Robert Ryman's lifelong inquiry into the notion of painting as a medium and a verb—that is, into paint as a viscous material that articulates its support—began as early as the mid-1950s. His principal concern over the decades has been with the presentation of a painted surface in relation to its underlying support. This ongoing investigation has yielded ever-new visual possibilities, however nuanced these may be.
In Ryman's oeuvre the work's "image" results from the nature of the surface that arises when paint is applied to a canvas or any other material support in a particular manner. "What the painting is, is exactly what [people] see," he remarked in a relatively early interview.1 With greater emphasis on the "see" than on the "is" of his statement, Ryman later elaborated on his basic thesis:
We have been trained to see painting as "pictures," with storytelling connotations, abstract or literal, in a space usually limited and enclosed by a frame which isolates the image. It has been shown that there are possibilities other than this manner of "seeing" painting. An image could be said to be "real" if it is not an optical reproduction, if it does not symbolize or describe so as to call up a mental picture. This "real" or "absolute" image is only confined by our limited perception.2
Ryman's aesthetic practice is further illuminated by his observation in the late 1960s that "there is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image—the end product."3 For his part he has "wanted to make a painting getting the paint across"—meaning getting paint literally across the surface and, more idiomatically, getting it across as an idea.4
Occupied from the outset with ways of letting paint engage with its surface, Ryman has continuously sought to activate the painted surface, often subtly, while simultaneously approaching the support as if it were the proscenium of a stage. Unlike Untitled (Orange Painting) (1955–59), which he considers his first mature painting, his works typically use white paint, because of its neutrality as a color, and more often than not they are square in format. The exclusion of other hues, and the equalizing of all sides of the support, minimize distraction from the paint as an area warranting the full attention of the viewer.
Untitled (1959) is indicative of his overriding interest in imbuing paint with the power to act on its own behalf. Multidirectional, interwoven, overlapping brushwork and residual globules of paint signify the performance of paint itself, rather than suggesting some quality beyond its own physicality and its behavior in response to the brush. Moreover, the artist's painted signature, the vertically upended "R Ryman," intervenes in the overall activity of the paint. According to Ryman, the signature, "an accepted element of all painting," functions saliently here as a line meant to avert symbolism, and to prevent the painting from being mistaken as "trying to say something."5 Simultaneously a painted sign and an authorial one, the orange-toned signature is engulfed in the all-encompassing field of paint. Close in color to the orange-yellow tint of the work's raw cotton canvas, the signature-as-line-as-physical-paint mediates between the entirety of the painted field and the partially revealed cloth support beneath it.
The paints Ryman has used since the 1950s have varied immensely in viscosity and finish, whether glossy, semiglossy, matte, or dull.6 These many paint qualities, along with the multifarious methods with which Ryman handles them, interact with one another in concert with the material of the painting's support and in view of the painting's scale.
Both Vector (1975/97) and Varese Wall (1975) are large in scale, and both are painted on wood panels. The evenhanded approach to paint application in these works brings up a question: what differentiates the paint of the painting from the paint of the white wall behind it? The two works pose this question somewhat differently by virtue of their respective supports. Vector comprises eleven wood units of the same size, hung equidistant from one another; Varese Wall, on the other hand, appears as one extended surface, propped up from the floor on five small bluish blocks of foam. Measuring eight feet high and twenty-four feet long, the work is braced to stand just over a foot and a half from the wall.7
The wall plays an active role in the experience and meaning of Ryman's works, whatever their size and no matter what the interaction between paint and support. "If you were to see any of my paintings off of the wall, they would not make any sense at all . . . unlike the usual painting where the image is confined within the space of the paint plane," the artist has pointed out.8 In Vector, the empty spaces between the painted panels echo the forms of the panels themselves. Ryman initially painted this work in vinyl acetate, a pigmented commercial glue, at the Kunsthalle Basel for his exhibition there in the summer of 1975. A couple of years later the eleven panels were separated into two artworks, one of five panels (Vector I) and one of six (Vector II), but they were reunited in 1979. In 1997, Ryman painted over the original, vertically brushed vinyl acetate with oil paint, leaving a new, horizontally brushed surface as impassive as the earlier one. In effect, the paint quality of Vector nearly matches that of the wall, from which, however, the panels may be distinguished in that their thin left sides are made of a clear pine wood and their right sides are of redwood. As the light plays on the work's painted surfaces, the panels seem to float ever so slightly away from the wall. In this way the work demonstrates how painted surface, wall, light quality, and overall spatial confines converge to form an image that simultaneously incorporates and contradicts the formerly blank space of a wall.
Varese Wall, like Vector, also exhibits the fine line between a painting and its background wall. Here, in fact, the painting—its title a reference to the walls leading to the villa of Count Panza di Buomo in Varese, Italy—is also a wall of sorts. This painting-cum-wall creates a dialectic with the wall of its given exhibition space, a wall that presumably is painted but is not in any sense a painting. With his introduction of metal fasteners that visibly hold his paintings to their walls, in 1976, Ryman overtly acknowledged the symbiosis between a painting and its supporting wall. Varese Wall furthermore remains ever freshly painted, as does any "real" exhibition wall, since the artist gives it another coat of vinyl acetate whenever it is installed anew.
Vector and Varese Wall anticipate later works of Ryman's in that they verge on obliterating the distinction between the thematic aspect of painting and a painting as a physical object, but never quite do—in fact, this is a distinction they insist upon. These works fully express the idea that the relationship of paint to support, though born of material practicality, is ultimately grounded in the ideational capacity of painting to be about its own activity. Ryman's paintings detail different possibilities for the application of paint. For him, painting remains an ongoing reflection on itself, and in his work it becomes ever more mindful of its differentiation from, yet necessary, attachment to a wall.
1. Robert Ryman, quoted in Phyllis Tuchman, "An Interview with Robert Ryman," Artforum 9, no. 9 (May 1971), p. 53.
2. Ryman, in Wall Painting (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1979), p. 16.
3. Ryman, in Art in Process, vol. 4 (New York: Finch College Museum of Art/Contemporary Wing, 1969–70), n.p.
4. Ryman, in Tuchman, "An Interview with Robert Ryman," p. 49.
5. Ryman, in Robert Storr, Robert Ryman (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, in association with the Tate Gallery, London, 1993), p. 70.
6. For a full explication of Ryman's working methods and materials, see Robert Storr, "Simple Gifts," in ibid., pp. 9–45.
7. I thank Amy Baker Sandback for unpublished information on these paintings from her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Ryman's work.
8. Ryman, in Gary Garrels, "Interview with Robert Ryman," in Robert Ryman (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1988), p. 13.