New York

Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman was still in his late twenties and early thirties and not quite set in his ways when from 1957 to 1964 he made the twenty-seven works on paper exhibited here. Nevertheless, the now all-too-familiar square format is already in place, and many of the works are at least partially white, another staple of Ryman’s mature identity. The fact that the artist was still in flux—in a state of experimental innocence, as it were—makes these works particularly engaging. It is as though Ryman were testing the possibilities without reaching any conclusions—a welcome relief from the knowingness of the later paintings.

Sometimes the paint is thickly applied and agitated, making for a certain provocative painterliness. At other times it forms an atmospheric veil on the paper, emerging as a surface in its own right. Sometimes wallpaper or newsprint, and often translucent or off-white, the support remains in tension with the surface created by the paint or design (often a grid, or some carefully proportioned derivative thereof), even as they seem on the verge of collapsing into each other. Exploring the relationship between flat ground and animated “figure,” Ryman suggests that space is unfixed, impossible to nail down. The result is wonderfully uncanny, all the more so because of the almost reckless casualness of Ryman’s hand, which moves with lyric uncertainty over the surface of the paper, marking it to give meaning but with no certainty of what that meaning might be.

This pressure to find meaning within what seem like formalist exercises—improvisations of color, plane, gesture, line—is most evident when Ryman uses his own name, as though in an attempt to literally personalize his work, and perhaps to suggest the interdependence of the verbal and the visual. “RRyman,” which appears on about a third of the pieces in the show, changes size and shape, sometimes almost taking over the work—all but turning it into a self-portrait (signature substituting for and becoming image). At other times the signature seems to be dropped in casually rather than fully integrated into the composition—an absurd interloper in work with its own independent presence. Sometimes “RRyman” looks organic and spontaneous, the letters growing wildly, almost indecipherably, while in other instances it seems to have been made by some sort of writing machine.

The grid that structures many of the works also has this engineered, impersonal look. “RRyman” is here a boldly displayed ornament; there a ghost embedded in the surface, each letter threading through the grid as though marking a path through a labyrinth. In one work the m and n resemble fingers, a reminder, perhaps, that they were made by hand. In others the letters are fragmented and seem like parts of an incomplete whole. It is as though Ryman, uncertain of his personal, as well as artistic, identity, has employed the grid as an anchor. Or is it an imposed facade of coherence on the inchoate process of creative “handwork,” Ryman’s struggle to find his touch? Ryman had not yet come into his own—he had not yet named himself, however much he spelt his name out. But this is just what makes the works on paper more expressively alive than the later paintings, which seem to have polished the nuanced surface of the works on paper to an almost empty perfection.

Donald Kuspit