Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957 - 1964

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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Untitled 1958
, 1958 (58.0721).
Charcoal, graphite pencil, and casein on newsprint,
12 1/2" x 12"

Untitled 1960
, 1960 (60.0861).
Casein, graphite pencil, and tracing paper collage on bristol board,
10 7/8" x 10 7/8"

Study Z
Study Z
, ca. 1961 (61.016).
Conté crayon, pencil, and charcoal on tan paper with fiber,
10" x 10"

Untitled Grey Drawing

Untitled (a Grey Drawing)
, 1962 (62.101).
Graphite pencil and pastel on grey paper,
9 7/8" x 9 7/8"

All the works in the show, with a couple of exceptions, are drawings/paintings on small squares of occasional or ordinary paper such as newsprint, wallpaper, or wrapping paper. One is on mylar, others are on various art boards. These are, in a sense, simply another group of rectangular pictures in the western tradition, framed and hanging on the wall. It is important that they are rooted and familiar as such. We look at them as discrete objects within which are composed the ideational perceptions of a particular mind, period, and culture. But Ryman's squares are not scenes or views. Neither are they exultations in a new abstraction of space and gesture. However significant their example for Ryman, the Abstract Expressionists were quite different in their insistence on a larger world, one that expands to fill the void of the picture space. Ryman's spaces push inward, within the limits of the paper. Literally diminutive in these early works, they are still marked by small motions and subtle shiftings in his later, larger work.

Squares are equal on all sides. No dimension dominates or even differentiates, except that one is horizontal, the other vertical. Even so, any of these works can be turned 90 degrees or 180 degrees and be as interesting, balanced, and active. (Perhaps Ryman turned them while he worked on them--I don't know--but his name does appear both vertically and horizontally.) Squares are units of area, and in certain works of 1961 and 1962, there are grids of smaller squares that deepen and refine the spaces of the original overall squares. Everything occurs within the square; it is where the artist is, not extrapolating from outside, but building up with gestures of paint and line only, by definition, what is possible inside. It is startling then to realize how much is in these small squares. A work of 1958 has roughly rectangular, overlapping areas of yellow, red and black painted into the ochre newsprint surface from what is the top edge. This very intense intrusion of color is counterbalanced by "RRYMAN" extending upward in black from below, and from the right edge by a roughly square patch on which is written the date, "58." This small space carries an overload of existential and aesthetic information, of color, date, gesture, of the person (the artist) and the texture and curious hue of the paper itself, but in a way that is not only accommodated but intensified by the geometric confinement in which it exists.

What Ryman does is something like what biological scientists do in transecting the world to discover how the complexity of life works, what William Beebe did in the early 20th century when he examined a square foot of rain forest in Venezuela. The topographical nature of Ryman's inquiry is palpable in a number of works, including a painting and collage on board of 1960, in which the white and gray painted areas emerging from the lower left might be construed as a peninsula, which is anchored to the picture square by the tiny orange-colored square in the upper left corner and the collaged tracing-paper square in the middle. The artist's name and the date appear, also in orange, next to the gray shape like a string of islands. It isn't that this is a literal peninsula, or map of a peninsula, but that it appears in the space as a land mass might appear jutting into the sea on the surface of the earth, or as a square sample of anything we see might appear. The squares painted and collaged into the space emphasize this vision. It would seem to be a rather simple idea, and it is as simple as any natural phenomenon might appear to be, and also as complex. There is always something beyond. The white and gray brushstrokes would not exist without the orange ground that preceded beneath them, as mountains would not exist without shifts in the earth's crust. The two squares would not exist without the square of the picture. The picture itself would not exist without the paper and nothing would exist without the artist. Mona Lisa's smile would not exist without Mona Lisa.

In what we see, there is a dichotomy between straight and curved, though presumably every straight line is ultimately curved and, besides, there are no straight lines in nature. But our usual practice is to frame things, to define and confine in straight lines, in pictures. In that sense, a painting represents a basic contradiction. It is an extraordinary magnification of a segment of the universe bound by straight lines that must themselves ultimately be part of a larger curvilinear pattern. Ryman intensifies the contradiction with grids within the square. In the most complicated example, Study Z of about 1961, there is an overall grid of fourteen by fourteen squares that fades away in various parts of the picture. A white grid of smaller units occupies the right half, two small black squares are arranged vertically at the center top, two large squares outlined in black descend from the center top, and an even larger outlined square spreads over the right half. All the grids and squares are more or less consonant, but they are also slightly off, so one is not quite sure that they are part of the same system, and of course they all have different characteristics, and the larger squares are outlined with a kind of free-hand roughness. Twice from the left, Ryman's name thunders into this syncopation of grids and squares. Several works of 1961 are variations on the theme of his name drawn in large, looping letters. The assertion of self at first seemed excessive to me. But it is, in fact, essential. Without the person moving into the field, the curves into the straight lines, the grids are meaningless, or at least empty.

The syncopation continues in several works of 1962, but now the dominant grid is more clearly articulated and its units are not necessarily pure squares. Some are wider than they are high or higher than they are wide, which indicates a structure that can be stretched, played upon. In a couple of them the center is occupied by smaller grids and by the artist's first name on an expanding cloud of white pastel that seems to be both over and under the grids, but more prominently by an intricate web of linear fragments that interplay with the grids and spread across the white surface, suggesting something like the structured improvisations that Ryman would have known when he was a jazz saxophonist. The figuration here and in other works seems almost to emulate that of a group of jazz players. What Ryman now visualizes in an interior dialogue in which the contradictions of structure and improvisation expand the field of contemplative action.

Donald Goddard © 2004

The exhibition was on view at Peter Blum, New York, NY

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