don’t hold repetitiveness against Rothko and Newman? I do like most of Newman’s paintings; I always feel with him in what he’s doing, even though a lot of the paintings are the same. (“Same” in the common meaning.) Just stripes.

All Ryman’s paintings are white. (I noticed the tastefully muted colors of the metal boltings that secured the paintings to the walls; one could ponder the significance for a few minutes. I conclude that, if something’s going to be attached to the wall at all, I don’t care in what color it’s done.) All Ryman’s paintings are covered with this short, squiggly, squishy brushstroke. (He used to play around with different textures, and touches, and different scales of stroke, but he doesn’t here.) Is it completely clear why I want to find just one word to match Ryman’s oneness? “Repetition” or “change” as an indication of excitement isn’t going to work, though. Too easy. If his paintings used to excite me—and they did—then why don’t these do anything for me? I don’t want to say that my taste has changed; I don’t want to use that excuse myself from defending a value judgment. So I am going to have to keep searching for a word. It’s going to have to be a word with two meanings, duplicitous almost, a word with connected but almost opposite meanings.

Why don’t I like these paintings? Why don’t they excite me? Ryman has remained faithful to his excitement, and I have cheated on him by demanding more than what his program can give me, or perhaps what I can give the paintings. Isn’t getting excited about something basically giving yourself over to it—losing or abandoning yourself? Am I no longer willing to abandon myself to certain impulses, unlike before, where, in a remarkable transference, in excitement, I lost myself?

Have I now found my word? Because abandon also means to desert. To abandon hundreds of the possibilities in painting for fossilized whites, for safe, predictable unions of paint to surface. To abandon either maturation—slow, organic change—or arbitrary, sudden violation by admitting something alien into the work, Ryman abandoning himself. For isn’t this unchanging painting activity now thoroughly identified with him?

And here I am abandoning the paintings. My infatuation changes, and I feel unmoved, distanced, cool. Wasn’t the possibility of my desertion already present from the beginning in the way Ryman proceeds, by his nonproceeding, by his refusal to use more than one color, one texture, one (basic) scale, one shape, and here, one basic kind of surface? I abandon him in his bleached-out, pictorial desert, no longer excited by the allure of passive blankness, the pleasure of a projection which is narcissistic. There is nothing to find in the paintings but oneself.

I feel the paintings fail; Ryman is abandoned because I no longer give myself over to him. What kind of a relationship can I have with a work of art? What has that relationship to do with its unknown (to me) creator? In a way, shouldn’t I find excitement in our misconnection, our missing one another in this uncanny, ironic path between myself and his object, forcing me to do something else, conjure up a response to my strange response, my blocked responsiveness,which is quite different from an esthetic response, but perhaps just as valuable? Is Ryman’s offering of virtually nothing at all the very reason why I search elsewhere (in word games, for instance) for my excitement?

Jeff Perrone