San Francisco

Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman spreads white paint across his mostly squarish supports as if to make a hyperbole of essential surface. His new “Charter Series,” designed as a “meditative room” for Gerald S. Elliott’s apartment in the Hancock Tower in Chicago, interprets the plain monochrome surface and its few, carefully adjusted enclosures like a social dancer showing you the mystifying thrusts in a rudimentary box step. Each painting is a fabricated fact, a virtuoso performance of refined contrasts, a meticulously blank facade in which nuance of tone and assembly is everything.

Ryman’s five paintings aren’t images. They require a minimum encounter of 30 seconds to make any kind of dent. Inspect the surface and you see a wealth of detail seemingly more unusual and quirkier than its sum; turn away (or leave the room) and you wonder if you saw anything particular at all. The aphoristic sweep makes the clearest recollection of detail seem desultory. As in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Descent”: “no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory/of whiteness.”

Charter, 1985, which could be considered the prototype for the series, states a theme that the other, later pictures sift through and expand. This is an array of two white near-squares and three raw-metal rectangles done on a single, bent aluminum sheet that slips vertically along, then away from and back to the wall where the upper “square” begins and ends. It’s fastened near the edges at the top, upper middle, and bottom by bolts. The protruding boltheads join in the pictorial mix by twos, dotting the corners and peeking out from the shade cast by the cantilever. The object’s variegated light unfolds and regathers with an arcane orderliness like that of circular breathing in music.

The remaining four works (all from 1987) look breathless by comparison. Closely modulated by grainy aluminum flanges along which separate fiberglass panels are fitted and horizontally aligned, they’re more representative of the Ryman we know. Charter II follows sensibly as a caprice, syncopated and disorienting, a sentence with a dangling participle—a seemingly random stubby piece of raw flange with a mitered end pointing to another, longer piece which in turn butts to a bolthead. Elsewhere the flanges settle in as regular optical dividers, fulcrums of energy—bars, really—that discriminate between fields of unaccented white and provide slight embankments, or ridges, for the eye to rest. Preponderant whites make the glints and solidities of hardware (the bars, the boltheads) more acute. Where the partially painted center bar in Charter III charts a wide, barely shifting symmetry, like a device in celestial navigation, a pair of similar bars in Charter IV makes a down-to-earth contraction. Charter V, the centerpiece in the San Francisco installation, adds a shimmering perpendicular that takes a two-tone lift from middle to top like a high, bent trumpet note.

Ryman is a conservationist of the angelic literal. One effect of his no-image is that you must see each painting firsthand each time to have any idea—besides general ones like those given above—of the particulars of its apparent (and perceptually full) blankness. No painter owns white because all whites are subjective. Ryman uses white, just as he uses approximations of the square, to maintain an open singularity, a residue of which accumulates intelligibly past the edges, so the viewing space and the viewer both appear distinct, educated, and momentarily glad.

Bill Berkson