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Art In Conversation

WILL RYMAN with Phong Bui

On the occasion of the sculptor’s forthcoming exhibit, New Beginning at Marlborough Gallery, in Chelsea, which will be on view from September 10 to October 10, 2009, Will Ryman took a break from his studio to visit Art International Radio to talk to Publisher Phong Bui about his life and current body of work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): The last time I saw a show of yours, which was also last year at Marlborough, I thought the image of the fellow lying on the “Bed” with his adorable pooch was probably the best portrait of a hangover I’ve ever seen. On the one hand he was reminiscent of Gregor Samsa before he awakes in the morning from uneasy dreams, I mean before he turns into a big beetle. On the other hand, if you look a bit longer it references all sorts of art historical associations. I thought of Giacometti’s fragile construction of the figure, Jasper Johns’s two beer cans.

William Ryman: Ballantine Ales.

Rail: Exactly. Also Claes Oldenburg’s legendary “Store” of 1961, which was actually shown again at Peter Freeman in 2003-2004, but it was Phillip Guston’s epic painting “Painting Smoking Eating” of 1973 that I most identified with your “Bed.” You have identified it on several occasions as being your breakthrough work.

Ryman: Up to that point, yeah.

Rail: So could you tell us what was in your mind in terms of how the image came about and the degrees and ways in which the matter of scale and distortion were being taken into consideration?

"The Bed" (2007). Papier mache, magic sculpt, resin, acrylic, wire mesh, wood, cloth. 96 x 180 x 330 in. Collection: Charles Saatchi. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Ryman: Well, I remember it was New Years Eve of 2006 that I first got that idea that I wanted to make a work, which would make the viewer feel small like a bug. But when I went to my studio and I wanted to use the ceiling as the bottom of the bed and have an arm coming down the side of the wall, then as I started to build the structure I began to realize very quickly, in terms of practicality, that the scale would be completely wrong unless I went outside and made a absolutely gigantic piece. I ended up making the figure anyway, which I thought was good. I then wanted to scale down the bed quite disproportionately in order to make it look like a child’s view of a hangover. And from there, I sort of created a complete environment of a Tuesday afternoon or any afternoon after a long night.

Rail: Scale is a very peculiar thing, which isn’t always measurable. It’s rather a visceral and emotional feeling for a certain rightness in one’s response to an object one sees. In other words, we’re embodied in a condition through which our bodies mediate this fundamental distinction between subject and object while allowing both to exist simultaneously and ambiguously. Which inevitably brings us back to the early years, when you were a playwright for a good…?

Ryman: Twelve years, yeah.

Rail: Tell us a little more of that history.

"Rose 38" (side view), 2009, steel, epoxy resin, aluminum, plaster, paint, 87 x 57 x 51 in, photo by Bill Orcutt. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Ryman: Well, as soon as I got out of high school, I took some classes around 1988 in theater, which included screen writing and playwriting courses. And I remember even when I was a little kid I always wanted to create, not just one object, but a complete environment, a world that told a story that unfolded the character’s interior lives. Though I quickly learned, when I took those classes, that there are such strongly imposed structures, at least in the commercial theater world, which simply didn’t allow my creative and personal voice to flourish. And I soon found out that my mind couldn’t function in a linear way. So as a result of my frustration, I began to create my own plays, which consisted of my own built sets that provided the equivalent of a three-dimensional world for the characters so that the differences of their physiological voices can be heard. As you can imagine I was mostly interested in Beckett, Ionesco, and Arthur Miller. Those were the three main influences on my work at that time.

Rail: That makes sense. I also thought of Artaud, who often spoke of cruelty, not in the realm of violence and pain, but as a way to obliterate the restriction of texts in favor of a theatrical form that allows a possible unique language that generates itself out of thought and gesture. Basically, Artaud really believes that all expression is physical expression in space, which is quite similar to Richard Foreman’s idea of his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the so-called “theater of coincidence,” or “total theater.” I mean it embraces everything from performative, auditory, and visual arts to psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy, and so on. Would you regard your non-linear form of theatre in the same lineage as Artaud’s and Foreman’s? And have you seen any of Foreman’s productions at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery?

Ryman: First of all, I absolutely identify with their ideas of theatre. And yes, I have seen a few of Foreman’s productions, though interestingly enough, right after I stopped writing and began sculpting, which was quite an experience. I think if I had seen those plays back when I was writing I would have been more natural, because I was trying so much to write a good play instead of being myself, but then I would not have understood his work had I been myself. I think when you see Foreman’s work, or other artists like him, if you expect to see something that you had seen before you are going to be very confused and frustrated.

Rail: [Laughter.] Oh yeah, the concept of space is so visceral and complex that it’s best to allow yourself to submerge totally with what you see. Anyway, you mentioned Beckett, Ionesco, and Arthur Miller, whose works share a kind of similar profound sense of alienation and bleak views of human life.

Ryman: Definitely. Especially Ionesco, considering he is an absurdist, as I am an absurdist in what I do as a sculptor. In fact Beckett, Miller, and Ionesco all felt that man’s role in the universe was meaningless and in order to give your life meaning you’d have to commit yourself to something bigger than yourself, whatever that might be. I regard Ionesco’s The Chairs to be an important play for me and my work. The old man and the old woman in that play try to prepare chairs for a series of invisible guests to hear the great message at the end, and when the orator delivers the great message, they commit suicide, because they claim at this point, life couldn’t get any better. If I remember correctly, the orator’s message was completely nonsensical. It didn’t make any sense; therefore the whole meaning of life is totally absurd.

Rail: Ionesco has a strange and ambivalent relationship to language. He hated any kind of false worship of language. I believe at the age of forty he decided to study English so you can imagine that every single word he constructs cannot be taken for granted. At any rate, was there any particular Beckett play that really spoke to you?

Ryman: I liked Waiting for Godot, of course, but Krapp’s Last Tape really spoke to me the most. I just felt that it seemed very poetic and very honest, the unfolding of his life as he’s listening to himself on tape.

Rail: In so many ways, Krapp is Beckett.

Ryman: Absolutely. I think a lot of these writers, when they write these plays, they’re writing about their personal conditions.

Rail: Could you describe when and how you discovered that sculpture was the preferred medium, I mean how did it transition from theater into making sculpture?

Proposal for Park Ave.
Proposal for Park Ave.

Ryman: Well, as I said before, I was trying to have my own vision fit into the structure of a play. For instance, one play was called Maureen, which was about a woman who’s getting ready to go out with her friends, and at the end we all find out that her friends aren’t really there, that she has no friends, that she’s talking to herself the whole time in her apartment. In other words, there’s supposed to be a party in her apartment and we realize that that’s actually not what’s going on and that she’s actually just sort of babbling to herself in her apartment the whole night. But the way I got started sculpting was I was trying to basically invent a whole new kind of theater by removing the script, the actors, and the director completely. I wanted to make these scenes three-dimensionally and put them all over the stage, and all over the rest of the theater; I wanted to break the plane of the stage and turn the theater into a total environment. I wanted to go into a Broadway theater house and just put my scenes everywhere, so when the audience walked in and they sat down, there wouldn’t be any script, there’d be no one talking, but these scenes would interact with them telling them a story or a message of some sort. It didn’t really have to be anything linear, in fact I didn’t really want it to be, so that’s when I got my studio on the Bowery and turned it into a theater. I built at least 10 or 11 scenes, and placed them all around the studio, then I invited everyone I knew in theater and film and all my friends and their families to come and see my work. It was great, and we had a great time. Thinking back, I’m not sure whether they knew what I was doing or not [laughs], but I was very passionate about inventing a new way of theater. Anyway, a friend of my parents brought a friend who was an art dealer and she basically said to me, “I have a slot in my summer show, would you mind if I showed these works?” I must admit I struggled with it at first, partly because I really felt passionate about what I was doing, about trying to break ground in theater, and partly because of my family lineage I was sort of resistant to going into the art world, but in the end I said yes, and that’s what I did. And that’s when I got picked for the Greater New York Show at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2005 and I never wrote another word again after that.

Rail: That’s exciting and unusual.

Ryman: Basically I still am doing the same thing, I mean, I’m still continually trying to create these scenes in a form of sculpture and I’m able to do that in gallery spaces now.

Rail: We talked about Kafkaesque feeling. We talked about Johns, Guston, and Oldenburg, as well as all the playwrights that you admired, which all makes sense in that from one huge configuration of sources, there emerged this monumental world that you created. But the way you constructed your work also reminds me of Red Grooms’ especially his “Ruckus Manhattan,” which I saw at the Whitney Museum when I first came to New York in 1987.

Ryman: Yeah, I saw that when I was a kid.

Rail: I mean both you and Grooms explore scenes from New York’s urban life. Whereas his work depicts the frenetic, quick paced, colorful, vibrant side of the city, whether people are walking the street, rushing through the subway, sitting on crowded busses, and so on, your figures seem to have been weathered by life’s gravity. Now that you have been living and working in the Bowery for quite some time, a neighborhood that spawned the word “Bowery bum,” applied to both artists and homeless alike, do you think all of those characters, including the new crop of businessmen who reside on your block, and tourists, find their ways into your work?

Proposal for Park Ave.
Proposal for Park Ave.

Ryman: Sure. I grew up in New York and was exposed to all walks of life. Of course how I make my work in a superficial glance does evoke those pedestrians, but my work is mainly about the inner world of people, what in fact they’re thinking, feeling from within. So to combine the urban energy that they wear in their physical appearance with their interior lives is what interests me most.

Rail: I also noticed your figures generally appear in three configurations. One is quite elongated, tall and thin, as if Giacometti would have made a sculpture of ET. One is proportioned to a fairly human scale, and then the third is more or less composed of gigantic heads on small bodies. Do those differences allude to something else besides showing the range of their physical appearance?

Ryman: When I make the figures really tall I try to sort of raise the floor to ceiling height for the viewer and shorten it for the object. Basically I’m trying to make the viewer feel small and at times awkward with what they look at. So the way I distort the body parts makes it difficult for the viewer to relate against their own bodies. But for the most part, I’d just twist the figure around and play with it and see what happens. I usually don’t have any specific image in mind when I’m making these things.

Rail: You don’t make drawings or even a maquette?

Ryman: No, absolutely not.

Rail: So there’s no basis of premeditated conception!

Ryman: No, absolutely not. I try to find things as they go, and if things feel interesting and right to me, then I go with it. You know, whenever I’ve had a clear image in my mind, and made it accordingly, without any changes, it’s never been a good piece.

Rail: Then you’re not going to be one of our Jeff Koons. [Laughter.]

Ryman: [Laughter.] No. I don’t want to cast in additions or multiples. That’s not what I’m interested in.

Rail: Most of us in the art world know that you came from an unusual artist family. In addition to your mother, Merrill Wagner, and your younger brother, Cordy Ryman, both of whom are trained painters, while your father, Robert Ryman, and your older step-brother, Ethan, and yourself, are all self-taught, what is it in the family alchemy that creates these unique differences?

Ryman: Well, we all sort of did and do our own thing; we each follow what interests us. I didn’t intentionally go towards theater and stay away from the art world, because of the family business; it was just what I was interested in at that period of my life, so I followed that calling. But, you know, growing up in my family, I was exposed to a lot of great art, but it was rare that anyone talked about it. I remember when I was a kid I said to my father, “I don’t really understand what you’re doing,” and he said “well someday you will,” and that was the end of the conversation. And of course he was very right because I very much understand it now. Basically, what my parents thought of creativity is kind of a delicate and subtle situation, and you have to find what works for you, which can’t be taught. They more or less provide their support by letting us follow each of our situations.

Rail: To explore your own ways.

Ryman: Yeah, because I have been exposed to a lot of great art and artists, most of whom are my parents’ friends. Tom Doyle’s sculptures, for example, always resonated with me. I loved his sculptures even when I was a kid. Carl Andre was another one, Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockburne, James Seawright, Stephen Antonakos, and many others were always around. And of course I was exposed to my mother’s work. I always found her work fascinating in that she can work both abstractly and representationally. She can paint on all sorts of materials. In fact whenever she was walking down the street and saw certain stones or slabs of marble she would call on me and my brothers to come help carry them home.

Rail: You and Cordy were unpaid studio assistants [laughter]. But you know the notion of self taught, Will, can get quite complicated, partly because it gets entangled with all kinds of definitions or simply the politics of how certain works are shown. It’s hard to believe, but in 1938, a retrospective was given to Morris Hirshfield (one among the so-called self taught artists which would include John Kane, Horace Pippin, Grandma Moses, all of whom were celebrated in their times), partly because Alfred Barr Jr., the founding director at MoMA, thought of self taught as being one of Modernism’s three main principal strands, along with surrealism and abstraction. Needless to say, it was considered a scandal, which may have ended Barr’s tenure, and ceased the museum’s advocacy for self-taught art. But there’s a big difference between self-taught artists who isolate themselves from mainstream culture and those who live right in the middle of it, and you belong to that latter.

Ryman: Absolutely. My subject is based on the urban condition. People who are caught between the physical, man-built environment and the interior world of their lives. I don’t spend much time in various museums but I learned how to observe the works of art getting made from different artists’ studios, including my parents’ and others among my friends. You could also say that I spend a lot of time walking on the streets looking at all kinds of people and try to absorb the energy of the city, which all feed right into my work. I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else except New York City.

Rail: You’d already mentioned briefly before about working without preconception. But how important is the touch of the hand in your work?

Ryman: For me, it’s the touch of the hand that creates spontaneity of form that is alive. If it doesn’t have that quality, it’s dead. That’s why I’m not interested in replication or casting.

Rail: So how do you begin your process?

Ryman: I usually start with the face, which is the most important part of the figure, because facial expression can reveal a great deal of the character. Then I would work on the body depending on how big or small I wanted it to be in relation to the face. However I’m doing a series now where I find that the bodies aren’t as important, so I’m making the bodies as small and the heads as big as I can.

Rail: Do you still use papier-mâché?

Ryman: No, I don’t use papier-mâché any more for the most part. I use plaster, epoxy resin, aluminum mesh and steel instead. I only use papier-mâché sometimes as a temporary structure for the epoxy resin to grab onto. Otherwise the reason I don’t use papier-mâché anymore is because it doesn’t last that long.

Rail: So you are trying to find different materials that make the work a bit more permanent.

Ryman: And stronger in general.

Rail: When did that occur?

Ryman: To be honest, some collector called to complain that their work was cracking, which was about three years ago. That was when I determined to change my materials. Besides I was also getting very bored working with papier-mâché. It’s too limiting. In any case I have a lot of friends in the construction business who have taught me a lot about everything, about steel works and carpentry, including welding, and so on. Right now I use an apoxy resin like a bondo material, which is the material that they use to fill in the dents in cars. I use steele to build the armatures, aluminum mesh for shaping the form, PVC tubes, found objects, anything I can find that I think looks interesting. I’m pretty open to anything as far as materials go.

Rail: I know while you were writing plays you were also a cook. Do tell us a little about that experience.

Ryman: Well, I wanted to learn how to cook, and I also needed a job, so I went into a restaurant, and I asked them for a job. Basically I had to be an apprentice to the head chef for three months and then, once I completed that, they hired me. And within a year I was a sous chef.

Rail: That’s great. Which restaurant are we talking about?

Ryman: Provence, on MacDougal and Spring street, which closed two years ago.

Rail: Oh yeah, in its heydays it was known for southern Mediterranean French cuisine. I’ve eaten there several times.

Ryman: If you ate seafood I probably did cook your food.

Rail: Yeah [laughter]. So you did that for a while?

Ryman: I did it for a year and a half. And when we got a bad review in the New York Times I quit. The timing was right since the situation with my sculpture became more serious around 2001.

Rail: Fairly late.

Ryman: Yeah.

Proposal for Park Ave.
Proposal for Park Ave.

Rail: But, “it’s never too late to become what you may have been,” said George Eliot. Let’s talk about the new body of work.

Ryman: There are 39 pieces, and each piece has about three roses, so in total they are more than one hundred roses, along with all sorts of insects and litter such as cigarette butts, potato chips half eaten, a coffee cup, an empty beer can, and so on. They’re all painted by hand. It’s a strange view of a rose garden.

Rail: And a huge leap from the “Bed.”

Ryman: To tell you the truth, I hit a wall with figures and felt like I wanted to do something involving nature. First I made willow trees, I made lilies, and all kinds of different flowers, but then I settled with the rose, largely because of its universal and symbolic significance. Plus I also liked the process of making it. It just seemed interesting to me, because I didn’t want it to look exactly like a rose, I wanted them to look kind of wilted and sickly. But at the same time I wanted them to still have the beauty that a garden has. So it evokes both beauty and the grimness of things.

Rail: Again, one can’t help but notice each of their proportions is incredibly different from one from another, which makes it very difficult to navigate spatially once you’re in the garden.

Ryman: Well, I made a choice, and I always do this; I don’t ever want anything to be in their exact proportion. For me it’s more interesting when things are not proportionate; therefore your vision is altered.

Rail: It’s true, because as you move from one rose to the next, as you do with the bees or the potato chips and the cigarette butts, you’re thrown off first with your eyes and then with your whole physical body. It’s very psychologically disconcerting and physically disorienting at the same time. Do you intend to see the rose garden both indoor and outdoor?

Ryman: These particular pieces for the show are strictly indoor, though I’m learning now how to make outdoor pieces, which will be a new challenging phase for me. That said, I still want it to look delicate and handmade, which is important to me. But yeah, I have some site-specific roses that I’m proposing to the garden below the Whitney museum, the island strips between 50th and 57th street on Park Avenue, The New Museum, and a few other places in New York City.

Rail: Good, you are spreading your roses around. [Laughter.]

Ryman: Right [laughter]. It’s the color of love, and it can’t be bad to have them around the city during this economic crisis.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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