Robert Ryman

Renn Espace d'Art Contemporain

The inaugural show at this new space contains 44 works by Robert Ryman, executed between 1958 and 1991 (some of which are being shown here for the first time). Instead of presenting the paintings chronologically, the show’s curator Urs Raussmüller juxtaposed different formats and dates as he did in the Hallen für neue Kunst in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, where he serves as director. What is immediately striking in this vast, naturally lit space—an environment of concerted but unaffected neutrality—is the restricted polychromy of Ryman’s art, which is all too often relegated to the monochrome genre, with which it ultimately has very little in common.

The divergences between Ryman’s painting and the monochrome are clear: first (and this is particularly apparent in this show), Ryman regularly used pigments besides white in the first decade of his career. In Untitled, 1959, blue is juxtaposed with red and ocher, and this does not even take into account the gray-brown of the areas of linen left unpainted, following a strategy, devised by the painter early on, that aims at playing colors off of different surfaces. Thus Essex, 1968, to cite only one other example, consists of a large canvas covered with white paint, but surrounded by a bright yellow border painted directly on the wall. The second divergence from the monochrome is Ryman’s use of white, which, in its multiple variations, never seems to function as an end in itself, or to bring with it any concomitant spiritual or ideological connotations. What the white does in his work is it makes the other components of the painting perceptible; it does not come forth as simply a positive, intransitive presence. Its value is more instrumental, more revelatory—it organizes the differences on which the unities of the work depend, and, at the same time, it puts the various elements into relation to one another, in order to establish a general structure.

Ryman’s paintings confront us with what is perhaps the most refined form of strictly pictorial wit that can be found today. There is an evident jubilation in this infinite variation of the parameters of painting, which is very clearly manifested in the rapport between the work and the wall—in the ever-modulating way in which the painting is fixed to the wall. This can be observed in Resource, 1984, with its four steel bars that separate the large curved painting from the wall, creating two curved shadows to the right and left of the piece, or in Pair Navigation, 1984, which is presented horizontally, 20 centimeters from the floor. The signature and the date also function as material components of the work. One senses in this progression of paintings the pleasure taken by Ryman in playing with his own name, like a module that can be repeated or declined. In Press, 1991, the date, which runs the length of the lower border of the panel, seems to have been left unpainted, revealing the fiberglass under the oil pigment, but a closer inspection shows that it is in fact painted the exact color of the support. With a lighthearted tone, Ryman prolongs the life of painting, as a reified pictorial concept, on the same line that was baited by the Cubists and by Piet Mondrian, two forebears that come to mind in this exhibition and provide some measure for its success.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll