“Ryman is the undisputed master of showing precisely which part of the wall you are supposed to stare at.”

Back in the day before the dawn of photography artists would paint illusionistic pictures that were windows into another world, be that the world of their imaginations or just someplace other than where you were actually standing, gazing into the image. After the bold new challenge of photography, which was a far more faithful window on physical reality, artists started to focus more attention onto the surface of the canvas, building up textures with thick impasto paint, and creating a dual appreciation – one of the surface brushstrokes and composition, and the other of whatever was depicted. The Impressionists are the most famous for doing this sort of work. This was a boon because you got to look at something two ways at once. This sort of appreciation was possibly most popularly depicted in the scene in Ferris Beulers Day off, when Cameron focuses closer and closer on Seurat’s most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” finally being mesmerized by the pigment and weave of the canvas itself. He went from looking into the canvas to looking at its surface.

Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-1886). Detail on right showing his Pointillist technique of applying dots of paint to mix in the eye.

After nearly a hundred years from the time Seurat put the last dot on his monumental canvas, artist Robert Ryman made the pure white painting – just one in an entire oeuvre of all white paintings – “Guild” (1982). In a century imagery had finally been eradicated entirely, at least according to the dictates of some of the most dominant strains of American art and art theory in the 20th century (Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Monochrome/color field painting…). Ryman was the purest of the pure, shit-canning not only imagery, but color and composition as well. He was the virtual equivalent of a musician casting aside not only lyrics, but instruments, and even notes. The aural counterpart to taking in a Ryman painting is listening to a steady buzzing or whirring noise – say a distant leaf blower – with perhaps only the slightest fluctuation, and a bit of static or blips at the beginning and end of the composition.

Robert Ryman, Guild, 1982, enamelac paint on fibreglass, aluminium and wood, 98.2 x 91.8 x 2.8 cm, Tate.
Robert Ryman, Guild, 1982 (enamelac paint on fibreglass, aluminium and wood, 98.2 x 91.8 x 2.8 cm)

True, Ryman forced the more patient and committed viewer to – not just hasten through the gallery like it was a long hallway between them and a needed bathroom – but to actually pay close attention to the things one would normally be oblivious to, such as that the paint is actually on aluminum, or that there has apparently been some thought given to the appropriately drab and unassuming custom frame. Incidentally, in the case of the “Guild”, you could completely invert the painting and nobody would notice, except perhaps an ant that navigates its geography via highly distinct pheromone trails which its antennae can decipher but which humans could never detect. There is a danger Ryman’s work all runs, which is that one will become so fascinated with the slightest permutations of the color white, and whatever sheen or reflection might gently play upon its surface, that one will cease looking at his paintings altogether and stare at the wall itself while lapsing into a state of samadhi. (For those inclined to this kind of contemplation, I would recommend immediately quitting reading this post and looking instead at the seamless background image I’ve chosen for this blog.) Is “Guild” the crystalline apex of art, unadulterated by anything other than itself as an object on a wall which it is nearly indistinguishable from? Or is it to art what highly refined sugar is to food, and nearly devoid of substance? Is a Ryman masterwork to art what an empty piece of paper in a typewriter is to literature?

A typewriter just waiting for the art to happen, or is it perhaps a new, diamond path to the core of literary substance?

I’m suddenly reminded of an infamous piano composition by John Cage in which the pianist just sat there in silence. Kind of like going to a boxing match where the fighters remain seated in their corners for the duration, or going to a fancy restaurant to be served dust on a plate for lunch. One really doesn’t need to buy a ticket to listen to silence, or go to an art gallery to look at white paint, for that matter.

[About this composition, some might say, “You didn’t get the joke,” to which I’d reply, “You fell for the joke.”]

Musical score for John Cage's elaborate contemporary classical composition, cage’s 4′33 (1952)
Musical score for John Cage’s elaborate contemporary classical composition, 4′33 (1952)

The painting in question looks nearly identical to a stretched piece of watercolor paper on board, held in place with gummed packing tape (I know from my painting classes of yore). In other words, it looks like a blank canvas waiting to be painted on.

Finished painting by Robert Ryman (with sculptural cups of paint juxtaposed to mock temptation), or, a stretched piece of watercolor paper on board? You decide.

I’m glad there’s a Robert Ryman in the world filling rooms with all-white paintings. I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, when all is said and done, call me a cynic, but, I’d rather have my Wonder Bread with a little Skippy peanut butter and Smuckers jam on it than just plain (framed with a crust). Yeah, and I might rather listen to The Beatles, Nick Drake, Matmos, Qawwali music, or whatever, than listen the the hum of a microwave with a timer set to infinity, or meditate on the buzzing of my own ears in a padded room.

Robert Ryman,
Robert Ryman, “No Title Required.” Enamel on cherry, maple, and oak. Seriously folks, would one really move from one painting to another and actually get into them? I think I’d just take a picture like this and vamoose.

The biggest flaw with the conceptual underpinning on which the work of an artist like Ryman is founded on is that it cannot logically be appreciated in reproduction. If the true brilliance and absolute relevance of the work is the specific subtleties of the shades of white, the minutia of methodical brush trails, the scale, and the realization of the paintings as one of a kind objects – none of that can be reproduced, any more than one could quell one’s hunger by looking at pictures of hamburgers. And yet most people will access his art “objects” in digitized reproduction anyway (now looking through Windows 7 into another world), and think we understand or appreciate them. This is equal to believing that Pepsi tastes better than coke because, in a blind taste test, people chose it, even if we haven’t done the test or even tasted either soft drink. In Ryman’s case students and art aficionados are buying into the idea, even if the idea in question – that the only way the art can be understood is as an object, and in person – negates any possibility of their understanding it at a remove. To illustrate my point I offer another Ryman painting for the would-be connoisseur to feast his or her eyes upon.

Robert Ryman, Untitled 6, 1962*

There are a few reasons why this Ryman painting cannot be appreciated according to the theoretical paradigm in which it was created.

  1. The colors will be different from those one would see in person.
  2. The scale is completely different.
  3. Because you are seeing the image on your monitor, any quality or essence of a real object in physical space are at a remove and retroactively conjured in the imagination of the viewer.
  4. *The painting within the frame is just a photo of a stucco wall that I dropped into an actual Ryman frame using Photoshop. Well, I stretched the frame as well and otherwise tweaked it. But you are just looking at a wall!

Below you can see the real painting (in digital reproduction). I changed everything in the version above, including the colors of the frame, the dimensions, and the width of the mat. Theoretically, the image I threw together should be an abomination that is clearly inferior to the real Ryman masterwork, if indeed his work can be appreciated via reproduction. If the distinction between the two pieces isn’t really all that clear, or if you happen to prefer my Photoshop hatchet-work, then you are appreciating his work as imagery, which is entirely antithetical to his objective of stressing  the “materiality” of painting, the process in which it was made (certainly not Photoshop), and how its installation within a gallery space (including lighting) alters one’s perception of it. The ultimate irony of this kind of art is that its reaction against traditional painting as a window into another world is completely subverted when we look at it, as most people will, via a window into another world (actually, 2, the flat photographic reproduction, and then the projection of it on a monitor). It stops being an object and is converted into the reviled image.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1961
Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1961 (This is the real one folks. Compare to the fake one I made above using a photo of a stucco wall. Honestly, I’m not sure which one I like better. Depends on my mood.)

Without the theoretical context to prop up Ryman’s work as important within the art historical canon, like a religion might a trite icon, visiting one of his gallery shows might not be so different from walking around a construction site during the latter stages when the stucco and acoustic have just been applied. In summation, I’m just going to go ahead and say it – Sometimes less is less. [Hot tip for the artist? Try adding some color.]

~ Eric Kuns

6 replies on “Robert Ryman – Whiting Out Art for Posterity

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