Robert Ryman: Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing at PaceWildenstein
February 19 – March 27, 2010
32 East 57th Street at Madison Avenue
New York City, 212 421 3292
In 1957, writing in Art News magazine, Ad Reinhardt, who was known for his irony and his highly polemical writings, proclaimed that “White is a color, and all colors. [White is] not artistic, appropriate and pleasing for kitchen fixtures, and hardly the medium for expressing truth and beauty…” One can only speculate that if black – Reinhardt’s color of choice in his later career – signifies the absorption of all light, then logically white must perform an opposite function. I believe this is precisely what Robert Ryman is bent on discovering in his most recent New York exhibition at Pace Wildenstein’s midtown gallery. Painted on ultra-thin, yet durable industrial Tyvek in addition to smallish laminated wood panels, these new works are a subtleyet heroic search for heightened sensory cognition.
Glossy paint appears on both sides of the Tyvek, with only one side visible to the viewer. The material itself has a translucent appearance, like waxed paper, but is presumably near-impossible to destroy. The paint is either enamel,epoxy, oracrylic polymer. Some of the hues emerge as a creamy, slightly yellowish white, while others are a warm gray. For the wood panels, the majority of these are built up with a luminous off-white. These latter are truly stunning, classic Ryman paintings. While the pragmatic allure of Ryman’s materials is present to a greater or lesser degree in the applications of glossy paint, the exhibition also indicates a departure from the kind of painting/installation approach shown at Pace in 2008 where the works revealed ever so slight differences in scale. Moreover, Ryman appears less concerned with representing the color white in all its purity (for which he has been known in the past). Instead, he has chosen to go for the experience of “real light,” in the non-illusionistic sense of “the light by which the paintings are seen.” In the current exhibition, the painted surfaces are less focused on an architectonic totality than on showing separately conceived applications of paint on two different supports.
An accompanying text by Ryman, titled “Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing,” defines the material and aesthetic aspects of the work in bold language by focusing literally on hisintentions with occasional traces of elegant sensitivity. The statement would seem to suggest that what we are seeing on the walls of the second floor gallery at Pace is less an expressive visual theme than a unified concept made manifest through the variation and density of material reductiveness. This helps make clear why Ryman has often been cited as a minimalist, with his work shown in relation to artists such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Ryman’s work possesses a similar insistence on material as have transformative spatial potential without giving way to individual expression.
In contract to Reinhardt’s black paintings, Ryman’s work is about the virtual aspect of seeing pure pigment through light that ultimately conflates the relationship of art to aesthetics. Relative to his text, the light appears more as an outside phenomenon that reflects from the surface we are seeing. This would suggest a certain correspondence to the small still-life paintings of Chardin, who, although from another era, gave the viewer a glittering repository of light that finally could not escape feeling.