Featured in a photograph of Ryman’s studio in the frontispiece of his 2002 PaceWildenstein exhibition, Convention is superlative among his more recent works. Impressive in scale, and mesmerizing in its complex surface texture, the present work is a supreme celebration of the possibilities afforded by painterly technique. As early as 1957, Ryman painted small works on pre-primed canvas or paper, predominated by white pigment but often revealing glimpses of colored pigment to varying degrees. By 1961, he chose unstretched linen canvases as his support, with heavy curls of white paint layered on top of similar strokes of colored paint beneath. In discussing this group of works, Ryman recalled: “I found that I was eliminating a lot. I would put the color down, then paint over it, trying to get down to a few crucial elements. It was like erasing something to put white over it.” (Nancy Grime, “White Magic,” Art News, Summer 1986, p. 90) This tendency towards whiteness would combine with Ryman’s proclivity for the square support to become his signature style.
A square with its universal symmetry is inherently ‘composed,’ obviating the need to assign pictorial order or balance. For Ryman, “If you have an equal-sided space and you’re going to put paint on it…, then [the square] seems like the most perfect space. I don’t have to get involved with spatial composition, as with rectangles and circles.” (Interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65) In the same literal fashion, Ryman does not choose white for symbolic reasons but for its suitability in revealing the inherent properties of paint: color, texture, density, light and reflectivity. Since its formal adoption in the mid-1950s, Ryman afforded the color white a whole spectrum of tonal effects and degrees of gloss, allowing nuances ranging from cool to warm, transparent to impenetrable. In Convention we experience simultaneously, throughout the surface of the canvas, Ryman’s thick impasto and the edges of his paint strokes that allow glimpses of the canvas color and an underlying paint layer of dusky rose that emerges from beneath the white.
The slightly uneven white square – with its upward sloping top edge and its absent upper right corner – that dominates the composition of Convention is bordered by its own canvas support; Ryman considers this as a continuous field with the linen wrapped around the sides of the stretcher, identifying the painting as an object of dimensionality and not simply a two-dimensional frontal picture plane. As an object, the wall also becomes the ground or support for the painting and its white expansiveness is integral to the viewer’s experience of the painting as a whole. The unpainted linen of Convention is treated with rabbit skin glue as the ground for subsequent paint application, and this surface treatment optically tints the overlying white, adding another dimension of tonality. As Ryman stated, “Always the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through…the linen comes through…all of those things are considered. It’s really not monochrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere” (Ibid.) Ryman adds further complexity to this composition and the optics of his white with the underlying layer of dusky rose that acts as both a framing device and as a base for the white. Where Ryman has layered waves of thick white brushstrokes one upon the other as overlapping crescendos, the dusky rose acts as counterpoint with its quiet and smoothly applied surface.
Ryman first came to New York to be a musician and his comments on jazz are illuminating. Ryman “was never interested in free jazz. I was interested in jazz with a structure.” In similar fashion, Ryman’s painterly aesthetic is based on a clearly defined range of variables, within which he is capable of amazing permutation and inventiveness. This paradox of freedom within structure is beautifully evident in Ryman’s energetic manipulation of white pigment within the compositional confines of the square, splendidly demonstrated in the present work. Convention incorporates all of the defining elements of Ryman’s artistic theory, resulting in a painting that is truly breathtaking to behold.
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