Everything Looks Easy: Cordy Ryman discusses his installation at Tower 49 with David Rhodes and Ai Kaita
Cordy Ryman’s Free Fall at Tower 49, a year long installation that began in May and runs through May 2018 at 12 East 49th Street, includes his two largest works to date: Lightening Vines and Root Vines (both 2017). These monumental works are linear in form, comprised of two-by-four planks variously jointed such that one section is angled differently to meet another. Lightening Vines reaches across an area of 23 by 82 feet, Root Vines 24 x 27 feet. Color ranges through different greens and pale blues to vibrant dark pinks. There are also many small-scale works elsewhere in this office building’s atrium and the 24th floor sky
I sat down with Cordy Ryman and Tower 49 exhibition director Ai Kato to talk on the 24th floor next to a long window that takes in spectacular views of midtown Manhattan. Thomas Micchelli, the guest curator of this exhibition, was not present for the conversation. His essay on Ryman can be read here.
David Rhodes: Cordy, lets start at the beginning. How were you introduced to this building and made aware of its exhibitions program?
Cordy Ryman: It was Per Jensen, an old friend, who had been involved with previous projects in the building. He contacted me thinking it would be a space with potential for my work. I then got in touch with Ai.
Ai Kato: After Cordy had been in touch with me; I then visited his studio and invited him to visit Tower 49. I had worked with Per in Tower 49 on previous projects.
I then came to look at the building—and it was pretty daunting! It was such a challenging space and the engineering aspect: the wire system for attaching anything to the walls needed thorough consideration, and that’s a lot to contend with. The red marble and grey granite were huge things to also consider. My initial thought was that I’m not going to do it. Then, I don’t know, in my head I did an about face and thought: it’s a challenge to do it. And, I didn’t want to worry about any other issue other than having the works succeed in that very particular space
I remember speaking to Cordy about these issues and I was also nervous. All the pieces I saw in his studio were modest in scale, so, how could these small pieces translate to such a huge space? I think Cordy said, having decided to take on the project that he would make it work, don’t worry, and it was then I thought—wow, Cordy is my artist!
I knew that the scale of the space alone was a big deal, and, I knew that I couldn’t mock it up in my studio. I decided that I would do it, but it was kind of weird, I thought that I would give myself permission to fail.
But could you default to something else, although the large works in the lobby are clearly site-specific, they are also modular and so could retract or expand, in other words, isn’t there the possibility for a certain amount of adaption? That might not be for you enough leeway of course, you might think, for example, that either the anticipated idea succeeds or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t you will abandon the idea.
So, there will always be people who walk by and like it, people who find it interesting and those who just don’t care, whether it succeeds for me or not. It reached a point where I saw that in fact it was going to work, that I could make it work. There were a couple of projects way back, one in a park that I didn’t want to do either, but it was a success. So these projects often mark a big breakthrough in my own practice. It pushes me to do something different.
You leave what is known. It’s leaving behind any comfort zone.
I figured that I should be able to do it, as within my practice making art is a living, breathing thing that can adapt to new situations. If it doesn’t work exactly as I planned, and it’s a failure, I can live with that.
Its one thing to make a discrete, self contained object, like the many smaller pieces on purpose built dry-walls here on the 24th floor, but it’s not a neutral gallery like space or wall in the lobby and its also used by people who simply pass through. The architectural context cannot be ignored.
Right, the architecture is very charged, there’s no way not to see the marble, it’s like a marble cocoon!
Talking of the marble, one of the lobby walls has several works that read as paintings, their face is “marbled” while their edges are painted the way you typically paint other pieces. Some more of these pieces are mixed in with other small pieces here on the 24th floor.
They were cut from panels used to test other pieces, to get an idea of what affect the marble might have. I knew from the solo show at Zürcher Gallery [the specific piece Ryman refers to is Whalebones 2016] how the large-scale linear pieces here might work, but no idea how my paintings would be against the marble. Whalebone was malleable; it adjusted to the height of the wall. What I didn’t know was which paintings would survive on the marble. I couldn’t visualize it. But with the substrate built in the studio I could see it. I thought I could later chop up this trial “marbled surface” and make pieces to position in with the others. Once I’d figured out the Root Vines by the elevator doors, and the Lightning Vines behind the desk, and as soon as the marbled pieces were in place, I knew I had an interesting show. Up until that point I didn’t know.
You were nervous.
I know. (Laughter)
Then there is the technical aspect of using the vertical wires that drop at intervals down the walls and have to be used to affix your structures.
Right, and I am not a math wizard!
There are repetitions of sections with joints that must align with the wires, there is no choice, no way around this.
The logistics, using the wires, didn’t appeal to me, but I knew that it could be done.
So you could maintain a degree of surprise and improvisation despite the demands of a set hanging system?
That’s where it gets hard and not fun, I like things to be flexible and figure it out in space, here the hardware restricts that.
We also had a time limit, only working at weekends, 12 hours a day, as the lobby is a public space during the week.
And everything that was done involved machinery, floor protection, and safety concerns.
No artist working alone in her/his studio then, always with other people, one way or another?
A lot of communicating, explaining what was desired, not only am I not a math wizard, I’m also not a master communicator!
I was thinking that the wall pieces in the lobby are like drawings and the paintings are more sculptural, so crossing these genres. The wall pieces are in some ways like wall paintings or wall drawings, but very unlike a Sol LeWitt as they don’t follow a plan, they change and modify after an initial game plan so to speak. You’re still developing the piece whilst it’s being installed?
Right. That’s true. There was a lot of cutting of wires to fit together with precise calculations.
There is no sense in looking at these pieces that it was difficult, they look fluent and easy. The problems, or problem solving isn’t apparent.
My Dad [Robert Ryman] says that Matisse made everything look easy, and when a painting works for him its like it looks like it just happened, even if there is a lot of revision and struggle.
I can understand that. Looking out of the window here as we have been talking a lot of buildings have a ribbed verticality that echoes in your pieces here, though so different practically in technology and in purpose!
That’s growing up in New York! Yes, maybe an echo.
It must be great for the people using this building to experience the proportions and technology of a hard edged clean environment with such hand made, rough edged constructions.
Previous exhibitions have been painting, for example Jules Olitski and Friedel Dzubas. This exhibition of Cordy’s is very different and the tenants and workers in the building love it, they have been really enjoying it, and they like Cordy too!
That’s good to hear, the exhibition really looks very good— well worth the risk! Congratulations to both of you and everyone that assisted in its completion.