December 9, 2015 – July 29, 2016
The subject of Robert Ryman’s work is the relationship between light and matter; in particular, the relationship between a changing light and a specific surface. White, as a color, is an expedient, a pragmatic choice that allows for maximum visible interactions to be witnessed in as unencumbered, and as variable, a way as possible. Each chosen surface, whether a support for paint or itself the focus, is predicated on the availability and quality of light—light that will recalibrate our experience of color and surface each time it changes. Significantly, at this exhibit of twenty-two works, artificial light is only used after natural light no longer provides enough luminosity for viewing. It’s an exciting opportunity to experience Ryman’s work in conditions that underline their light-responsive character. “It all activates with light,” Ryman has said, preferring to work under artificial light and then view and exhibit in natural light. The galleries of DIA:Chelsea have skylights throughout in the pitched ceilings, and no windows in the walls, making possible this top lit, natural light viewing.
It was not long before the uncanny, experiential present of Johannes Vermeer’s (1632 – 75) light raked interiors came to mind. But, of course, with Ryman, the experience of light and its fluctuations—as here, standing in front of any one of the works present—happens in real time. On the other hand, in ,Vermeer’s case, it happens in a forever-fixed moment—in other words, as a depiction. Brice Marden has noted that Ryman’s meditations on light, can be considered equal to Vermeer’s. It may seem at first an obtuse connection to make, but consider the precise shifts and nuances in Ryman’s work, then think of the light falling through or across material substance in a Vermeer.
Both artists detect and convey a sense of material existing in the elusive moment—Vermeer’s domestic interiors and casual events, Ryman’s forthrightly deployed supplies and fixtures—that constantly slips by on the chaos of time and distraction. Consequently, this retrieval is an awareness of time in the present, vis-à-vis the vicissitudes of observed light. This also recalls Marcel Proust’s intention to reinvent memory in the present.
The works brought together here exemplify a searching and explorative attitude toward painting that begins with the use of canvas, board, and paper. Later, in the 1960s, as Ryman’s career took off, experimentations expanded to include industrial materials, such as aluminum, Plexiglas, and fiberglass. All the time, different brushes and different types of paint were used. Each part of the process adds something. Shadows created, reflections caught, matt and sheen combine or contrast, the overall size and orientation of an individual, or serial piece establish an external relation to the room in which it co-exists. This determines a scale both inward and outward, from brush mark to brush mark, or from a work’s perimeter to the wall. The works are environmental in this way—never closed off from their surroundings.
To Gertrude Mellon (1958) is a small painting (11 3/4 × 12 inches) on wallpaper, framed behind non-reflective glass. Not only is this an early use of non-fine art material as a support for Ryman, but the uneven, slightly diagonal lower edge suggests that Ryman is already thinking about how the support for paint will play an active role, rather that simply a regular neutral rectangle. The prominent signature that acts in a visually essential way, also continues, on and off, through the years. The white paint and the creased paper evidence an efficacy for registering light that the other colors subdue as they offer a complexity in another direction concerning hue and tone contrast more in tune with Abstract Expressionism.
Pair Navigation (1984 – 2002) indicates just how far Ryman took this idea. This workextends horizontally and close to the floor, it is neither flat to the wall nor at an ideal viewing height, as with the usual presentation of painting—radical or conventional. Its oil on fiberglass surface does not face the viewer; it instead faces upward at the falling light. The aluminum sheet, wood, and aluminum fasteners and rods, are all openly part of the work. Nothing is incidental; rather, everything is visually and structurally purposeful. It’s a non-illusionistic painting, connected literally to the space of the room—which doesn’t make it de facto Minimalism. Ryman doesn’t need to be categorized within an ism; his is a more solitary path. As Robert Storr succinctly puts it, “ Intuitive at its source, Ryman’s work respects one strict rule: what is present is what matters and what came before or after matters only insofar as it too makes a unique claim for our attention.”
The manifold intricacies and refinements discovered on walking through the two galleries of this current exhibition not only implore a sustained and lengthy viewing, they also imply that further configurations in the future—on an another wall, at a different location, with another combination of works—will yield yet more insight into a restless determination Ryman has described as a desire to “make something happen.”