Robert Ryman

Stand in front of a painting by Robert Ryman and try to avoid the question, What am I looking at? You can’t. I tend toward a pragmatic interpretation of his work. His paintings are the true representation of “a square painted white,” and don’t allow the projection of symbols or metaphors. Ryman’s white is pure evidence, the most extreme perceptual experience.

In these recent works Ryman uses his customary materials: white paint, supports of varying depths, aluminum bands of varying sizes. He combines the different textures of these basic elements to create variations of format and of luminosity. In this manner Ryman constructs a true visual synthesis. He determines the supporting structures of his expressive language, eliminates adjectives, and concentrates on combining the elements. He thus avoids the risks of simplification, rarefaction, or evanescence of meaning. This language is substantiated by its signs—phonemes, words, phrases—and Ryman distributes them through his fundamental formulations. Variations of size and proportion, juxtapositions of shiny and opaque surfaces, and shadows projected by surfaces in relief contribute to the synthesis. These materials are also offered “in and of themselves”; it is as though a white square corresponds to the letter a, an aluminum rectangle to the letter b, and so on. In practice, the formal elements are proposed both as structuring signs and as absolutes strictly tied to the field of painting. What, then, is the meaning of the painted white surfaces, the aluminum bands, the exposed hardware? Are they visual signs or symbolic metaphors?

The field cleared of equivocations of emotion, one can concentrate on light, on the rhythm of the combinations, on the perspectival scansion of the planes. The light is modified by the sun throughout the day, or by artificial sources; it is by turns soft and blinding as it is absorbed or reflected by the painted and metallic surfaces. In all cases it is there, changing and pulsating. It is not elusive, but captured and made an integral part of the eye’s experience of the surface of the piece. The color white is not homogeneous but vibrant. The visible brushstrokes ruffle the surface. The white is not polished; it doesn’t fade into rarefaction because it maintains the precarious, live quality of the painted gesture.

In the final analysis the paintings are made up not only of the object and its three-dimensionality, but also of the experience of interaction with the viewer. These works are not ascetic, but rather they catalyze powerful mental processes; they are works of extraordinary beauty, and convey, to me, enormous pleasure. This is the pleasure of observing a combination of pure elements, orchestrated well, by a knowledgeable hand and mind. It is the pleasure of clarity, of the recognition of a work that, though extreme, manages to avoid symbolic interpretation—including the concept of nothingness, or nihilist or romantic rarefaction—and remains rooted in the objective properties of the materials and in the concrete, dense world of reason.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.