How Bloodless is Robert Ryman?
Robert Ryman at Dia:Chelsea
December 9, 2015 to July 29, 2016
545 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 989-5566
A long time ago, in the last century, Robert Ryman, now 85, was in the vanguard of artists exploring what were then thought to be the basic components of painting. Though a rigorous formal approach to painting of this kind no longer occupies the esteemed position it once did, there remains a church of true believers who maintain a steadfast devotion to this esoteric practice.
Recently Dia:Chelsea has mounted a show of 22 Robert Ryman paintings ranging from 1958 to 1984/2002. This provided the opportunity for an experiment. Is there anything of relevance to be gained in looking at this work today? Can we find a creative way to encounter it? What is new that can be seen and thought about when looking at a Ryman?
Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker review of this exhibition points to a dilemma:
Ryman’s reductions of painting to basic protocols are engaging only to the extent that you regard painting as an art that is both inherently important and circumstantially in crisis. You must buy into an old story, which bears on Ryman’s extreme, peculiarly sacramental standing in the history of taste.
But is that actually true? Do you really have to buy into that old story in order to appreciate his work? When I came to New York as a young painter in the mid 70s, this deconstructive approach to painting was not only compelling, it was the only game in a town that still saw itself as the center of the artistic universe. But the austerity of this examination struck me, even then, as too hermetic, and today this approach may seem the equivalent of taking apart a watch, getting rid of those confusing gears, reordering its face and case, and achieving something more sophisticated than its former time-telling function. Because critics also referred to it as ABC art, I more optimistically thought the evolution of this idea would be to make paintings that were sentences, paragraphs, and complex stories—while still assimilating the rigorous decision-making that defined this process.
So many different approaches to painting have been explored since then, and yet this does not lead to a peremptory dismissal of Ryman’s work. In front of the actual paintings, we find a strong gravitational pull into close inspection of these mysterious objects. The works, though united in such primary concerns as the idea of whiteness, of paint application or the nature of supports, vary pointedly and peculiarly from one another. It’s a shame they are not hung chronologically, as the focus of the work has evolved and changed.
For all of Schjeldahl’s “reduction … to painting’s basic protocols,” it is striking how easily we are diverted from Ryman’s announced project of only presenting the materials he has employed at their face value. Seven of the earliest paintings here, dating from 1958 to 1962, are involved with using white paint to cover over, paint out, obliterate or subtly reveal a prior painted surface. This is a complex, metaphoric activity. To paint a layer that will then be hidden isn’t exactly dispassionate, but conveys paradox, secrecy, or censoriousness in its act of concealment and cancellation. The performance of painting throughout this show almost always entails movement that feels spontaneous, improvised and expressive, hardly conforming to the mood of quiet meditation that has come to be associated with Ryman’s work.
Paintings are not what they first seem. Untitled #1003, 1960-61, has a scarred, mostly thickly painted white surface. The paint application varies from individual small, thick brushstrokes to large troweled-on areas, to marks incised in wet paint. This all appears to be covering over under-painting of mostly celadon with various other hues also bleeding through. But close examination reveals that some of the colored pigment is not in fact “bleeding through” at all but rather is painted on top of the white even though it appears to be an artifact of an earlier layer. Such stark dissembling struck me as a rather curious development for a painter celebrated for his anti-illusionistic “honesty.” So much for “what you see is what you get.” The gaze that is induced makes one feel like a skeptical detective questioning an unreliable witness. Suddenly this modest little painting is more devious than one supposed, and makes one scrutinize all the work with suspicion.
Upsetting the usual vertical wall attachment, there is one curious piece in particular, Pair Navigation, 1984/2002, which first appears as a white square levitating a foot from the floor and jutting out from the wall. Abutting a wall with other works whose 3-dimensional presence is emphasized, it is supported by aluminum rods at either corner, making it seem like an expensive coffee table. Looking closer it appears that the central white painted square has a mirrored margin. Ryman may think he has overcome illusion, but the floating effect is partly achieved by other, invisible, rods, which secure the end into the wall. The painted fiberglass surface itself is invisibly suspended on a recessed piece of wood above what we learn is a polished aluminum rather than mirrored surface. Incidentally, the entire underside (visible only if you get down on the floor and peer under it) is also a reflecting polished aluminum.
Metaphor and representational content in Ryman have been raised before, though apparently ignored. In an article in Art in America in January 1994, for instance, which covered a Ryman retrospective at MoMA, Christopher S. Wood referenced Jacques Derrida’s notion that “the white European replaced the ancient truths of story-telling and poetic transformation with pale and bloodless abstract philosophy—-a ‘white mythology.’”
It often looks like Ryman is doing just this. But in fact no paintings are less metaphysical, less anemic. A little close looking pumps them full of blood. All their yearning is filtered through a human gesture, a web of cracks, a film of dust, a workman’s thumbprint, and above all through the tracks of the hairy brush. Meaning never untangles itself from the physical phenomenon. And in the gestural traces especially, an old mythology—an earthy and sanguinary mythology—rises again to the surface.
And speaking of sanguinary, even the seemingly straightforward Arista from 1968 is not the simple piece of lightly painted linen stapled directly to the wall. It is impossible to avoid the sense of whispered narration and history contained in this piece. Given the number of unfilled staple holes that somewhat arbitrarily ring the canvas, it appears that it has been fixed to a wall many times before, and it is hard not to imagine that installation drama continuously re-enacted. Apparently the exhibition installers do not create new holes but reuse some (but not all) of the same existing ones.
But the narrative does not stop there. Somewhere about a third of the way down the right edge of the linen, exists an anomalous tiny yet noticeable dark red mark in the shape of a candle flame. Could it be a single drop of dried blood? How did it get there? Was a finger injured when a staple was removed? If a mere installation accident, a conservator could have easily fixed it, so its presence seems deliberate. In a work of art whose parameters are so reduced and specific, it becomes such a glaring moment that Ryman could have painted it there. A purportedly abstract, conceptual work of art comes to double as forensic evidence, with all the melodrama that implies.
Schjeldahl, generationally positioned between Ryman and myself, may not be able to transcend the insularity of aesthetics he has absorbed in appreciation of Ryman. But the rise of a style of abstract painting valued primarily for the emptiness of its visual structural content, labeled by Walter Robinson as Zombie Formalism, makes it imperative that we embrace a more complex reading of Ryman. His paintings really do reward close scrutiny, not with mere empirical information but with complex and contradictory thinking and feeling.