New York

Robert Ryman

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

It’s all in the name—the stubborn consistency of tact, vision, and method, the economy of means, the paradoxically anti-systematic system of repetitions, the governing law of tautology. Moving through over thirty years of Robert Ryman’s production in this show was akin to taking the same commuter train over and over again but never having the same experience twice—and never actually reaching a destination. This work thumbs its nose at the protocol of formal progression articulated in Modernist rhetoric while simultaneously beckoning the viewer to perform a thorough “formal” analysis.

The putative simplicity of Ryman’s work is deceptive, and this is precisely what enthralls. Unlike Donald Judd, who eventually rejected painting in favor of sculpture’s literalness, Ryman has apparently delighted in the exhaustion of abstract painting. Nothing and everything changes in this artist’s oeuvre, and one is struck by the sheer obstinance of his will to drive painting into a corner, allowing it to occupy that space with a quiet, mundane grace.

There’s a poetics of blankness here that defies a congruous articulation in the verbal realm. Indeed, this is the main paradox that Ryman himself confronted early on, with works such as The Paradoxical Absolute, 1958, and other paintings from that period in which he uses his name and the date as a compositional element within an essentially abstract antispace. These suggest the frustration of an attempt to reconcile the naming function of language with the zero degree of nonobjective visuality. Evidently, this dilemma can find no actual resolution, since it is only a constructed, discursive paradox that has been rehearsed over and over again.

Is it still necessary to ask the same question of Ryman’s work: does his painting indicate the final “end point” of the Modernist narrative? In his 1981 essay “Ryman’s Tact,” Yve-Alain Bois poses what still must be considered the most pertinent question regarding this artist: “Why is it so hard to write about Robert Ryman’s work?” Ryman’s paintings set a visual and ideological trap for the critic: what you see is what you get, and what you get is profoundly what you see. Faced with Ryman’s richly ascetic sensibility, the writer feels compelled to fill in the whiteness of these paintings’ imaginary voids even if this means descending into the treacherous nether regions of metaphorical or metaphysical language.

Pushing back the limits of pictorial space, destroying pictorial illusionism, destroying space itself, obliterating depiction, signaling the tautology of practice through a syntax of repeated tactics, issuing forth gesture as the index of bodily presence, offering repetition as the most sensual strategy possible. Tautology heaped upon tautology, laying waste to meaning beyond the painting-as-thing. Painting as the sensuous science, a perceptual cancellation that only prompts speculation—a fecund emptiness. Do these paintings really speak to us at all? And how do we speak for them? Ryman’s work is straightforwardly there—present—in its ineluctable yet understated materiality. They are both prior to and beyond thought, an exhaustion that is finally inexhaustible—perhaps a poetry horn of boredom.

Joshua Decter