New York

Anne Ryan, Untitled (no. 284), ca. 1948–54, collage, 7 × 5 1⁄4".

Anne Ryan, Untitled (no. 284), ca. 1948–54, collage, 7 × 5 1⁄4".

Anne Ryan

Anne Ryan (1889–1954) was a novelist, a poet, a painter, and, perhaps most importantly, a collagist, although her collages are also poems, composed not of words but of exquisitely articulated shapes and colors. Ryan had her “breakthrough” in 1948, when she saw a presentation of Kurt Schwitters’s collages at New York’s Rose Fried Gallery. She saw this show the same month the German artist died—one wonders if he was reincarnated in Ryan, who was so inspired by his work that she began making collages on the same day she saw the exhibition, as we know from her daughter Elizabeth McFadden’s wonderful memoir, Anne Ryan: A Personal Remembrance (ca. 1982–83): “Mother went from one small collage to the next in a flood of relief and joy. . . . We went home but before she began to prepare supper, she was at her worktable making collages.” Astonishingly, Ryan created some four hundred of them before her death just six years later. The artist used a variety of sourced and cast-off materials, such as bits of silk, burlap, paper, and cloth dish towels, the last of which she saved until they became old and useless.

I would say the practical outcome of Ryan’s experimentation with rubbish was redemptive—she used depressing materials to make exhilarating art, spiritualizing what was initially (and essentially) spiritless. Indeed, some of the pieces in this exhibition of the artist’s collages seemed downright ecstatic, such as Untitled (no. 284) (all works cited, ca. 1948–54), a gentle semi-cubistic composition of crimson, salmon, black, and yellow, and Untitled (no. 704), a sort of imploded heavenly rose garden, made up of petallike panels in pink and red, with moments in which a variegated lemon abuts a rich Cimmerian blue. Most of the abstractions here were biomorphic, but even the more rigid, geomorphic ones were just as dynamic and emotionally evocative. Take Untitled (no. 264), a taxonomic arrangement of ragged-edged forms in rust, gold, and gray that are nestled into tiny white fields—like specimens in petri dishes—all carefully and elegantly dispersed over a dark ground, as though each of the work’s myriad components are about to be swallowed up by a curtain of gloom.

As Wassily Kandinsky argues, abstraction is subjective rather than objective, concerned with what psychoanalyst Anna Freud calls internal reality. “In a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous,” Kandinsky wrote, “they can be more or less omitted or replaced by abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completely abstracted. In every instance of this kind of composition, or composition using purely abstract forms, the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings.” For Ryan, at least to my mind, the remnants of old and worthless things were purely abstract, forms she put together for both aesthetic and emotional reasons. She decorporealized the materials she used to create her visual language. She also transformed their psychic charge, turning signs of death into symbols full of life. Containing this “detritus” in a work of art was a way of making them memorable, meaningful—preserving them not for posterity but to remain sane. In 1931, when she was forty-two, Ryan, who had divorced her husband in 1923, moved to Mallorca with her three children; the following year, the family moved to Paris. She was more than “midway of the journey” in life, as Dante characterized it when he found himself lost in the “darkling wood” of depression. Even McFadden noted that her mother was somewhat at a loss at the time—spiritless, one might say. I would argue that in the process of making refined artworks, Ryan overcame the bad feelings she might have had while in Europe but could not seriously address until she was back home in New York, where she could no longer escape herself. Ryan’s conversion of garbage into good art gave her a raison d’être at a time when she desperately needed one. Such is the consolation of art when life has you trapped in a corner, surrounded by junk. Like a successful alchemist, Ryan turned trash into so much gold.