Robert Ryman: Variations + Improvisations

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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Each of us is given a small, infinite place in which to act, to be. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo encompassed the physical world in imagery, from the Creation to the Fall. It is all illusion—bodies, pilasters, plinths, fire, light—yet the final illusion, or conceit, is one of reality. The place exists. In his studio, Robert Ryman encompasses the physical world in the materials of his abstract art, beginning to end: “. . . there is no picture, there is no story. . . . there is no myth. . . . there is no illusion above all,” he says. Is it a case of reduction to materiality, or of elevation to materiality? Neither, I suppose, or both. The Sistine Chapel (which was Michelangelo’s studio for a time) and Ryman’s studio both embody extraordinary complexity.

Untitled  c. 1961
Untitled, c. 1961.
Pastel, conté, graphite, and charcoal on gray-green paper, 10 x 10”.
No fixed orientation.

The largest work in this small, exquisite exhibition of Ryman’s work over several decades is Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8” of 1978. Most of the other 24 are generally 10 inches or less square, and they are lined up more or less at eye level (for me anyway, and maybe the artist) all the way around the gallery walls, which are continuous but change at right angles in places. Some of the paintings seem to be exactly square (e.g. 7 x 7”, 10 x 10”) and others are a little off (10 1/8 x 10 1/2”), but, of course, a perfect square is impossible, and that is some of the point.

Untitled, of about 1961, is about order and its ambiguities. It measures exactly 10 inches square, a status that is questioned immediately by the grid of lines covering the surface consisting of thirteen units in one direction and fourteen in the other (the piece has no fixed orientation so horizontal and vertical are both possible, compensating somewhat for the variation in measurements). In the central 48 squares, or rectangles, of the grid, Ryman has drawn his name in rounded letters, four times in one direction and three times on top of and perpendicular to that. The letters tangle with each other in different colors (black and white—I can’t tell which came first), establishing a definite but uncertain presence. Left and right, or top and bottom, of the center are two rectangles of white pastel covering 32 squares each. Within the 32 squares on the left is an incomplete grid of smaller squares, 8 by 17, or 136 squares, and on the right are 17 more-or-less horizontal, or vertical, lines drawn in charcoal. This area too seems incomplete inasmuch as there is the beginning of an oval shape, five vertical, or horizontal, lines, and a jagged configuration outside the rectangle, perhaps the essence of script, with a curved arrow pointing into the rectangle like an additional commentary. The difficulties and contradictions involved in describing all this reflect the intricacy of the picture itself and its making, the vast range of possibilities within a very small compass.

This is perhaps the most deliberately, and stubbornly, complicated work in the exhibition. Others are more elementally, and lyrically, complicated. Untitled #33, of 1963, is simply a small rectangle (5 _ x 6”) of unstretched linen canvas in the center of which Ryman has painted a more-or-less rectangular configuration of short, white brushstrokes. The regular, irregular brown weave of the canvas, and its frayed edges, themselves suggest some kind of perpetual, imperfect universe, and on it is played out a conversation, perhaps with the self, of intimate and very distinctive movements of the brush, of the mind.

The materials of Ryman’s art subsequently, in the 1970s and onward, became harder and more reflective—double-baked porcelain enamel on oxidized copper panels, Impervo enamel on anodized aluminum panel, black and blue ink on glassine, to cite three works in the show. Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8” is a poignant amalgam. Inside the frame is the square field of extremely delicate white oil-stick strokes on paper. The frame is steel, painted white, with two tabs at the top and two at the bottom through which round bolts hold the frame to the wall. The measurements are included in the title, I think, because the tabs and bolts are part of the work and account for its greater height than width. The painting inside the frame is opaque and transparent at the same time, with the darker paper showing through the white paint, particularly around the edges, there always being something already beneath what we see and feel. In a sense the steel frame and bolts contain the poetic transparency of paper and oil stick and show it off like a traditional painting, but they also pin it to the larger world, robbing it of pretension.

Untitled 33 1963
Untitled #33, 1963. Oil on unstretched sized linen canvas, 5 _ x 6”.

Painting with Steel
Painting with Steel 15 1/8 x 13 5/8”, 1978.
Oil stick on paper, white painted steel frame with round bolts.
Sheet: 13 _ x 13 1/8”. Overall: 15 1/8 x 13 5/8”.

The final work, Ryman 63-10, or Test K, seems to have been added during the hanging of the exhibition, after all the written materials had been completed. It’s about a foot square of what looks to be linen canvas with brushed samples of seven “earth colors” (green, gray, dark green, olive, red, lighter olive, and brown) lined up vertically on the right, like swatches on a palette, a square of white brushstrokes over probably the same “earth colors” in the center, and “Ryman 63-10” added this year by the artist vertically along the left edge. It is a disquisition on the cliché of what constitutes a painting: supporting canvas, sample swatches of paint, composition of brushstrokes (the painting itself), and artist’s signature and date. But, of course, what results is not at all random or clichéd, but inevitable (over time) and focused on an intensity of experience within the dimensions of this square.

If once you put down a mark it calls for other marks. But the marks are not even begun by you; they are in the cloth, the brushed metal, the grain or buckling of the paper. It’s just that those little squares of materials, Ryman’s paintings, concentrate what is in the world already, in very particular, particulate ways—forces are as though ruled by some law or principle, but always different. Each square contains a world, but only provisionally, which is its celebration—to contain such powerful forces, including the self in the sanctified space where the creative process takes place.

Donald Goddard © 2010

“Robert Ryman: Variations + Improvisations” is on view at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., NW, Washington, DC 2009, through Sept. 12, 2010.

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