Robert Ryman’s Work's on Paper
Arts Club, Chicago
March - April, 2005
Robert Ryman’s mature works are achievements of endurance. Since the mid-fifties, he has slowly experimented with painting directed outside the bounds of illusionistic depiction, countering Ab Ex tenets of push-pull composition, atmospheric effect, and virtual space. Ryman’s more literal practice of stressing materials as materials has continued to the present. This fall, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Rhona Hoffman gallery offered a look at classic Ryman works which emphasize the painting’s support, the canvas or “stage” on which things happen rather than the place which depicted events appear to be happening. Ryman did not just magically conjure such achievements, however, and his current Arts Club exhibition takes us through his journey to maturity through 28 works on paper from 1957 to 1966.
If a painter like Cy Twombly worked to achieve personal expression without image, then Ryman works to paint something with neither image nor expression. Actually what is left are paint, paper, and pencil lead, the sparse starting points for Ryman’s impending forty year virtuoso performance. In this Arts Club show, you feel Ryman struggling to use an Ab Ex painting vocabulary to erase illusionism, moving the materials of painting to the forefront. Ryman takes up the grid, the idea of layering color, and the painterly brush stroke, making them vehicles for painting without illusion.
For example, one small drawing, an untitled work from 1958, no. 8 on the exhibition list, consists simply of a few blocks of cream colored oil paint. The paint bleeds into the paper, leaving a pale brown film around the edges of the paint. Ryman seemingly did not like the atmospheric quality of the oily film for in the next work, no. 9, you see his solution to the problem. Instead of using regular paper, he makes the same blocks of paint on a piece of Mylar. This time, the paint does not bleed and the paint just seems to sit there on the paper, a symbol for nothing other than itself.
Ryman’s ability to fluidly work out self-proposed problems is apparent at many points during the exhibition. In certain works, Ryman layers color without allowing the struggle between figure and ground that occurs in gestural abstraction. Wedding Picture August 19, 1961 features multiple layers of dingy greens, light blues, and creamy whites, but the layers stay independent from each other; the colors do not struggle for dominance; there simply are where they are.
Ryman, along with Frank Stella, is often seen as forerunners to Minimalism and the debate over aesthetics and truth in painting which has ensued ever since. Whatever side one takes in such a debate, Ryman’s work continues to dazzle in terms of making a viewer look closely at how a painting works, how an image can be dismantled, and how paint can to certain degree be itself again.