Some Sort of Approach Towards Infinity: On Robert Ryman

By Clay Matlin

Robert Ryman has a new show at Pace. The paintings are white. Six of them are on colored cotton canvas, the edges of the canvas visible, the white paint applied with impasto flourishes that lead one to think that the canvases are asymetrical. They are not, but range in size from 18” by 18” by 2.5” to 24” by 24” by 2.5”. Additionally, there are eight paintings on birch plywood and two on board panel; each of these is painted with enamel and acrylic. They are as smooth as glass, with some panels having their vertical sides painted in dark blue. These ten panels (ranging in size from 43” by 43” to 47-7/8” by 47-7/8”) comprise one work, “No Title Required.”

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None of this should be surprising: neither the size nor color. In fact, one could argue that if you have seen one Ryman painting you have seen them all. Among younger artists, Ryman, the old master, is often dismissed as never changing, a maker of boring, formulaic paintings. It’s true that while the contemporary art world celebrates an artist’s capacity to handle (or try to handle) myriad artistic hats, or to put it in less generous terms, celebrates a prevalent dilletantish aesthetic, it might appear that Ryman has been painting the same white paintings forever. Oddly, though, we seem to applaud Ellsworth Kelly for the very same thing we fault Ryman It is as if Ryman’s choice of color is less valid than Kelly’s only slightly broader palette. Oscar Wilde was right when he declared that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. But Ryman’s work is in no way unimaginative. Nor is it particularly consistent. They are, in fact, documents of struggle; each painting is a new creation building on the successes and failures of the previous one.

It was John Dewey who wrote that we find no fulfillment in completion; we dream of nirvana and heavenly bliss only because they are “projected upon the background of our present world of stress and conflict.” I believe that we are well served to think of Ryman in these very terms. The project is not yet complete. Each of these white paintings tells a different story, hunts after something new, and, if he is lucky, fails to get there. Yet, this is not to say the paintings are failures. More precisely, each is an act of expression and experimentation. We tend to think of failure in negative terms, but with an artist like Ryman, the failure lies not in the painting itself, but in our desire, the viewers’, for narrative resolution. That he keeps painting white paintings is not a limitation of his language or ideas. Rather it is the means he has chosen to communicate with the world. Ryman’s paintings move out into life, they have a presence that forces itself upon us. Meyer Schapiro believed that the artist, whether roughly or not, places himself directly in the “focus of our space.” We should let him; there is much to gain from those experiences that speak to us and not at us; that force us to take seriously difficult, unclear ideas. When we let others into our space, we enlarge our involvement with the task of living. The very whiteness of Ryman’s paintings coupled with the whiteness of the gallery space gives each painting a physicality that projects it off of the wall into space. They are as much objects as they are paintings, perhaps as evinced by the inclusion of the paintings’ depth.

As such, it is fruitful to think of Ryman in relation to a different type of painter, but one who nevertheless had a profound impact on Ryman as an artist and thinker: Mark Rothko. In direct contrast to Ryman, Rothko endeavored to make paintings that became part of the wall. They had real presence, but that presence was directed inward, through the painting and into another space. Rothko strove to draw the viewer in, to seduce us. Not that Ryman pushes us away, but we live in tension with his work. With Rothko, any tension melts away in his work. Rothko painted doorways to another world, one where this self-proclaimed painter of his “not-self” could be freed from the stress and conflict that someone like Dewey knew to be haunting, but not worth running from. Rothko, though, wanted to run, to dive through one of those lushly painted doorways, that only got grimmer the longer he lived and the more desperate he became. Yet he never did paint his way to freedom. His repeated failure showed him that we are trapped by life to this world. Eventually it became too much for him. For Ryman, however, the specter of failure does not curse him. He seems to have accepted that the paintings are not perfect, but will build on each other. Often the complaint about Ryman is that he does not change, the whiteness of the paintings keeps coming. But if we were to think more deeply about this we would understand that Ryman has not in fact failed to change; he continues to move forward. The act of painting, the use of white as both color and object, is the possibility through which Ryman changes. The white painting is not the terminus, but the means by which we might discover some indefinable end.

Urs Rausmüller observed that Ryman has no starting and ending point with his paintings, the middle filled in like a crossword puzzle. Instead, Rausmüller noted, each painting Ryman makes is “the one ultimate painting. You rely on everything you have painted before and on everything you know and have experienced about painting.” Yet we so frequently fail to see this with our artists, especially our abstract ones. Perhaps we struggle with someone like Ryman because we still struggle so much with abstract painting. We go easier on representational painters. They perform a kind of art making that is less threatening because we assume we understand what it is about, that there are those among us who can “read” the painting into comprehension. The images of representational painting avail themselves to an easier interpretation or appreciation than what can be the abstruse language of abstraction. Though it is not simply abstract painting that flummoxes us, but abstraction in general. We cling to clarity as if clarity itself is the mark of God on the faces of all his children. We want clear writing and clear ideas. We desire to hear clearly, to see without any obstacles. The assumption is that if things are presented to us in a clear way then they are valuable.

Except, maybe Edmund Burke was right in 1757 when he dismissed clarity: “But let it be considered that hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” Clarity, though, is not the same thing as precision. A precise idea need not be clear in order to be important or useful. Precise things can be difficult or worth struggling with. Clarity is the promise of instant gratification—it is a call to simplicity. Precision promises nothing other than that the thought or action requires real investment—we are offered the chance of intellectual rigor. Clarity will not, for all of its promises of elucidation, bring us the world. It seems that it might, instead, cause us to doubt the world, to feel less at home in it, unsure of our place when we cannot shine light and dispel shadows. The approach towards infinity should matter. The Romantics understood that this hunger for clarity is the desire to slash and burn the world. They saw it happen in France during the Revolution. Novalis and Hölderlin accepted the limitations of the world, understood that there are mysteries worth not knowing. “We must, of course, abandon all hope of ever wresting from things their ultimate mystery,” Ernst Cassirer wrote, “or of ever penetrating to the absolute being of matter or of the human soul.” Our fetishization of clarity wants the creation of a different world, one where there is no “ultimate mystery.” Abstract painting is a confrontation with the limitations of this world. Not all things can be clear. Our desire for such a world is neither realistic nor humane; it is a dream of control that is not viable.

What abstract painting teaches us, and perhaps Ryman in particular is one of the prime examples of this, is that, to quote Clive Bell, there are “things in life the worth of which cannot be related to the physical universe—things of which the worth is not relative but absolute.” Abstract painting frees us from the burden of explicit moral and political judgments. The work may be both of those things, but the weight, its explicitness and the way it sits heavy on the life of the world, is lessened. The power of Bell’s “significant form” rings true. It is not that ideas do not matter, but the ideas merge fully with the presentation of the object, they are part of the overall unity. We are aware, to return to Schapiro, “at every point, of its [the work of art’s] becoming.” For Ryman, the painting becomes the opportunity both to finish and to begin—the opportunity to paint another. Each painting is a new one, possibly even one ultimate painting, as Rausmüller observed, wherein Ryman relies on everything he painted before and everything he knows and “experienced about painting” to guide him forward.

Ryman is Schapiro’s abstract painter who reminds us of the very act of painting, of the vitality and mood that are inherent to the making of an abstract painting. “The subjective,” Schapiro understood, “becomes tangible.” Ryman is difficult because we assume there is less to him than there is. His choices seem minimal, the work easy to make. But we need to remember that his concerns are valid, they speak to our time. Abstract painting, and maybe even the idea of abstraction itself, is the chance to admit that past forms of art making and thought are not enough—that there is a multiplicity of presentations of and confrontations with the world. Rather than query the whiteness of Ryman’s paintings or what we believe to be an unchanging quality in his work, we ought to see it as a legitimate way of communicating with this moment. “It is not about symbolism or stories or references to parts of society, politics or whatever,” Ryman has said. “Those are things that are just incidental. It is about the very immediate need that everyone has to delight and wonder.” John Dewey knew that in order really to have an aesthetic experience, to be sufficiently receptive, we must surrender ourselves to it and in the very act of submission we begin to create our own experience, one available to delight and wonder. An artist like Ryman asks more of us than we might be comfortable giving. But we should let ourselves be confronted by the very whiteness that seems so difficult to comprehend. The locus of our cognition ought to radiate outward from ourselves. Thought is work, and through this work it connects us to the world at large. We would be well served to embrace painters like Ryman, to let him stand in our focus. Perhaps then we might learn that in surrendering just a bit of our focus we gain a life in the world.


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