Robert Ryman

Does the concept of a retrospective imply chronology? The organizers of the Robert Ryman survey at the Haus der Kunst in Munich think not. The press release announcing the “fifty-work” show, cocurated by Bernhart Schwenk in Munich and Christoph Schreier and Volker Adolphs at the Kunstmuseum Bonn, expressly states that the show is “conceived as an ‘unusual overview.’ . . . In contrast to a traditional retrospective, the exhibition . . . emphasizes the effect of Ryman’s paintings. The individual works are not presented in chronological order but rather in their atmospheric relations to one another.”

In fact, the Munich version of this show brought together not fifty works but thirty-five (the full complement can be seen in Bonn), and that number included contributions from four younger artists. The beauty of the hanging was undeniable, but no viewer could have left with a dear idea of just what these “atmospheric relations” might actually be.

Ryman’s works, no matter how reductive they may seem—white, nothing but white, and squares—ever more squares are in fact infinitely rich, as if the drastic economy of color and form ultimately resulted (not so paradoxically, really) in freeing and focusing an unbounded range of nuance where the remaining painterly and pictorial qualities are concerned In this universe, which might at first glance seem monotonous, texture, brilliance, matteness, haptic ruggedness, style of framing, manner of hanging, size and thickness of the support, even the artist’s signature—in short, every element that makes a painting more than just a flat surface attached to a wall—begin, with sustained scrutiny, to reveal an astonishing variety from work to work, And once noticed, even the subtlest nuances within a particular painting become so exuberant in their interplay that few works of art can hold one’s attention like a Ryman. In other words, an “atmospheric relation” (if such a thing exists) is only one type of relation among many. And if there was a single dear principle to be gleaned from the Munich hanging, it was that every Ryman, whatever the vintage, is made to be treated as the contemporary of every other, as chronology bears not the slightest relevance to the systems of similarity and difference that appear in profusion as soon as one begins to juxtapose the paintings.

This truth alone amply justified the show’s organizational principle. Works of the same type and period were distributed among different rooms and contexts, as if the curators sought to prove that the effects produced by Ryman’s various formulas are never fixed but are wholly dependent on the context in which the work is encountered. Viewers could verify this theorem by looking at A. Millbourn and Classico XX, two works from 1968 that obey the same rule of realization and call on the same ingredients. Each displays a large white quadrilateral painted in acrylic on an assemblage of sheets of cream-colored paper, the essential difference between them being the number of sheets—twelve in the former, twenty in the latter. This variation involves not only a clear difference in dimension but also a geometric inversion: In one case, the work is approximately square while the white paint inscribes a rectangle on it; in the other, the paint delimits a square within a rectangular whole. These are the subtle (and jubilatory) variations that an adjacent hanging, which favors rather strict fond relationships, would have underlined. Here, however, Classico XX greeted visitors all by itself on a wall in the first room, where Surface Veil III, 1970–71, a large painting in oil on linen, velvety and cloudy at once, was hung as well; A, Millbourn, in contrast, was shown on a long wall in the exhibition’s largest room with a group that included another Surface Veil but also with works of a totally different nature. Among the more dramatic effects of these dissimilar hanging conditions one noted that, though clearly larger, Classico XX looked almost fragile by virtue of its direct confrontation with the oil and the solid frame of Surface Veil III, whereas A. Millbourn, placed next to more delicate works of much smaller dimensions, derived from its position a comparatively assertive presence.

And so on and so forth, for one could endlessly analyze such confrontations and the effects, no less spectacular, of the absence of confrontation, since a few works—for instance, the well-known Resource of 1984—benefited from what appeared in contrast as splendid isolation. It is exactly fat this reason—I am referring to the relational nature inscribed as if by definition in Ryman’s art and which lends the work an appreciable part of its value—that the confrontation attempted by the exhibition’s organizers with the works of four younger artists was, to say the least, risky.

Not that the works in question were wholly without merit. At worst, Ariane Epars’s contribution—simple pencil lines high along the walls of a mom otherwise devoted to Ryman—brushed against the very limits of nonexistence. At best, with the cubic structure built by Beat Zoderer using squares of wood coated in industrial white, or with Albert Weiss’s enormous polystyrene (white, naturally), the variations introduced (formally—but only formally—too close to Ryman’s), seemed to feed off their reading of the older artist’s work without adding anything much themselves. Only Clay Ketter’s kitchen cabinet, perhaps, managed not to interfere with the presentation of Ryman’s work. But this virtue of omission, so to speak, was achieved, ironically, in a maximal way, in works by an artist best known for playing with the form of painting by exhibiting the readymade tracings left on walls by shelves, cabinets, and electrical wires that have been ripped out. No need to point out that Ryman’s deliberate, infinite, and sublime variations have next to nothing to do with this sort of found whiteness.

“Robert Ryman” is on view at the Kunstmuseum Bonn through May 27.

Daniel Soutif is a critic and curator based in Paris.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.