New York

Robert Ryman

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Marked by an ascetic denial of such traditional artistic devices as facture and narrative, Minimalist sculpture and painting emphasized the absolute qualities of materials, rather than what the artist did with them. Frequently focusing on the interplay of random or found arrangements with the sensuous qualities of industrial materials, Minimalism reacted to the self-conscious emotionalism of second-generation Abstract Expressionism, positing the artist as a sort of Zen factory worker.

Quieter than Pop art, Minimalism, rather than reveling in the circus of consumerism, ignored the ambient noise—or at least seemed to. In retrospect this is perhaps the movement’s salient characteristic. Holding out for the value of perception in an age of received opinion, Minimalism offered a renewed way to treat art as a serious endeavor.

No one artist embodied the whole constellation of Minimalist characteristics. Robert Ryman, for example, has always used subtle gestures to develop a low-key but distinct painterly vocabulary. Within his trademark reductive whiteness, Ryman has exercised a surprising degree of formal ingenuity—changing format, varying the application of paint, and adjusting framing details or the brackets used to mount the work.

This show marked a further step along this narrow but subtly wending path. Striking here was just how painterly Ryman’s concerns have remained over the years. At a moment when many artists have opted for practices that analyze mass-media stereotypes and the interaction of culture and corporate power, or even resort to political sloganeering, Ryman continues to explore the inflections of meaning that his narrowed range of expressive tools allows. Here, Ryman almost seems to present a catalogue of possible effects, some familiar from earlier work, some not: unpainted edges, aluminum framing strips (Tribune, 1989), wooden supporting blocks (Initial, 1989), varying textures of paint (Locate, 1989), and so on. In Context, 1989, he leaves a top edge, a lower corner, and a diagonal line unpainted, resulting in an arrowlike figure at the side of the painting.

For famously quiet work, here Ryman’s constructions become voluble, even chatty. The “seriousness” implied by the artist’s austere vocabulary gives way to virtuosity, with all its advantages and pitfalls. Much of early Minimalism was intent on denying the artist’s shaping role in order to let the material speak for itself; in this work Ryman unequivocally asserts both his authorship and his authority.

Charles Hagen