Robert Ryman. The act of looking
The act of looking
Robert Ryman (1930–2019), an American painter who began working in New York in the 1950s, dedicated the majority of his artwork to analysing the foundations of painting. Returning to the formula of the white square time after time, which he chose for its neutrality, Ryman explored all the material components of a painting, from the support to the surface through the lighting and hanging system. Having initially embarked on a career as a jazz saxophonist, Ryman spent nearly a decade as a room attendant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There, he discovered the European modern masters (Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse) and the latest major names in America (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman), before deciding to dedicate himself to painting.
Painting what he himself called – not without provocation – « realistic » pieces, in that they are devoid of illusion or symbolism, the artist continued to experiment right up to the final years of his life. Driven by the infinite possibilities of the medium and creating endless variations, Ryman always looked actively at painting. As such, we too must begin to look at Ryman’s painting as the artist encourages us to: as active painting, painting that invokes as much the painter’s gaze as that of those for whom it is destined (the visitor, or rather the viewer).
Robert Ryman saw himself as a painter above all else. His early explorations of the pictorial realm focused on ways of applying paint to a support. He studied and researched the different effects produced by the thickness of the material, tonal variations and the artist’s touch. These experiments formed the milestones in a quest the painter knew full well to be endless, yet they offered pretexts for questioning the substance and nature of a painting. The use of a square format and white paint, as well as the technical principles that governed the artist’s practice (methodically chosen brushes, supports, etc.), were all means for him to achieve a degree of neutrality, eschewing any form of interpretation.
When talking about his work, Ryman emphasised the creative process and highlighted the most practical elements of his work, such as where he purchased his paint, the thickness of the brush or the specificities of the support used.
In exploring the component parts of painting, Ryman also took an interest in its limits, whether physical or conceptual.
He frequently focused on exploring the potential for incorporating his works into their immediate surroundings, playing with different presentation methods in order to do so, such as unstretched canvases (Adelphi) or ones on stretchers (Concert), compositions made from several assembled parts (Untitled Triptych), or Plexiglas supports that leave the wall partially visible (Arrow).
From the mid-1970s he began to take this approach further, experimenting with visible fasteners and tabs for his paintings, chosen carefully for their intrinsic qualities. Unconventional metal tabs jutting out from the canvas and frames made from wax paper were added to the artist’s toolkit.
In choosing not to mask any of the aspects of a painting, Ryman had to rethink all its component parts and the space in which it is displayed.
In the space
In the 1980s, Robert Ryman’s work took on a more sculptural form. Seeking to push the traditional notions of painting even further, he focused on making it part of the space (Journal; Factor). The artist, whom critics in the 1970s associated with minimal art, joined his contemporaries Sol LeWitt or Fred Sandback in researching the context of an artwork’s visibility, whereby the space within which the artwork is situated is a prerequisite for its existence.
Beyond their hanging methods, he therefore focused on how his paintings were integrated into their environment. Some of his works stand proud of the wall while remaining attached to it, while others are displayed horizontally. As such, he highlights overlooked aspects, such as the edge of the painting, which he made of wood or aluminium to render it more visible.
Rather than closing doors, his painting is open, both insofar as it interacts with the space around it, and through its expectations of us as we look at it.
More than a painter of white, Ryman was a painter of light. A pivotal element in the creative process, the lighting renders the work visible, creating shadows or reflections and highlighting all the variations of the white paint. The artist’s explorations of the surface and limits of painting culminated in his work on light: it is the light that catches the material, revealing its reliefs or demarcating the shadow of a support on the wall.
For Ryman, then, light is just as much a component of a painting as any other material element of its composition: a piece is only finished when lit. Be it natural or artificial light, soft and even lighting should also accentuate the surrounding artworks and walls in order to fully integrate the painting into its space.
After a nearly sixty-year career as a painter, Ryman stopped making art in 2011. Among his final works, he left behind a group of eight untitled paintings, in green, orange, purple and grey tones, in his studio. In them, colour – which had been absent since his early experimentations in the 1950s – makes a grand comeback.
The pinnacle of his tireless research into the primary elements of painting, these works offer a new perspective on his career and on the history of painting more widely. The never-ending variations from one piece to the next cement painting as a living, sensitive and eminently protean discipline, the potential of which remains, more than ever, to be explored. This may well represent the most direct link between Monet’s Cathedral or Water Lilies series: painting that is the result of a sensitive approach, one that invokes as much the painter’s gaze as that of those for whom it is destined – an active gaze. « That’s really what a painting is basically about, whether you talk about figurative painting or abstract painting, when you really get down to it », explains Ryman.