New York

Robert Ryman

Pace Wildenstein

In the catalogue accompanying Robert Ryman’s show of recent paintings is a photograph of the artist’s studio: pristine, with paints, brushes, palette knives, solvents, and tools resting on two small carts and a stool, his signature white paintings hanging salon style on walls that are also painted white. Finished paintings wrapped in plastic stand propped in the corners. White paint, ready for use, waits on carts. Oh, and the floor is white, too.

On the next page, an essay by art historian Yve-Alain Bois opens with a quotation by Barnett Newman describing art of the first half of the twentieth century as “the search for something to paint.” Bois name-checks Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Bonnard, Braque, Picasso, Fautrier, and Warhol, then concludes by saying that Ryman, with his pasty brushstroke, “allows us the pleasure of intoxication knowing full well that in our day and age, this represents the only redemptive path for the practice of painting.” The statement just about wraps up Ryman: white painting, answering the siren call of art history, offering paint-induced redemption from the specter of its own demise.

Or does it? White paintings are often considered painting’s endgame, yet they haven’t been the terminus for many of its major practitioners. Malevich painted bad social realism under Stalin, Rauschenberg is better known for “Combines,” and Manzoni moved from achromes to more explicitly excretory art productions. Ryman alone has made a career of white, turning it into practically an eponymous practice.

Something is unwaveringly absorbing, even intoxicating, to use Bois’s word, about his project. The twenty-nine canvases here demonstrated a wide range of variation on the “singular” theme. Accompany, 2001, a white square cluster of brushstrokes on an off-white canvas, recalled—compositionally, at least—the deep-colored hovering fields of Rothko. Subject, 2002, consisted of an irregular shape created by Ryman’s uniformly sized brushstrokes, painted against a similarly colored ground. Senior, Current, and Limit (all 2001) challenged the notion of “all-white” paintings with their earthy gray canvas grounds,
and Document, 2002, showed around the white edges of the painted field evidence of what lay beneath: a bright green sea of underpaint.

Formalist poets have often argued that it’s more liberating to bend a rule or system than to cut one from whole cloth. Ryman’s paintings illustrate this bias. While his project often sounds straitjacketing, in reality it seems loose and generous. Ryman’s playful variations and ambiguous single-word titles (such as Link or Sum) suggest a system offering endless possibilities—and they imply that the “simple” white stricture might not be a stricture at all. White, he implies, is already a tainted notion. Time, light, and vision corrupt white canvas and paint, and so Ryman starts from the premise that white is neither static nor entirely pure; it isn’t always, strictly speaking, white—and may never have been.

Bois boils down Ryman’s “subject matter” to three elements: support, color, and brushstroke. One might read in these elements the Minimalist components of repetition and variation; the Conceptualist ideas of time, language, and representation; or the Structuralist penchant for systems. The closer you look, the less Ryman seems bound to clearing a simple “redemptive path” for painting. Rather, he makes a case for its relevance, even supremacy, addressing issues that are as contemporary as his materials are traditional.

Martha Schwendener