Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman has become a legend in the French art world, and almost a myth. This important retrospective of his work finally allowed us to assess a body of work which has been perceived in France mainly through the theoretical and critical discourse relating to it. But the “muteness” of these canvases and drawings offers the critic few avenues of approach. When Ryman’s reluctance to reveal himself in interviews is also considered, anyone wishing to transform the enigma of his painting into words may feel dismayed.

But if Ryman insists so much on procedure, if he refuses to acknowledge any mystic or religious attitude in the exercise of his work, if he seems to be an artist who conceives the pictorial act in so precise a way as to give it the air of a manifesto, it is nonetheless true that the emotional impact of his work is considerable. He once confided to Achille Bonito Oliva that he works from his emotions, and added: “I mean to say that I do things by following my intuitions, because I feel they are well founded. . .” (Domus, February 1973). As methodical as they may seem, his patient reflections on color, which he deals with by using white in various forms, are not purely analytical. This is made clear in this exhibition, which unites pieces from a period of more than 20 years, revealing just what is most fascinating about Ryman’s adventure—its very power over the viewer.

From the untitled pieces of the early ’60s, in which he used oil paint on a number of supports (canvas, Bristol board, etc.), through the “Lugano” series of 1968, in which he resorted to acrylic paint on paper, to Midway, 1976, where he returned to oil paint, this time applied to wood, Ryman persistently but economically enlarges the field of his explorations. The territory opened up by his experiments with techniques, materials, ways of placing a brushstroke, dullness and brightness, and smoothness of surface and relief, is vast. Like the Chinese painters of tch’an, he aims only for the most inaccessible, the most subtle of relationships that can be established by the pictorial gesture. In each painting all his knowledge, one might say all his science, is brought into play in establishing an intense surface intended both for meditation and for the disruption of meditation: Ryman’s squares do not attain a fixed perfection, and this is what distinguishes him from Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, with whom he is often associated. On the contrary, he renounces perfection by a detail, an anomaly; the brackets which held the support to the wall during the work’s execution, for example. The introduction of this “defect” is no doubt connected to Ryman’s desire to make the painting exist in its own realm, one which lays claim to its own codes. In a certain sense these paintings, these drawings, refer to no other system than the one they have imposed. And yet they are not closed in upon themselves. Their foreclosure is only formal, for they open onto a mental universe that contradicts the restrained nature of the means involved in its creation.

White is not a metaphor for Ryman, or at least it is not limited to a metaphoric role. It is a means of access to a treacherous but challenging visual language. Once its vocabulary and grammar are mastered, this language leads neither to a meditational void, nor to an “essence” of any material; instead it involves a clarity of awareness of the behavior of light, the quality of its spectrum, the release of color by a movement away from color, and the revelation of truths which belong not to the field of geometric ideas but to an internal exploration whose end is still unknown, and which we are privileged to watch.

Gerard-Georges Lemaire

Translated from the French by Jamey Gambrell.