The principal concern of Robert Ryman’s painting can be illuminated by an observation the artist made in the late 1960s, that “there is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint.” For Ryman, this “how” of painting has always been about what he has described as “getting the paint across”—meaning, literally, getting the paint across the surface, but also, more idiomatically, getting the idea of the painting across to the viewer. “What is done with paint is the essence of all painting,” he once declared. “What painting is, is exactly what people see.”
Occupied from the outset of his career in the late 1950s with ways of letting paint engage with surface, Ryman has continuously sought to approach a painting’s underlying support as a stage for the performative display of brush marks, strokes, and the exploration of texture. Thus each work is a surface rather than a “picture.” Its material qualities are determined by both the type of paint and the nature of its support, which not only provides a background but also filters and modifies the hue. Though Ryman considers white paint his medium, his paintings are only deceptively monochromatic: “The gray of the steel comes through; the brown of the corrugated paper comes through; the linen comes through, the cotton—all of those things are considered.” Ryman’s choice of white over other, less neutral colors may be paral- leled with his choice of square supports over rectangular, round, or irregular formats. By minimizing the presence of any distracting factors, the viewer’s focus on the painting’s internal field is intensified.
Over the past fifty years, Ryman’s modes of paint application have been astonishingly various given his self-imposed, carefully considered constraints. His paintings range broadly, from gestural to self-effacing, from pristine to vigorously layered, from broadly brushed to delicately applied. Ryman’s repertoire of materials is just as assorted, including various types of industrial paints and rare pigments, supports, adhesives, and fixtures, such as fiberglass, steel, aluminum, and wood.
In these galleries, which include works dating from 1958 through 2003, the artist chose to utilize site-specific elements, such as natural lighting and the shape and orientation of walls, to enhance the experience of every piece or set. In some cases, the room’s natural lighting has been modified by means of the installation of filters—a maneuver that favors the merging of the paintings’ edges into the wall. For a work like Vector (1975/1997), an almost dark environment invites the viewer to get closer to the work and even look at it sideways, so the qualities of surface—rather than the differences of color—may be observed. Varese Wall (1975) also exhibits the fine line between a painting and its backdrop. The work receives a fresh coat of paint each time it is exhibited, as do the gallery’s walls. Installed on seemingly provisional small foam blocks and composed of wooden door panels, it is nonetheless a wall, and thus engenders an amusing dialogue with the gallery wall on which it is braced. With his overriding interest in imbuing paint with the power to act on its own behalf, Ryman often introduces his own signature in his compositions, so that this inscription (“an accepted element of all painting” for Ryman) becomes an integral component of the work.