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Robert Ryman: The Act of Looking

This is the main exhibition hall of the Robert Ryman retrospective. The photo was taken on March 8, 2024 by ARETE/Simone Kussatz. On the right, you'll find Ryman's work "Journal" (1988)
Main exhibition hall of the Robert Ryman Retrospective at Musee de L'orangerie. On the right, you'll find his piece Journal (1988)

Introduction:

In Paris, the Musée de l’Orangerie is hosting the Robert Ryman retrospective titled “The Act of Looking,” which opened recently (March 6 – July 1, 2024). This museum, situated in the Tuileries Gardens, holds significant historical importance. Originally built in 1852 as a greenhouse to protect citrus trees during the winter, it was later repurposed into an art gallery in the early 20th century.

Following Claude Monet’s suggestion, the French government converted the Orangerie into a museum in 1927 to exhibit Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Notably, the museum’s oval rooms on the ground floor were specially designed by Monet himself to showcase his “Water Lilies” series.

Therefore, a Robert Ryman retrospective at a venue of such historical and cultural significance, with a pathway leading through the Tuileries to the Louvre, is quite special.

 

Who is or was Robert Ryman?

Robert Ryman (1930-2019) was an American artist who gained prominence in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. Though often associated with movements such as Minimalism, Abstract Art, and Monochrome Art, Ryman rejected labels and preferred to be recognized as an individualist and realist, best known for his non-representational white-on-white paintings.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Ryman was deeply influenced by his surroundings and embraced American values of self-reliance, innovation, equality, and freedom of expression. Despite lacking formal art training, he began immersing himself in the art world while working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where one of his early works from his Orange series was included in a staff exhibition. During his time at the museum, Ryman observed its collections and the interactions between visitors and art and used this time to learn as much as he could about art by talking to other artists and curators, which inspired him to experiment with painting.

Motivated by these experiences, Ryman transitioned significantly from using vibrant colors to white paint as his primary medium. His artistic career flourished in the late 1960s, leading to exhibitions at prestigious institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Stedelijk Museum, and participation in some of the most well-known Biennales.

Beyond his artistic pursuits, Robert Ryman valued relationships based on equality, where both partners were considered equals rather than adhering to traditional roles. In 1961, he married art historian and writer Lucy Lippard, with whom he had a son named Ethan Ryman in 1964, who is a sound engineer and artist. Their marriage ultimately ended in divorce. In 1969, Ryman married artist Merrill Wagner, with whom he remained married until the end. His sons from his second marriage, Cordy Ryman and Will Ryman, are also artists in New York City.

Besides, Ryman attributed his approach to painting to his musical background. In an interview with Art21, he said, “I came from music. And I think that the type of music I was involved with—jazz, bebop—had an influence on my approach to painting. We played tunes. No one uses the term anymore. It’s all songs now, telling stories—very similar to representational painting, where you tell a story with paint and symbols. But bebop is swing, a more advanced development of swing. It’s like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what it’s about and not about other things—not about stories or symbolism.”

 

Robert Ryman’s quest

Before delving into the retrospective, I wish to evoke a poignant quote by the late British art critic, painter, and poet John Berger, extracted from his book “The Way of Seeing”: “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” Applying this profound insight to Robert Ryman’s artistic ethos, by looking at Ryman’s oeuvre we make a choice to see how to make art through the eyes of Ryman and to perceive a profound understanding of the various ways of how to go about it by using the color white, while eschewing narratives, theories, and political messages.

In articulating his artistic philosophy, Ryman famously declared, “I don’t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium.” (Robert Ryman, 1971)

Instead, Ryman sought liberation from these constraints. This deliberate reduction afforded him boundless creative possibilities, as scarcity became the catalyst for innovation and exploration, compelling him to transcend conventional boundaries and conceive novel possibilities.

Much like his approach to learning the saxophone earlier in his life, Ryman endeavored to fully grasp his new medium: the color white, and explore its potential in diverse ways. Ryman often opted for the square format as his canvas, appreciating its inherent simplicity, while embracing white for its neutrality. This inclination towards simplicity and neutrality may have been subconsciously, and this is my interpretation, influenced by his appreciation of equality, the square has equal sides, and the political atmosphere prevailing at the time, characterized by the Cold War and remnants of the McCarthy era, prompting Ryman to distance himself from any overt political associations.

 

The layout of the exhibition:

The retrospective begins with one of Ryman’s untitled works from 1959, marking the onset of his visual artistic journey. This piece features a white square painted with thick, textured strokes of white paint, bearing Ryman’s signature in subtle contrast. Delicate light blue edges reminiscent of masking tape frame the square. Below it, another square emerges with a splash of ochre, serving as a backdrop for Ryman’s boldly inscribed signature in red. This juxtaposition creates the impression of a painting within a painting, with stacked signatures in distinct squares.

Adjacent to the artwork, a poignant quotation in English and French asserts Ryman’s perspective: “I don’t think of my painting as abstract because I don’t abstract from anything.”

Subsequently, the retrospective eschews strict chronological progression in favor of thematic and conceptual exploration, focusing on four key aspects that profoundly influenced Ryman’s oeuvre: surface, spatial integration, limitation, and light. While each artwork aligns with specific conceptual themes, many transcend singular categorization, embodying a fusion of interconnected ideas.

Instead of categorizing each piece, I’m guided by John Berger’s statement, focusing on works that made me look a bit longer and to reflect on. Among them is Ryman’s piece “Background Noise” from 1962, rendered in oil on stretched linen canvas. This artwork appears to have evolved from his earlier work “Wedding Picture” created in 1961 (though not included in the retrospective). In it, Ryman’s approach seems to allow his subconscious and intuitive voice to guide him, aiming to capture what appears to be the ethereal beauty reminiscent of a delicately laced wedding dress. He applies paint in various directions across the canvas, imbuing the surface with a broken, fragmented quality akin to the skin under lace. Yet, the dark background lurking through could also be interpreted as discordant noise disrupting a harmonious music performance. It’s worth noting that the theme of marriage impacting his work isn’t a far-fetched idea, as evidenced by a poignant recollection from Lucy Lippard shared on the David Zwirner Gallery website.

“Wedding Picture was painted in Kennebec Point, Maine, on our honeymoon. Oil paint dried slowly next to the sea, and my grandmother saw the mostly white painting with a touch of green as a depiction of pine trees in a foggy landscape.”

—Lucy Lippard, curator and art historian, 2017 (Quote from the David Zwirner website)

 

Another highlight of the retrospective is a work made of Tyvek, exuding elegance through its simplicity and satin appearance attached to the wall via staples. The grey squares with a grid pattern provide a masculine contrast to the feminine aesthetics of Tyvek, creating a dynamic interplay of contrasting textures and forms. It also illustrates how he was interested in finding out about how the light was bouncing off from this material, lending it a certain shine.

Among the pieces featured in the retrospective is “Concert” (1987), where a white square is mounted on a larger egg-shell-colored square. This composition evokes thoughts of freedom within a confined space, prompting viewers to contemplate the interplay between space and constraint. It also encourages reflection on the ideal of equality: is it ever possible to achieve true equality? Additionally, there is “Check” (1993), an all-white painting with a textile surface.

Another standout piece in the exhibition is “Pace” (1984), a composition made of fiberglass and coated with reflective white enamel, which recalls at first glance a bookshelf. Then, at second glance, one notices that the plane is horizontally displayed, like a dash, evoking the notion of a pause or deceleration in writing. Supported by wall fasteners and aluminum legs, it casts long, slender shadows on the white platform below. The delicate legs bring to mind the stems of musical notes, those vertical lines attached to noteheads. Moreover, the title “Pace” prompts reflections on the tempo in music, and the significance of rests that denote moments of silence.

One of my favorite works is his piece, “Journal” (1988), an acrylic composition on two panels attached with hexagonal steel bolts. Positioned so that only the edges are slightly off the wall, it creates intriguing shadows. His name and the number 88 are inserted on its gutter. Notably, this piece is presented vertically, deviating from the typical horizontal orientation. Its title prompts viewers to ponder the essence of journal writing. Much like the spontaneous flow of thought in stream-of-consciousness writing or the improvisational nature of music, the artwork encourages contemplation of the fluidity and spontaneity inherent in personal expression.

The retrospective concludes with eight of Ryman’s final pieces, which he created in 2011. These artworks, varying in size from 18 by 18 to 24 by 24 inches, are relatively small and are exhibited alongside three of Monet’s Rouen cathedrals, offering a contemplative conclusion to the exhibition. Characterized by textured backgrounds in mossy green, dark brown, or earth red, these paintings exhibit subtle gradations in color intensity and hue.

One might wonder why Ryman created eight paintings that appear quite similar and reintroduced more color into his work, as he used more color earlier in his visual artistic career. Perhaps the number eight symbolized his desire for balance and symmetry. This symmetry resonates with the shape of a square. Yet, eight also recalls an octave, thus a span of eight tones with the eighth one being a repetition of the first tone but at a higher or lower pitch.

Furthermore, Ryman’s artistic progression can be likened to that of free-style jazz performances. He began his career with more colorful works, akin to a harmonious and collective improvisation. Then, each musician on stage embarks on a solo journey, individually expressing themselves, as indicated through Ryman’s predominantly white pieces. Finally, at the end of their performance, they come together again, presented through more colorful pieces. This pattern mirrors the structure of free jazz performances, where each musician explores their own improvisational style, yet begins and ends together.

Interpretation of Robert Ryman’s retrospective:

The way I see Robert Ryman’s oeuvre is that it serves as an extension of his journey as a musician, creating visual compositions akin to musical compositions, but without sound. It also serves as an invitation to create art just for the sensual experience and to do so with detail, depth, and focus. From a philosophical standpoint and considering that Ryman was coming of age in the 1950s during the Golden Age of Capitalism, characterized by economic prosperity and the rise of consumer culture, alongside the increasing prominence of television, I also regard Ryman’s work as an antidote to capitalism and the utilization of scarcity as an asset, as it fosters creativity.

More than being influenced by other art genres, such as monochromism, minimalism, and abstract art, I believe Ryman was influenced by music performances, such as Klein’s Monotone Symphony (1949) and John Cage’s “4’33” (1952). These performances highlighted the impact of silence and preceded Ryman’s art. The connection with Monet, however, I find to be a bit misleading, as the French artist created light within his paintings and his works were representational. And I wonder about Ryman’s perspective on being displayed next to Monet. Yet, like Ryman, Monet was innovative and self-reliant, opposing an already established art movement, so yes, in that sense, they are kindred spirits.

In sum, the retrospective serves as a welcome respite from the distressing realities of the contemporary world. Given Ryman’s involvement in an army reserve band during the Korean War and his career as a jazz musician, it appears that his intention was to consistently uplift and entertain his audience whether through art or music, providing a source of morale-boosting solace and hopefulness until the end.

Nevertheless, what a postmodern experience it is—to sense the vibrancy of New York City within this ancient town, once built upon a Roman foundation, and housed within a structure that formerly served as a greenhouse.

 

MUSÉE DE L’ORANGERIE

Robert Ryman: The Act of Looking

(March 6 – July 1, 2024)

Jardin des Tuileries, 75001 Paris

https://www.musee-orangerie.fr/en/whats-on/exhibitions/robert-ryman-act-looking

 

This image is from Robert Ryman’s retrospective. The person on the left gazes at Ryman’s piece National #1. Photo credit: ARETE/Simone Kussatz
This image displays Robert Ryman’s “Background Noise” (1962) in back and “Concert” (1987) on the right. Photo credit: ARETE / Simone Kussatz
Robert Ryman’s piece, made of Tyvek, usually used for packaging and protecting artwork. Photo credit: ARETE/Simone Kussatz
This image shows you some of the last paintings he did in 2011. Photo credit ARETE/Simone Kussatz
The retrospective ends with three of Monet’s Rouen cathedrals. Photo credit: ARETE/Simone Kussatz
About the Author
Simone Suzanne Kussatz was born in Germany, lived in the US for 25 years, spent a year in China, and currently resides in France. Educated at Santa Monica College, UCLA, and the Free University of Berlin, she interned at the American Academy in Berlin. Holding a Master's in American Studies, journalism, and psychology, she worked as a freelance art critic in Los Angeles. World War II history fascinates her, influenced by her displaced grandparents and her father's childhood in Berlin during the war, and his escape from East Berlin in 1955. Her brother's intellectual disabilities and epilepsy added a unique perspective to her life.
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