New York

Robert Ryman


Never one for grandiloquence, Robert Ryman has for some recent exhibitions drafted short statements about the continuous experiment that is his painting. These tend invariably toward the plainspoken, hardware-store procedural, and are thus the perfect complement to work that has long engaged the stuff of the medium without a surplus of theoretical effluvia, despite a patent conceptual orientation. In the text accompanying “Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing,” which comprised nineteen numbered paintings of the same title on various supports (Tyvek made of spunbonded olefin, MDF, aluminum, wood, and cotton stretched over wood), Ryman explains his use of industrial Tyvek (“It is very thin and looks like paper, but is strong and not affected by moisture and repels dust”) as well as his prolonged engagement with the small wooden panels and other technical matters. But he spends the better part of the account discoursing upon light: not illusionistic incandescence pictured within, but illumination that hits the surface from without, a Ryman hallmark that aims to differentiate abstraction as a residual image from the artist’s own object-bound marks. (These marks are “realist,” in his lexicon, as they annex “real light and space” and other exogenous conditions as part of their composition.)

Still, one needn’t have read Ryman to intuit that light, or ever- mutable conditions of notice, was very much the point here—a feat, given the less than optimal circumstances presented by a dim, windowless gallery. Even in the stagnant room, most pieces held almost ineffable passages of, say, glossy over matte paint that disclosed them- selves only when seen obliquely or at unusually intimate range. Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing 18, 2008, reveals two ghostly rectangular fields hovering above a thinner pellicle, itself striated by the wooden base into which it is settling; Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing 16, 2007, exhibits shellac buffed to a mirrorlike polish that goes dark when confronted head-on; and Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing 25, 2007, plays layers of B-I-N primer sealer and epoxy against one another, registering as relatively grayer and creamier, respectively. Reciprocity, here between primer and paint, but elsewhere between surface and the light that brings it to the pitch of visibility, or between painting and wall (where shadows frequently manage the transition from panel to plane), was both a through-line and a palpable imperative. The titles similarly avow relationships, differences put into quite literal relief.

Staples affixing the Tyvek paintings to the architecture functioned as adaptive mechanisms: straightforward means of mounting the works. (While Ryman has used visible fasteners, including tape and myriad brackets since the mid-1970s, his use of staples in the present context read as bracingly casual, with holes from prior installations left behind as small if gaping incisions redolent of dorm-room posters.) As is the case with so many of Ryman’s formal devices, the staples represent a pragmatic solution to a question posed by the materials: in this case, how do you hang Tyvek? He also tested how paint-marker ink would interact with the industrial product before using it, and thought to paint both sides as he had with earlier works (such as Pace and Pair Navigation, both 1984), though, of course, only one would be observable. Along similar lines, Ryman once imagined working in outer space, where a painting “would float around and you could see the front and the back and the edge of it and it would all make sense.” Making peace with circumstance, in the meantime—no sunlight, paintings that move, get hung and rehung and taken away, and that are spied from a single, gravity-bound vantage point—Ryman’s recent grouping showed compromise to be the basis for making meaning, and the most exacting form of creation.

—-Suzanne Hudson