New York

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 2010, oil on stretched-cotton canvas, 22 x 22".

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 2010, oil on stretched-cotton canvas, 22 x 22".

Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 2010, oil on stretched-cotton canvas, 22 x 22".

Since the beginning of his career, in the 1950s, Robert Ryman has pragmatically tested the means of painting, deploying a variety of supports and an equally catholic range of utensils and paints. He has applied pigment directly onto gallery architecture, moved canvas fasteners from the rear of a painting to the front, and installed his works so they project outward at right angles from the wall. In all of these experiments, Ryman checks action and consequence—which is to say, what one material will do to another: what force it exerts, what response it elicits, what value it suggests, and what aesthetic it submits for consideration. Indeed, such cause-and-effect relationships—between subject and material, material and physical world—are constitutive of Ryman’s project.

With six small square paintings from 2010 and 2011 (all untitled), and a ten-panel painting from 2010, Ryman’s eleventh show at Pace offered ample evidence of a continued engagement with the medium on these terms. In each of the smaller works, a rough square of white oil paint floats roughly off-kilter on a stretched-cotton canvas, which is also square. This white paint is backed by a darkly saturated, light-absorbing ground, providing a sense of contrast that pushes the lighter pigment into visible relief. Ryman created similar works for a 2004 show, yet in those, the grounds were all black or dark gray, while here, Ryman employs a variety of colors, including rust, pistachio, and deep dove gray. In places, Ryman used a stiff brush, so that the bristles rake fine lines with each thick stroke; this reveals a range of colors that constitute the white—creams and yellows, but also lilac and green (the latter of which serves as the base for one of the paintings). The paint, surprisingly matte and seemingly applied in thin if insistent passes, stains and becomes inextricable from the canvas’s weave.

The ten panels that make up No Title Required 3, by contrast, are painted with high-gloss white enamel and acrylic. Like the other multipanel works from this series (No Title Required, 2006, and No Titled Required 2, 2007–2008), the work is installed on two adjacent walls, traversing a corner. There are subtle, nearly imperceptible differences among the ten constituent parts: Each panel is a slightly different size, and two are made from board panel, while the rest are constructed from birch plywood. Most of the edges are washed in navy, but in places, this blue is conspicuously absent: on the left side of the panel on the far left, and on the right side of the two panels on the far right. Bookended thusly, the row of panels implies lateral expansion—a kind of opening-out on either end—and deferred resolution.

If Ryman’s process entails adapting to material and the experience that material engenders, it is perhaps crucial to underscore that this work is ongoing. When discussing “late style,” critics often note a tendency toward abrupt shifts in mode—radical changes in method or technique. Such shifts have arguably transpired here: In the past, Ryman allowed properties of his supports, whether the dim sheen of steel or the fibrous brown of corrugated paper, to serve as pictorial incident. In these recent efforts, by contrast, the ground is coated completely in paint. But rather than implying some kind of denouement, these pieces acknowledge that amid the “endless possibilities” Ryman once described as the richness of painting, there are only more questions.

Suzanne Hudson