Whitehot Magazine

Robert Ryman: The Act of Looking at Musée de l’Orangerie

Accord, (1985) oil on aluminum panel with four bolts, photo by the author


Exuding elegance through its simplicity, the Robert Ryman: Le regard en acte (The Act of Looking) non-figurative exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie is a welcome respite from the distressing realities of the social-political world and an art market that delights in colorful, often kitsch, figurative illustration-like painting. The piece with oil on aluminum panel and four bolts called Accord (1985) I think is the best in the show, because the rolled or sprayed ‘pure’ opticality of the white surface (leitmotif of the Ryman style) on thin silver––with its spatial push-pull––is a fine example of the tension that Ryman can create from the opposition between surface materiality and opticality in relationship to the edges of the painting and the painting’s relationship to the wall on which it is hung. This ambiguity of the painting’s boundary in relation to the wall that contains it draws visual attention into the expanded-subtle-vibrational field. 

Installation view, Robert Ryman (c) Sophie Crépy - musée de l'Orangerie (c) 2024 Robert Ryman ADAGP

Not only is it marvelously elegant, Accord is––despite the intentions (or lack thereof)––a piece of conceptual-minimal art, as it eats and extends the optical shimmering field of white out from (and into) the painted flat object that is tight-as-a-drum installed on the white gallery wall of the Musée de l’Orangerie. White paint here becomes ‘virtual’––at one with the white walls of the exhibition space (feigning a tacit agreement with these walls) precisely to make me feel the slight shifting difference between one shade of white and another. The concept is the difference and sameness that provides Accord its full scale/ground––which makes this painting bigger than it is.

So more than just a painter of white, Ryman can be appreciated as a conceptual painter of viractuality––a painter of shimmering slightness and vibrational light. Light is as much a formal component of his painting as the paint and the material elements of its composition. Indeed, a material painting of his is only finished here when lit in artificial light, and what I find is required for Ryman is soft and even lighting that should also accentuate (but not too much) the surrounding walls in order to fully integrate the painting into its space. In that respect, Accord works well––and I think this is the only reason this white monochrome painting is not a monotonous painting. It transcends singular categorization by embodying a fusion of interconnected ideas. 

Without the distraction of an overflow of colors, for most of Ryman’s paintings it is the sensual touch (or lack thereof) of the painting application which is expressed as the strongest content. But this hard-headed non-conceptualism––a Ryman quote maintains that “There is never any question of what to paint only how to paint”––can be considered within the historic period of Duchampian conceptual-minimalism in which it was uttered. This Duchampian interpretative context allows his paintings to exist not only as late Modern Art dead-ends; but as a means of exploring expanded-subtle-vibrational perception and art’s relationship to space––ala Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein.

Though often associated with the ‘movements’ of Minimalism and Monochromatic Painting, Ryman preferred to be recognized as an American Realist and an individualist. But to recap and contextualize: Ryman (1930-2019) was an American painter who gained prominence in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s with his non-representational white-on-white paintings. Though that sounds linier, the retrospective mostly eschews strict chronological progression in favor of thematic and conceptual exploration; focusing on four key aspects of his oeuvre: surface, spatial integration, limitation, and light.  

Originally a jazz musician born and raised in Nashville, Ryman manifests mainstream American values of self-reliance, innovation, equality, and freedom of expression. As a saxophonist lacking formal art training, he began immersing himself in the art world while working as a guard at MoMA, where he met Dan Flavin and Sol Lewitt, and beginning in 1961 entered a six-year marriage with art historian Lucy R. Lippard. By dedicating the majority of his art to analyzing the neutrality of the foundations of painting, he returned and reduced painting to the formula of white square on white ground so as to explore the material components of a painting: the support, the surface, the lighting and the hanging hardware. Is it only a coincidence that the cool- smoothness of Ryman’s best work feels like John Coltrane’s drifting-cool rendition of the Arthur Altman ballad All or Nothing At All?

Untitled A (1961) Huile sur toile de lin apprêtée, non tendue et montée sur une toile de lin tendue 23,2 x 22,9 cm « Collection particulière, Paris courtesy Collection de Bueil & Ract-Madoux, Paris » Photo Thomas Hennocque © 2024 Robert Ryman / ADAGP, Paris


Untitled (1965) Huile sur toile de lin 25,7 x 25,7 cm Donation Yvon Lambert en 2012 Centre national des arts plastiques en dépôt à la Collection Lambert, Avignon Photo: François Deladerrière © 2024 Robert Ryman/ ADAGP, Paris

The retrospective begins with one of Ryman’s Untitled works from 1959, marking the onset of his visual journey into materialism associated with the immaterialism of shimmering white light. A rather clunky painting, Untitled has a small white square painted floating within a larger square of thick, textured strokes of gooey white paint. Baby blue edges frame that larger square. Below it, Ryman’s boldly inscribed signature and date in red scream his name. This stuttered juxtaposition creates the mise en abyme impression of a painting within a painting within a painting.      

Following Untitled, Ryman began making what he called––not without provocation––more “realistic” paintings, in that they are devoid of any such illusion or symbolism. Rather, he explored the formal possibilities of the ho-hum sacred cow medium (paint, brush, scale, surface, space, light). So in the utilitarian American tradition, he takes the high-flying imaginative vision of what is vibrantly real––though beyond visual realism––that Kazimir Malevich expressed in his white monochrome painting Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918) and runs it into the ground. Beyond a realist, Ryman is a retinal painter: over-emphasizing the visual at the expense of deeper (virtual) engagements. Of course that is true too of most of the modern formalist painting tradition, of which Ryman is a last gasp. Duchamp understood that as an artist, thinking, imagining, reading, sensing and experiencing the social-political-technical are integral parts of good art. But, apparently, Duchamp never interested Ryman. More the pity, but Duchampians can take interest in Ryman. 

Ryman’s explorations of the pictorial realm that narrowly focused on ways of applying paint to a support reduce his paintings to a kind of artisan hardware. Delectations about the different textural effects produced by the thickness of the paint material––tonal variations and touch––are what the paintings are about. Such tired formal experiments formed the milestones of the making of his paintings. The use of a square format and white paint, as well as the technical principles that governed his practice (methodically chosen brushes and surface-supports), were means for him to eschew narrative interpretations and stress the solid ontological object part of the art object. Happily, in exploring the component parts of his painting practice, Ryman had to take an interest in its physical/conceptual frames. Like with modern bathroom hardware, in choosing not to mask any of the aspects of a painting, Ryman had to consider all its component parts and the space in which it is displayed. That emphasis on context, that Duchamp initiated with his Fountain (1917), serves Ryman well.  

Ryman himself clarified this context effect when he wrote that “the wall plane is actually part of the painting and it extends out three or four feet…” and that “the wall becomes very much a part of the work.” So by almost blurring the difference between painting and wall, his best paintings, like Accord and Adelphi (1967) extend consciousness of painting into an expanded, immersive and vibrant visual sensation of environment. 

But being non-conceptual, Ryman chose the color white intuitively, and only later reflected on the reasons for this choice (which had somehow imposed itself on him out of necessity). In 1986, he told ARTnews magazine that “It was never my intention to make white paintings. (…) It was important that [the painting] had an immediate link with the wall because it was not the representation of something. So I wanted [the painting] and the wall to go together. That they form a whole.”  

Journal (1988) Acrylique Lascaux sur panneau Lumasite, quatre attaches en acier, huit boulons hexagonaux 243,8 x 243,8 x 12,7 cm Maastricht, Bonnefanten Maastricht Photo Bill Jacobson Studio © The Greenwich Collection © 2024 Robert Ryman/ ADAGP, Paris


Untitled (2011) Huile sur toile 50,8 × 50,8 cm Pinault Collection Photographe Kerry McFate Courtoisie David Zwirner © 2024 Robert Ryman/ ADAGP, Paris © Robert Ryman/ARS (Artist Rights Society), New York

As mentioned above, Ryman frequently focused on exploring the potential for incorporating his works into their immediate surroundings, playing with different presentation methods in order to do so––such as un-stretched canvases, stretcher widths, assembled parts and even Plexiglas supports that leave the wall partially visible. Among the pieces I enjoyed the most in this respect are Classico 6 (1968) and Journal (1988), a sleek acrylic composition on two panels attached with hexagonal steel bolts. Positioned so that the edges are slightly off the wall, Journal catches and cups the light. With it Ryman took a soft-sculptural turn; leaning the surface into the space.

From the mid-1970s, Ryman began experimenting with visible fasteners and tabs for his paintings, chosen carefully for their intrinsic qualities. Unconventional metal tabs jut out from the work, making some of his finest pieces, such as Arrow (1976), with its white oil paint smoothly applied to sanded Plexiglas. Through the hanging hardware he focused the eye on how his paintings were––like a porcelain urinal––also available at the hardware store––just common objects. But this determined explorations of the empirical surface of painting-as-object culminated in his work on space and light. It is the immaterial light that catches and licks the material surface––revealing its subtle texture while demarcating in shadow the physical support on the wall.  

For Ryman, his art is the questioning and playing with the fundamental elements of Painting 101; but it need not––and should not––rest on such small ground. The support and the pictorial material are not only components, but subjects in their own right which interact in space with the environment in which the work is located. He breaks free of the traditional frame of painting and reframes consciousness of art. 

Thus it was rather a pity that the retrospective concludes with eight of Ryman’s final pieces which he created in 2011––the year he stopped making art. A pity because these last works are small, thickly painted white strokes over mossy green, orange, purple and grey grounds that leave the edges colored, thus emphasizing the edges of the canvas. These paintings fail to expand outside their small boarders. His expansive white work here is merely pictorial. All he did, undone. On view March 6 through July 1, 2024. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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