Works on Paper 1957 – 1964
In Walt Whitman’s ecstatic "Chanting the Square Deific," the poet proclaims the square as a symbol of theological divination, in sharp contrast to Tolstoy’s interpretation of the square as an object of great anguish and demonic terror. Their respective readings of the square, both spiritually charged in different ways, have always haunted me when I confront the work of Robert Ryman.
Robert Ryman, unlike Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, or others of his generation, is a painter who appeals to me for his sheer peculiarity: practically self-taught, from early on he had the lucidity of mind, and depth of conviction, to proceed in his work with little stylistic evolution. By not relying on representational modes as a starting point from which abstractions evolve, his paintings are in some ways at odds with the very concept of the "act of painting." Ryman’s work is a singular, insistent, and humble meditation on what he knows, and he naturally allows his intense but selective focus to decode the process of painting in a modest and quiet manner. That is not to say that his painting is a mere representation of his will. It is Ryman’s careful, monastic pace, not his intellectual ambition, which embodies the essence of his painting. His self-reflexiveness is at once emphatic and simple. Without the historical context and obvious difference in the physiognomy of their paintings, Bonnard is a similar artist—a painter whose entire career from the beginning to the end, without vexation of spirit and discrepancy in modes of expression, remained steady and constant in style.
In this rare exhibit of Ryman’s works on paper from 1957 to 1964, I was looking for ways to reconcile my past ambivalent feelings about his work. As one would expect, half of the works are identifiable by the artist’s movement of hand; the well-considered pacing of brush-marks over occasional exposed tan paper shows the irregularities of edges. Many others, however, display a remarkable collision between playful experiments with placement within the pictorial field and a kind of tunneling toward the inner pulse, by way of the more intimate idiom of drawing. Those works on paper are by far the most emotional that I have seen by Ryman. They reveal an aspect of the artist that would otherwise have remained unknown to me.
In the first group, "Untitled" (1960) contains two areas of white and gray brush marks painted from the bottom left upward in one diagonal movement. From the upper left corner, a painted small, ochre square descends toward another irregular square of tracing paper cutout. Both areas of gray color, as well as the cutout square, are placed off-center, so our eyes are not directed toward the axis of the two diagonals. This in turn creates a more dynamic space, although I could foreshadow how Ryman would later try to stabilize the four small squares in the top and bottom edges of his larger fiberglass paintings with more uniform surfaces. In the second group is a series of gray drawings made between 1962 and 1963. Feverish pencil marks move on and off the grid, at times tracing the artist’s signature in repetition, at others just doodling off into a random field of white chalk ground. Ryman was previously a jazz musician and I wonder if these drawings would be the nearest to his musical sensibility. I suspect that they may well be the anxious transition from improvisation towards minimalism.
I left the gallery feeling less fixated on the square, though my circling thoughts became more whole as I came to realize that the square, as a given shape, is both dynamic and stable and composed. But even more remarkable is Ryman’s pervasive act of whiting out (as he often describes his initial use of white paint) his pictorial fields. Their majestic whiteness embodies a monastic practice of a kind that belongs solely to the knowing self. I admit that I have never liked the term "transcendental"—what in the end can be transcended from one experience to the next? White paint on a square canvas, with its minute variations and its mysterious power of transfixing while suspending the observer’s judgment for an extended period of time, may well be the closest visual equivalent to transcendence.
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.