Robert Ryman: New Paintings

Art Review by Donald Goddard


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White is the color of death in Japan. Maybe other places too. In most parts of the world, though, it is the color of birth, life, regeneration, etc. Whatever else, white is foremost (not human skin color, because there are no white people--or black, red, or yellow); it transcends other colors, all of which signify something more specific. White is more universal, and black is too; both also signify nothing, blankness. There is no neutrality in any of this.

Robert Ryman doesn't start with white, but it is the field in which he finally works. And, in fact, it's not necessarily pure white, but maybe a little off, and certainly affected by the colors under it and the shadows cast by raised brushstrokes. In that sense Ryman's use is opposite of traditional method, which would have white as a primer or an undercoat that brings light to the colors on top of it. In Ryman, illumination supercedes darkness.

The paintings are literally paintings--paint applied to surfaces. There are no images, as in Jasper Johns, whose work they most resemble in their considered brushwork. Nor are there implied universes of space, as in Rothko or Newman, or manipulations of the framing, as in Frank Stella. In other words, no illusions, or allusions, or at least the illusion of no illusions. Any one of these rectangles is simply a painting, as a tree, for instance, is simply a tree. Its substance is a stretch of fabric, darker (linen) or lighter (canvas), made dependably of tightly woven vertical and horizontal threads. In all the paintings the fabric is left bare, unpainted, around the outer edges, so there is no doubt about its presence, its existential importance. Then first is put down an underlying darker layer of paint--green, yellow, red, salmon, black, light green, mustard, wine--then on top of that a layer of white. Always the darker layer shows, around the edges and/or in glimpses through the white.

There is a kind of exquisite responsibility involved, because the fabric is like a microcosmic substructure, an almost infinitesimal grid on which the brushstrokes play out, something like notes on a staff of music, or rather like music itself. The white is not covering the darker color, which in turn is not covering the fabric. Rather, each grows out of the other, plays with the other, like jazz, or music in general. Looking at a surface, one becomes totally immersed in its composition, its interplay of gestures, improvisations that ultimately come from the grid, emerging through the darker layer to the white. The gestures are the flowering of the grid, in as many ways as the hand moves to the mind and the emotions, and the motor responses of human experience.

What matters is that everything takes place up close, within the immeasurable thickness of the painting itself, where the painter is. The whole settles within the vision from a distance, but ultimately it is not the ethereality of the paintings that is impressive. It is their physicality, their insistence on being. Each is named with a single word, usually as a noun, occasionally and interestingly as a verb that might be taken as a noun. They are to be explored, and to be accepted in their totality and imperfections, like a tree.

Donald Goddard © 2003


The paintings, all from 2001 and 2002, was exhibited at Pace Wildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001. pacewildenstein.com.

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