February 23 – March 24, 2018
Robert Ryman’s painting smolders with restrained, yet eccentric, color and gesture. His hand both withholds and idiosyncratically gestures with an open palm: the magic of an aesthetic disappearing act. One is tempted to say that the residue of what remains, the distillate of a kind of monastic distancing, is what essentially constitutes his oeuvre. But that would be reducing his work to one of a singular move, whereas Ryman has always had many moves that tend to complicate such a reductive read. His quirky presentational tactics are one example of how he does this, often using very specific hardware and tape arrays to offset his paintings as more than just mere images. Often he’ll change the types of surfaces to apply paint to, including different metals and types of papers both transparent and opaque. Consequently, he’s a very physical painter, in the sense that he has always carefully directed the viewer to the base materiality of his means. With this most comprehensive survey of his drawings to date, one can take an enlightened inventory of those means, and the meanings that they might suggest.
A painter’s drawings are always interesting to view in light of their “fit” within that larger body of work which comes to define a painter’s painting. Different approaches range from small studies for larger, painted works to a separate, parallel practice which can give insight into the painter’s development of the conceptual underpinnings for his or her work. According to the 61 works displayed in this show, Ryman seems to have consigned his drawing habit to the latter instance, occupying a kind of scriptorium in which to illuminate ideas that would lend his painted works their conceptual structure. The show offers a useful cipher to help decode some of the sphinx-like aspects of Ryman’s painterly containment.
The grid dominates the show throughout, and originates here in the hand-drawn graphs that organize the earliest works in the show, from 1961. In these 10×10 in. drawings one can see the artist working out varied configurations of autographic gestures combined with their proportional locations within very animated deployments of different types of grids. Here too one can see Ryman’s early incorporation of his signature and initials as integral to his compositions. Rather than marginalia, as these are typically seen in his paintings, this bold use of his personal inscription is all over the place in these early drawings. In some, as in Untitled (c.1961) his scribbled signature obsessively fills the space of the gridded, gray paper support in a way one might encounter a graffiti tagger aggressively over-claiming a wall of their own. In others, such as Untitled Study (c. 1961) the hard “R” of the artist’s first and last initials graphically decline toward the lower right (pastel white) hand corner of a manila support. In the remainder of these early works dated from 1961-1964 one notices a playful range of rectilinear arrays sometimes even incorporating circular repetitions in graphic coordinates. These are drawn on a variety of colored papers including manila, gray, yellow, cream and gray-green hues, which set a kind of musical undertone to Ryman’s restrained improvisations. He did, after all, start off with an early ambition to become a jazz saxophonist, and this fact can go some way towards understanding his take on the grid as ensemble/gesture as improvisatory irruption. With these very early works what is basically revealed is Ryman practicing his graphic scales. Together they compose the root-tablature of the show specifically, and Ryman’s work in general.
In another section of the exhibit there is a beautifully staid set of drawings on canvas, such as Stretched Drawing (Red), all dated from 1963, which finds the artist reaching for a classically reductive métier. These also seem perhaps a quiet homage to Piet Mondrian. I can recall a panel I attended at MoMA, of which Ryman was a participant, held on the occasion of the 1995 Mondrian retrospective. With a laser pen Ryman pointed to the edge of a projected slide of one of Mondrian’s more open grid compositions and mentioned that it was the exact point at which the artist’s grid form didn’t touch the canvas edge that interested him (Ryman) the most. Ryman’s grids in these works overwrap their boundaries but in a not–quite symmetrical way that reminded me of his anecdotal relation of Mondrian’s slight “imperfection.” It’s a stance that upends any classical ideal of tectonic equilibrium. It could be said that abstraction as imperfectly carpentered is one of Ryman’s most generous gifts.
From 1964 through 1966 the artist chose to create a series of drawings on Chemex coffee filters. These are all approximately twelve inches in diameter and seem to have offered Ryman the opportunity to creatively square the circle. It looks here as if the coffee filters’ found-form freed the artist to rejigger his rectilinear inclinations. A play of linear invention abounds in these works as the artist attempts to hew both to his own gridded course and to that given by the circularity of his adopted support. In one of the few works in this series similarly entitled Untitled (c. 1966) a fine comb-like array of graphite lines bisects the coffee filter circle one-quarter of the way to its top. In Study for Five (c. 1964) Ryman approximately transects the circle-form with an equilateral charcoal grid which gets its center optically erased by a light “flocking” of white pastel, picking up the industrially-woven tooth of the coffee filter paper. Together these drawing represent a very playful side of Ryman’s topology. A more classically tame correlative of circular aesthetics is encountered in The Watermark Series (c. 1968) in which the artist draws with graphite upon five barely-there reproductions of Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola.
The remaining works on view, dated from 1969 through to 2000, represent a coalescing index of what would comprise the artist’s mature style, of which the three from the Blue Line Drawing series here (all 1969) are a fine example. They are installed in precise intervals on one gallery wall, each with the now Ryman-iconic affixture of four symmetrically placed pieces of masking tape. The blue lines of the conté crayon on the matte Mylar panels of each visually connect to engage a paradoxically energetic flat-line vibe that fills the gallery space with an understated—almost fatalistic—certitude.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.