Robert Ryman

  • 25 July 2006

This article is from 2006.

Robert Ryman: Points


Alexander Kennedy looks at the history of Minimalism in relation to an exhibition of Robert Ryman's white canvases from the early 1960s to the present day.

Every minimalist painting is an uncompromising contradiction. The creative act appears to be reduced to its utmost, yet the artist's action and intention dominate the interaction between viewed object and the viewing subject. The canvases can appear unprepossessing, yet also draw attention to their presence as objects. They flaunt their materiality, their physical presence, yet can be read as portals into the sublime, metaphysical statements. They are both Romantic and existentially stark, inhuman yet fragile, relying on being experienced and indifferent to our presence. The work by American artist Robert Ryman at Inverleith House will demonstrate this tension, re-invigorating the debates that surround this approach.

As a style within the history of art, Minimalism can be traced back to many different sources - to Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism, Kandisnky's geometric abstraction, Malevich's Suprematism, to the emphasis on the 'truth to materials' in Russian Constructivism etc. But by the time these theories were translated in New York, bastardised, freed from their contextual baggage, the seeds of a Minimalist aesthetic took root. This hackneyed tale has been ripped to shreds by generations of art historians hoping to re-assess the work that was created in Europe between the World Wars and after. They've used it to unpick the grand narrative with its dark unchecked capitalist underbelly that turned New York into a new Paris. But the paintings themselves tell the story; the enormous, decadent weight of European aesthetics and philosophy were thrown over the sides of the boats that took European immigrants to New York. These ideas had led us to the gas chamber, Theodore Adorno would argue. If a style is created through forgetting, through leaving previously examined things out, then Minimalists looked at the canvas as the tabula rasa of a blank tombstone.

Ryman began his examination of the legacy of hard edged geometric abstraction in New York of the late 1950s. Upstate (and a few years previously) at Black Mountain College, Robert Rauschenberg was doing something similar, creating a series of Albers-inspired white canvases that acted as 'mirrors of the air … landing sites for dust particles' as his lover and mentor John Cage wrote. Ryman's aesthetic differs from Rauschenberg's purely anti-art concerns, with Ryman retaining something of the Romantic approach of the abstract expressionist colour field artists such as Rothko and Newman. That said, it is always the stuff of painting that is important to Ryman, what is painted is by the by.

A self taught artist, Ryman came to prominence after exhibiting work at the staff show at MoMA - he worked there as a guard - and began showing working with Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse, among others at this time. His work was included in a show of 'Systematic Paintings' in 1966 at the Guggenheim, alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. Since then his exploration of how paint, specifically white paint, can be applied to canvas (he usually uses linen) has continued. The exhibition of paintings at the Inverleith House is the first British solo show of work by the artist, curated by Urs Raussmüller, collector and Ryman expert. Ardent neo-formalists and old school modernist adepts will flock there in their hundreds, but neophytes will also find the exhibition of paintings about painting rewarding, and quickly become initiates of the church of the white square.

Robert Ryman, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Thu 27 July-Sun 1 Oct.

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