Thursday, December 23rd, 2004

Robert Ryman at PaceWildenstein and Milton Avery at Knoedler & Co

Robert Ryman
PaceWildenstein until January 8 (534 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-929-7000).

Milton Avery: Onrushing Waves
Knoedler & Company until January 29 (19 E. 70th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212-794-0550).

Robert Ryman Series #9 (White) 2004  oil on canvas , 53 x 53 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein
Robert Ryman Series #9 (White) 2004 oil on canvas , 53 x 53 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein

Just as representation alters the way we view reality, abstraction has the same effect on representation itself: it has never looked the same again. Cézanne has us seeing shimmering facets fluttering in the landscape; Alex Katz has us acknowledge our social circle as so many crisp, cartoonish cutouts. Similarly, abstract painters make us read the efforts of older masters on their own nonrepresentational terms.

Abstraction is the great disengager of mark and color and gesture, subjecting them to a kind of pit-stop in their race to represent the world, giving us a moment, in concentrating on them, to savor them as things in themselves. A couple of shows up right now, recent paintings by Robert Ryman and late seascapes by Milton Avery, have the potential to upset the apple cart of art history and make us rethink the relations of abstraction to depiction — or, rather, they offer a timely reminder that abstract painting belongs to a “bigger picture” in which depiction remains the paradigm.

Both shows are stunning, and it’s worth crossing town to see them on the same day.

Nowadays, any painterly accretion of white looks Rymanlike, even if it is engaged in the work of depiction. Mr. Ryman is the artist who always comes to mind, for instance, when I look at Edward Hopper’s “Lighthouse at Two Lights” (1929) at the Metropolitan Museum , with the white of its tower thrust into the bright Maine sky. “It is important that painting always be new for me,” the usually reticent artist writes in an expansive preface to his show at PaceWildenstein’s Chelsea gallery. To aficionados, each new series of Rymans represents a significant departure, as the artist is ever setting himself fundamental issues to address. Even skeptics, though, will concede a new spirit animates his latest paintings: Expansive is again the word, as by his standards the paintings are atmospheric (almost impressionistic, even), prodigious in scale, compositionally busy, and colorful.

White, as we know, is not quite technically a color; in Mr. Ryman’s handling of it, though, it become more than one: It is motif, an aspiration even. Many of his trademark works consist entirely of white paint, whether pummeled or thinly applied, painterly or transparent. His last show of new paintings, in 2002, introduced quite startling colors in the grounds that peeked around his edges. Now the grounds are really starting to stand up for themselves, yet white continues to predominate.

Mr. Ryman draws a distinction between his previous use of white and his current one, however. “It may seem strange that I would now be making white paintings when I have seemingly been making ‘white’ paintings for some years. In the past I have used white a neutral paint, but in these new paintings I decided to actually paint white.” Everything Mr. Ryman does is at some level a philosophical tease: Is there, in fact, a difference between using a color and painting it?

The real tease here is that when he wasn’t actually concerned with white, he was literally “in” it, whereas now that he is thinking about it, he is removed from it. Proof of the pudding is the introduction of other colors (the rich, dark grounds). He turns upside-down Jackson Pollock’s romantic conviction that he wasn’t portraying or depicting nature, but that he *was* nature. This doesn’t stop these new Rymans from *looking* romantic. Some are almost Whistlerian or Monet-like in their foggy, shimmering effects. He may have forged his career on a set of conceptual and post-Minimal gambits, but these new paintings belie that history.

It is scale in particular that signals a shift. “Series #9 (White),” (2004) is a 53-inch square (a mural by Mr. Ryman’s standards.) The composition is book-ended by tapering dark blue lines, intimating a dark ground. Then there is an arrangement of what looks like a rectangular lozenge of white cloud against blue sky. Instead of Mr. Ryman’s heavily invested, intimate, precious, almost doodly impasto, there is an old-masterly scumbling, like one of Constable’s Weymouth skyscapes. The pulsating lozenge, with its fuzzy edges inevitably brings Rothko to mind.

Milton Avery Rolling Surf, 1958 oil on canvas, 54 x 56 inches  Courtesy Knoedler & Company
Milton Avery Rolling Surf, 1958 oil on canvas, 54 x 56 inches Courtesy Knoedler & Company

Milton Avery was the most influential teacher and acknowledged mentor of Rothko, and the late seascapes at Knoedler are among the pioneer Modernist’s most abstract works. In some of them, like the wonderfully spare oil crayon on paper, “Breakers” (1958), where the turquoise sky and black, spume-punctuated sea, are autonomous rectangles floating on the sandy ground, he out-Rothkos Rothko. The son is father to the man.

Although the motif always remains perfectly legible within his pared-down, faux naïve idiom, the marine subject encourages generalized effect over detail or specificity. Like no other motif, sea and waves press gang brushed paint on canvas into service as their perfect metaphor.

If you think about a Ryman and an Avery, the differences in intention and generational attitude make it hard to relate the markmaking. One pushes self-consciousness to a deliberately contrived extreme; the other revels in expressive freedom. Yet the works in these two shows have us modifying our view of each artist.

Avery often plays conceptual games with the implications of brushstroke. There is a wonderful vertiginousness in his flattened-out compositions, for example, in the way surf or waves are carved out of a wall of sea, or the way the schematic beach defies a distinction between upfrontness and vanishing perspective.

An extraordinary expressionism is at play in these paintings, one as sophisticated as it is childlike. The artist’s touch, with its pronounced, knowing sense of rush, urgency, lack of deliberation, and agitation (yet perfect color always, and exquisite juxtaposition) is richly onomatopoeic. We can almost hear the the artist impishly going “wooosh” and “shooo” as he pounces the canvas with his dabs and smears.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 23, 2004