Thursday, July 22nd, 2004

Robert Ryman and Band of Abstraction

“Robert Ryman: Works on Paper, 1957-1964” until September 25 (closed for August, 99 Wooster Street, between Spring and Prince, 212-343-0441).

“Band of Abstraction” until August 14 (819 Washington Street, between Little W. 12th and Gansevoort Streets, 212-243-8572).

Robert Ryman Untitled 1958 medium and dimensions to follow
Robert Ryman, Untitled 1958 medium and dimensions to follow

A painterly equivalent to the truism that the child is father to the man is that an artist’s early drawings reveal the essence of his or her character. If this is indeed the case, anyone intrigued by the enigmatic art of Robert Ryman should repair to Peter Blum’s SoHo gallery. The selection of works on paper there, from the outset of his career, apparently constitutes the first survey of his drawings.

Harold Rosenberg labeled work that induces uncertainty about its aesthetic intentions or its very status as a work of art “the anxious object.” It is the genius of Mr. Ryman, throughout his distinguished career, to have made supremely anxious objects while always ensuring that not one is marked by the faintest degree of angst.

But that’s par for the course for so playful a reductionist. Mr. Ryman is primarily known for painted, white, square canvases, a drastically pared-down form he inherited from Malevich. What he jettisoned is the Russian Suprematist’s key ingredient: metaphysics.

His works can certainly seem, from the telling, severe enough: What, after all, can be more minimal, or conceptual, and yet remain a painting, than a white square? Yet the actual experience of a Ryman, once you get used to the closed-down range of his obsessive formal and material interests, is a sense of the perennial doodle, of someone simply mucking around with materials and having fun – quite possibly at the viewer’s expense. But the uninhibited may share the sheer pleasure-sensation of paint smeared on paper: Look at the isolated smudges of oil on mylar, or of casein on Bristol board in a couple of drawings from 1960, and you almost feel like you have put it there yourself.

A Ryman always teeters on the edge of pranksterism, not despite but because of its element of preciousness and pretentiousness There is humor as well as nonchalance in his touch in particular and his project in general. Mr. Ryman’s prank (if that’s what it is) compares with the honorable tradition of the hoax in turn-of-the-century French culture, which Roger Shattuck (in his book, “The Banquet Years”) brilliantly related to Cubism. Earnestness and absurdity ought to be opposites, but somehow, Mr. Ryman constantly has the one feed off the other.

Perhaps this odd aesthetic posture relates to Ryman’s start as a jazz musician. He turned to art on a whim and never submitted to formal training as a painter. And though he came to prominence with the generation of minimal and conceptual artists, and has attracted no end of weighty theorizing from critical supporters, he never lost a sense of improvisation: You could say he brought a light touch to their heavy agenda.

There is hardly a sense, in Mr. Ryman’s oeuvre, of early as opposed to late. He is either ever a beginner, in Rilke’s sense, or else – if you buy fully into his aesthetic – he arrived a fully-fledged master. The tentative, goofy curiosity of his early drawings show precisely the same quality, or lack of quality, that characterizes his “mature” work.

That said, these early efforts from the late 1950s and early 1960s pack some surprises, primarily in terms of color and expressivity. Mr. Ryman’s most recent show of paintings, at PaceWildenstein in the fall of 2002, was marked by the unusual extent to which colorful grounds were exposed, but even for the Ryman aficionado the displays of bold color in these first drawings is almost shocking. It is rather like seeing bright colors on modern tennis stars, where you expect the decorum of white.

More startling, though, is the tightness of pictorial organization that characterizes some of these works. The usual touchstone with Mr. Ryman, given his oxymoronically casual purposiveness, is Jasper Johns, the Dadaist debunker of Abstract Expressionism. But rather than looking like another enemy within of action painting, Mr. Ryman circa 1958 looks like an avid and uncritical admirer of Robert Motherwell, Clifford Still, and Mark Tobey. Even where he goes for alloverness or drastic informality, there is a studied sense of design, of a compelling gestalt.

Where a sense of the prankster-doodler undoubtedly comes across is in his unremitting play with his own signature. Arthur Danto has described Mr. Ryman’s “RRyman” as not so much a signature as a graffito that happens to be his name. The artist has made extraordinary motifs out of date and signaturewhich are all the more remarkable for being left to stand out in otherwise motif bereft compositions. In some of these early drawings, the artist’s name is repeated over and over, as if he were an adolescent trying to fix the style of his autograph. In what seem, anyway, solipsistic meditations on expression and its absence, the signature becomes a precarious signifier of ego.

Nadine de Koenigswarter, details to follow
Nadine de Koenigswarter, details to follow

If early Ryman puts you in the mood for oddball abstraction of a sophisticatedly childlike tenor, be sure to catch the closing week of “A Band of Abstraction,” the delightful and adventurous survey of less-known painters put together by painter and critic Joe Fyfe at Van Brunt Gallery.

Mr. Fyfe, himself no stranger to extremes of rough-edged painterly nonchalance, has gathered 17 artists. His stated guiding principle is that they should be relative strangers to New York exposure and that they should make small works. What looks at first, curatorially, like effortless scatter is in fact a marvel of dialogue and interchange between eloquent individualists.

An achievement of this show is to present New York debuts for several painters known quite well in France as latter-day followers of the Support-Surface movement. As the name implies, this movement was much-enamored of quirky games with ground and material. Jean-Francois Karst has a simple green grid on a white ground; both are incongruously animated by a tumorous buldge in the canvas. Nadine de Koenigswarter enlists hole punch chads as the ingredient of a monochromatic montage.

Several of the natives among Mr. Fyfe’s band pursue, as if punning the title of the show, bars and stripes as their motif – among them Jennifer Riley, Taro Suzuki and Adrienne Farb. One of several motif-orientated painters I was charmed to discover was Jason Duval. The subtly multilayered serpentine form of “Wrong Turn in Kharkom,” (2004) seemed-to paraphrase Paul Klee’s famous remark about line-to take the *grid* for a walk.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 22, 2004