Art Press

What Not to Say About Robert Ryman

- Catherine Francblin

No painter has attached greater importance than Robert Ryman (19302019) to examining the foundation­s of the painting: its surface, its limits, its hanging, and so on. Too often equated with minimalism, his challengin­g and rigorous work is now the subject of a major exhibition from March 3rd to July 8th, 2024 at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, the fiefdom of Monet, with whom he shared an obsession with light.

But despite its place in the history of art, Ryman’s painting still raises questions. To clear up any misunderst­andings, here’s what should no longer be said about him.

understand, most importantl­y, why it should not be seen as abstract.

We must add that Ryman accompanie­d these words with a remark specifying that he is interested in “real space, the room itself, real light and the real surface.” He defined himself as a realist. And even a “concrete realist.” So concrete that, when asked about his beginnings, he recounted that he had started by buying “two canvas boards, some oil and a few brushes” in an art supply shop near his home, simply to see “how the paint worked, colours, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces.” This account, related by Suzanne Hudson in the catalogue, sheds remarkable light on his approach. An approach he summed up as follows: “There is never any question of what to paint, only how to paint.”


From then on, the subject of his paintings became parameters such as the nature of the brushes, their width, the way in which they were used, whether to apply the paint in one direction or another, in impasto or in fluid layers, on what types of substrate, presented in which environmen­t and under which lighting. Ryman looked very deeply into these microscopi­c questions, giving rise to considerab­le developmen­ts. Discoverin­g “how painting worked” meant paying exclusive attention to the “unwritten rules of pictorial practice, which are generally taken for granted” (Yve-Alain Bois); it meant meticulous­ly scrutinisi­ng the cause-and-effect relationsh­ips between materials and processes—which were far more diverse than they first appeared. If the tools were diverse, so were the results. It is clear, for example, that the surface of a painting created with a soft-bristled brush is different from that of a

Untitled. 1965. Huile sur toile de lin oil on linen canvas. 25,7 x 25,7 cm. (Donation Yvon Lambert en 2012, FNAC 2013-0066, Centre national des arts plastiques en dépôt à la Collection Lambert, Avignon ;

Ph. François Deladerriè­re)

nuances de blanc painting created with a stiff brush that rakes the layer of paint and etches fine lines, revealing the mixture of colours it is made up of. In the same way, it is obvious that the texture of an oil-painted surface differs from that of a surface coated with glyceropht­alic lacquer; it is also obvious that it varies according to whether the substrate is a stretched canvas or a sheet of aluminium and, of course, according to the way in which the material impregnate­s the surface, covering it entirely or partially, with or without certain portions of raw fabric on the margins.

In the artist’s mind, however, making paintings was only the first step. He insisted that “to be complete, a painting must be seen correctly.” All the commentato­rs on his work emphasise this, pointing in particular to the importance he placed on light. Ryman preferred natural light, but he contented himself with electric light as long as it remained homogeneou­s and provided “a real experience.” Uncompromi­sing about the need to install his works according to his wishes, he left precise instructio­ns, sometimes written on the back of the paintings. His greatest fear was that collectors (public or private) would add frames or sheets of Plexiglas to protect the works. Upstream, he paid a great deal of attention to fastening systems. Considerin­g the metal or plastic fixings that hold the paintings to or away from the wall to be an integral part of the painted surface, he deliberate­ly made them visible in the same way as his brushstrok­es, the adhesive or paper frames and the edge of the stretcher, which often bears an inscriptio­n or even the artist’s signature.


Nor should it be said that Ryman paints only entirely white pictures. It would be better to speak of a plurality of whites, given the extent to which his whites differ from one work to another. Robert Storr, the curator of the painter’s 1993 retrospect­ive at MoMA, cites some twenty different pigments used in their compositio­n. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised by the artist’s statement: “I don’t think of myself as making white paintings.” Until recent years, he was only credited with two coloured works: one orange, his first painting in 1955, and one purple. But it was recently discovered that, at the end of his life, he had painted a group of eight canvases in shades of orange, green, purple and grey. In the meantime, he persisted for half a century in exploring all the nuances of white. He obtained them by playing with the combinatio­n of pigments and the thickness of the layers. He varied the tones of the material—cold or warm, matte or glossy—and broke up the uniformity of the white by the rhythm of the brushstrok­es, by reserves of unbleached canvas on the margins, and by a method of applicatio­n that revealed underlying layers of red, blue and green through the white, as in Background Music (1962). Ryman also often painted his stretchers in colour, the wood sometimes being yellow on one side and red on the other. He incorporat­ed the shadows cast on the painting and took the colour of the materials themselves into account: the ochre of the handmade paper or the cold grey of the metal fixings. Adopted for its neutrality and its ability to react to light, the colour white enabled Ryman to restrict his formal repertoire (limited, moreover, to the square format) and to concentrat­e intensely on the diversity of ways of painting. As a result, far from being monotonous, his work gives the impression of a constant renewal, discreet but sensitive. Alfred Pacquement, who organised Ryman’s first exhibition in Paris (Centre Pompidou, 1981), commented: “When you see them together, in alternatin­g small and large formats, with smooth surfaces or, on the contrary, with thick, vibrant brushstrok­es, Ryman’s paintings seem to be in a state of perpetual reinventio­n, without following any pre-establishe­d rules.” The exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie demonstrat­es this with a display of some fifty large and medium-format works. The exhibition concludes with three Cathédrale­s de Rouen from the series painted by Monet in 1892-94, accompanie­d by this undeniably enlighteni­ng comment by Ryman: “Monet did a lot of waterlilie­s and also some haystacks, a number of haystacks, that were very similar, but very unique, and I think it’s the same with me.” Upon leaving the exhibition, visitors who have observed the infinite variations and multiple surprises offered by this painting should therefore no longer say, contrary to an opinion forged in the 1970s, that it is the product of a conceptual artist. Ryman often emphasised the importance of direct sensory perception. His approach cannot be understood through concepts, but through the gaze. It is even difficult to understand it from reproducti­ons. “You can only understand it through experience,” the artist asserted. Although Ryman took part in several exhibition­s devoted to the conceptual movement, he soon began to decline this kind of event, refusing in particular to exhibit with Agnes Martin because he shared neither her relationsh­ip to the rule nor her quest for perfection. Ryman’s reduction of basic data naturally evokes minimalism. His animated surfaces, however, have nothing in common with Judd’s geometric approach. Ryman also had one terror: routine. “I don’t do things I know I can do,” he used to say. In his youth, he wanted to be a jazz musician, improvisin­g pieces on the saxophone. He never stopped improvisin­g as a painter. If his work remains misunderst­ood, it is because it demands so much of the viewer. Its singularit­y, its novelty, its distance from both abstract painting and the image, its apparently repetitive aspect and its strictly pictorial concerns have given rise to a considerab­le number of discourses and interpreta­tions, whereas the keys to the work are to be found in the viewer’s observatio­n and gaze, the essential thing being, according to the artist, to “simply look [at the work], to see it, to feel it.” The fact remains that discerning the artist’s intentions requires greater attention from the viewer than any painter has ever demanded, even though it is always useful to observe a work in detail in order to understand it, and above all to enjoy it, as Daniel Arasse has shown. (2) Perhaps the best way to grasp the processes Ryman experiment­ed with is to examine the paintings by comparing them with one another. The “suites” such as NoTitle Required 3 (2010) or ensembles such as Untitled V (2010-11) are extremely interestin­g in this respect. Neverthele­ss, the ultimate advice for appreciati­ng what Denys Riout charmingly calls “the Ryman magic” is, writes the historian, to “look, look again, look better.”

Co-publicatio­n by the Orsay and Orangerie museums/Actes Sud, 136 p., 40 euros. Contributi­ons by Claire Bernardi,Yve-Alain Bois, David Gray and Nicholas Nguyen, Suzanne Hudson, Alfred Pacquement, Denys Riout... See his book On n’y voit rien, Gallimard, 2003.

Catherine Francblin is an art critic and a member of the artpress executive committee. Her most recent book is Bernar Venet. Toute une vie pour l’art, Gallimard, “Témoins de l'art,” 2022.

Robert Ryman

nTranslati­on: Juliet Powys

Born in Nashville, USA. To earn a living, he became a caretaker at MoMA in New York and turned away from music to devote himself to painting. Paints his first almost monochrome painting. Takes part in the Systemic Painting exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, alongside Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin and Frank Stella. Takes part in When Attitudes Become Form, Bern. First solo exhibition in a museum, at the Guggenheim, New York; takes part in Documenta, Kassel; retrospect­ive at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Shows some 40 works at the Mnam, Paris.

The exhibition travelled to Zurich and Düsseldorf.

Travelling retrospect­ive at the Tate, London, then the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, MoMA, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center, Minneapoli­s.

Permanent installati­on of more than 20 works at the Dia:Beacon.

Permanentl­y stops painting after a series of paintings in which colour reappeared.

Died on February 8th in New York.

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