New York

Robert Ryman

Pace Wildenstein

It’s clearly been a productive year for Robert Ryman; his recent show featured as many as thirty-five paintings, all but a few from 1998. It’s true that the paintings are small, mostly under two feet square (and none more than three), but they are no less exacting for that. Quite the opposite, even. At the same time, there is more composition in these paintings than one typically associates with Ryman. Most often a large area of more or less loose, more or less tight, but evenly weighted brushstrokes is surrounded or interrupted by passages of unpainted canvas (linen, cotton, fiberboard), so that the area takes on an identity as something like a shape or rather a mass that dominates its surround. Sometimes patches of flatly applied underpainting (not even always white!) arc revealed at the sides of this mass, and these have a supporting or framing role not unlike that of secondary figures in a traditional composition. And then the graphite markings of various sorts (including grids, rectilinear figures, the artist’s last name or initials, or the date “98”) take on the kinds of functions that are often spoken of as decorative but that in a good painting are indispensable for the detailed articulation of the motif. So even when there is a truly allover field of white brush marks without any other visible components besides the unpainted edges of the support, it comes off as a particular compositional choice, not as part of an anti-compositional program.

The consistently ravishing quality of these small works suggests that this may be the scale at which Ryman is most comfortable and which allows him to explore the various parameters with full and tender attention. While he has certainly made strong paintings on a large scale, I find more often that they go a bit slack beyond a certain size. I suspect that’s because the small-scale, wrist-generated, arching brushstrokes that have been the basic building blocks of his paintings in recent years fade into homogeneity at the distance needed to take in a big painting. Why do we still think a big canvas makes a more significant painting anyway? With his down-to-earth empiricism, which gives rise with such seeming effortlessness to lyricism and luminosity, Ryman seems more and more to be the modern equivalent of painters like Guardi or Chardin. Mere specialists in the eyes of their con-temporaries, they both disregarded their era’s love of high-style, grand-scale theatrical narrative to describe the motionless surfaces of architecture or of mundane objects with such lively, fluid handling that the utmost solidity became indistinguishable from the shimmering atmosphere that reveals it. Ryman, too, is a painter of surface as atmosphere, and the surfaces that have become most typical of his work are ones that require and reward close scrutiny. If that sounds too detached and analytical, one might say they invite an intimate acquaintance, unless that in turn sounds too gushy, in which case let’s just say that Ryman’s paintings call for a peculiarly in-between relation with their viewers—that is, one that is neither all cool and intellectual nor entirely sensuous and hedonistic but is somehow located at the unlikely golden mean between them.

Barry Schwabsky