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Robert Ryman’s paintings are indifferent to discourse. They require no insider knowledge or textual elaboration. On the contrary, words often only muddy the waters. In Ryman’s words, “You cannot understand painting by explaining something. You can only understand painting by experience” (192). This makes the task of writing about Ryman’s work exceedingly difficult. However, in Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Suzanne Hudson writes with eloquence and perspicuity to bring Ryman’s work to a wider audience on its own terms. The book documents the development of Ryman’s art from the early 1950s to the turn of the century, exploring Ryman’s biographical history, his critical reception in the latter decades of the twentieth century, and provides a thorough description and analysis of the variety of his approaches to painting. Hudson weaves throughout the text a range of insightful quotes from Ryman himself, other artists, philosophers, art historians, and critics including Robert Storr, Lucy Lippard, Yve-Alain Bois, and Naomi Spector. The very structure of the text, with chapters titled “Primer,” “Paint,” “Support,” “Edge,” and “Wall,” parallels Ryman’s examination of the individual components that make up a painting.
The first chapter, “Primer,” is an informative discussion of the historical context that provided the backdrop for Ryman’s entry into painting. Coming to New York City in the early 1950s as a jazz musician, Ryman soon took a job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and enrolled in an experimental painting class at the People’s Art Center in MoMA’s Department of Education. Though this class was Ryman’s only formal art education, his subsequent self-taught practice was encouraged by the pedagogical approach developed by the education director, Victor D’Amico, which had its roots in the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey and emphasized learning by doing. D’Amico encouraged students to find their own relationship with materials without preconceived outcomes or preference for a particular style. MoMA provided an environment that allowed Ryman constant study of painters such as Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, while developing his own conclusions by sketching on museum stationery on the job and through his own painting experiments at home. Ryman also gained an understanding of the institutional conventions of a painting’s viewing context (which would play an important role in work to come) via Alfred Barr’s influence on MoMA exhibition practices, such as the discarding of salon-style installations for the uncluttered, eye-level hang in a simple white room seen in most institutions today.
A more in-depth examination of Ryman’s process and use of materials begins in the second chapter, “Paint.” Here, Hudson focuses on Ryman’s early work and the transition from his first paintings, which suggest space through various color relationships, to his predominant use of white for its ability to call attention to the essential materiality of paint through what he considered its neutrality of color. Hudson quotes Spector’s observation that “particularly after the early sixties, the paint stood only for itself. It was asked to speak for itself alone, to be itself with its own full complement of inherent qualities” (105). Limiting his palette helped Ryman focus on fundamental questions: What can paint do? What is a painting? How do we experience paintings? Ryman set out to explore these questions with an experimental method that continually tested a painting’s individual components (paint, support, signature, etc.) through incremental alteration of these components and their relationships to one another, which yielded an endless variety of nuanced results.
In the next chapter Hudson discusses the history of the support from Leon Battista Alberti’s illusionistic conception of the picture plane as a window onto a perspectival space to the modernist rebuttal via an emphasis on flatness and materiality. Hudson compares Ellsworth Kelly, whose push against illusionism in specific works nonetheless recalls it through its purposeful repression, with the self-taught Ryman, who never felt the need to engage an illusionistic picture plane in the first place. This left Ryman free to explore the physical substance of paint and its interaction with a given support. Hudson observes that the support, whether canvas, paper, metal, fiberglass, etc., is not simply a passive surface upon which the “real work” of paint is done. Rather, it is chosen for its particular material qualities and plays an equally active role in a dialogue where paint and support emphasize one another.
The chapter title “Edge” is again used literally and metaphorically. Hudson, as always, is perceptive in her discussion of the importance of edges in a Ryman painting, whether it is the edge of a canvas or the convergence of paint and support, front and side, support and wall. She also uses the term edge to refer to “the uncomfortable feeling that viewers get when they confront works that exceed a field’s given framework” (26). Hudson recounts Frank Stella’s publicly antagonistic relationship with critics in the wake of MoMA’s 1959 exhibition 16 Americans, many of whom responded negatively to what they viewed as brazen ineptitude in his Black Paintings (1958–60). However, Stella’s move away from symbolism, metaphor, and external referent toward an emphasis on surface and objecthood paved the way for Ryman’s slow and quiet entrance into the public eye. Hudson notes that “criticism was coming to a place beyond which words would fail to disambiguate artworks—and they were being made to fail by artists like Stella and Ryman” (156). Yet this would not stop the continual misinterpretation of Ryman’s idiosyncratic endeavor, as critics often lumped him into the closest categorical framework available, labeling him a Minimalist, Process artist, or Conceptual artist. Hudson adeptly parses diverging critical assessments of the time, whittling away at arguments and adding her own thoughtful analysis until the specificity of Ryman’s work rises beyond easy categorization.
The final chapter, “Wall,” expands the discussion of what a painting is to explore where a painting ends. Hudson, echoing Ryman’s own comments, calls attention to space, light, and gravity as constitutive elements in the experience of a painting, particularly in his series-based panel installations and paintings made directly on the wall. She also gives in-depth consideration to his use of transitional elements such as tape, wax paper, and various fixtures that attempt to shorten the distance between painting and wall. In these works, as all others, nothing is hidden. Tape and bolts take their place as compositional elements equally important to paint and support, and again emphasize the sensitive interplay of various material components. Ryman describes himself as a “realist painter,” because works do not abstract from anything or refer to anything but their own material presence. There is nothing in a painting to suggest a separate reality from the space of the gallery, the wall, support, or paint. Hudson says, “In so making interaction and the experience that it generates the hallmark of his realism as well as its chief effect, Ryman underscores the context, both physical and institutional, in which his paintings are made visible—in which they become paintings at all” (207).
Hudson understands keenly that any discourse surrounding Ryman’s work is precarious by nature and must find its genesis in careful observation of the work itself. Ryman’s work has all too often been used to serve the purposes of various tides of critical discourse, and David Carrier points out that “most published accounts of his work show a strange disregard for his own sense of his development” (239). By talking to Ryman directly and frequently using the artist’s own words, Hudson remedies this. Her book acts as a platform for a clear understanding of his work. In fact, the only interpretive stance Hudson takes is to position Ryman within a pragmatist philosophical context in the vein of Charles Pierce, William James, and Dewey that, in its most basic form, considers the function of thought to be a tool for problem solving and action. In the introduction, conclusion, and various points throughout the book, Hudson calls attention to the procedural nature of Ryman’s practice, where learning happens through doing, as paint embodies the action of thought. The results of one painting become the starting point for the next in an evolving, open-ended question that attempts to continually explore the parameters of painting. She quotes Bois, “But in work after work the logic of Ryman’s testing habit will follow the same pattern: first decompose the synthetic activity of painting into constitutive elements, then alter or redistribute the function of these elements” (96). Hudson later continues, “Painting becomes a less static or grounded medium and a more fluid, material site for the continual testing and reworking of conventions and the effects that these conventions or properties produce. What a painting is becomes inextricable from what a painting does” (105; emphasis in original).
Just as words often fail Ryman’s work, so do photographic reproductions, because an understanding of the parts of a Ryman, in all their tactility, is as important as that of the whole. One must be able to see the weave of the canvas, the grain of the paper, or the sanded surface of metal or fiberglass, as well as the viscosity of the paint and the specificity of touch that went into its application to understand Ryman’s decision-making process and, in a sense, remake the painting in the viewing. Here again, Hudson comes as close to the work as one can with remarkably high-quality images. Expertly photographed by Bill Jacobson for the Robert Ryman Archive, many illustrations are of small-scale early works where individual brush strokes and the textures of canvas or paper are crisp and clear, and several works are published here for the first time. Great care has also gone into the book’s handsome design. A linen-esque binding that smartly echoes many of Ryman’s canvases and a frosty white, transparent vellum jacket with subtle embossed lettering make this not only a sensitive and insightful text that ranks among the best on Ryman’s work, but also a fine object to own.
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Design, Eastern Michigan University