Robert Ryman cited in "Robert Ryman: Color, Surface, and Seeing," Art21
Stirring with an irrepressible dynamism, like a flurry of fresh snow swelling across a barren tundra, Robert Ryman’s distinctive white pigment floats across the face of Brief, 1997, creating in its wake a composition that instantly and incontrovertibly confirms the artist’s painterly genius. Executed more than four decades after Ryman first put brush to canvas, this work is wholly demonstrative of an artist whose persistence and dedication to a purposefully conceived conceptual project has enabled him to hone his characteristic technique to a point of unassailable mastery. With the perception of each disciplined stroke we fall deeper under the spell of Brief’s indescribable elegance, Ryman’s textured whirlwind of impastoed oil radiating an incomparable brilliance. Working in a deliberately abstract vernacular from the earliest moments of his career, Ryman has channeled the full force of his creative energies to focus on the essential behaviors of the material elements that comprise his art. Embracing and celebrating the physical characteristics of his chosen paint and support, he proceeds to take these idiosyncrasies and stretch them to their absolute limits through his distinctive application. Brief, a truly captivating exemplar of Ryman’s revolutionary practice, typifies the strongest aspects of the artist’s lifelong dissertation on the possibilities of abstract painting within the realm of Contemporary Art.
Throughout the entirety of his truly accomplished and prodigious career, Ryman has been steadfast and unflappable in his aesthetic convictions. Over sixty years ago, and most certainly due in large part to the inspiration he took from the great masters that surrounded him during his tenure as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art, Ryman established a groundwork for his oeuvre based on certain absolutes that he has staunchly maintained ever since. From Matisse and Pollock, Ryman took heed of what he perceived to be a ‘sureness’ of execution, saying: “In painting, something has to look easy, even though it might not be easy. [Matisse’s work] looked like everything just came together easily and naturally. And I try to do that myself. …Like a Pollock, for instance – it looks so easy, but it wasn’t so easy. But it has to have that feeling, like it just happened.” (the artist cited in "Robert Ryman: Color, Surface, and Seeing," Art21) This sensation of transferring paint to canvas with the aim of achieving a composition that appears immediate and effortless pervades Ryman’s oeuvre so profoundly and has become so synonymous with his aesthetic, that it takes the energies of an acutely conscious observer to consider the truly remarkable measure of technique and precision that is involved in the creation of a work such as Brief, with each meticulously applied individual stroke of paint coalescing with the next to realize a stunningly cohesive whole.
This illusion of absolute ease comes directly from Ryman’s deft handling of his chosen materials, a skill he admires in the work of Paul Cezanne: “Cezanne… what fantastic things he did. …his structure and his paint handling. I mean, he really understood how to paint. He understood how it works and what it could do.” (Ibid.) To his core, Ryman is a rapacious explorer of new frontiers of abstraction, constantly pursuing novel outcomes to the endless experiments he stages with his favored materials in the hope that he will arrive at a heretofore unexperienced optical sensation as his ubiquitous white paint meets its unprimed canvas surface. Indeed, in Brief we are confronted with the perfect resolution of the artist’s persistently inquisitive painterly practice and are overcome by the aura that radiates as if from within the finished work as a result of his paint, stroke, and composition meeting in perfect unison across its surface.
It is in this final crowning achievement that the influence of perhaps Ryman’s most closely associated predecessor reveals itself. The artist has specified, “the painting needs a certain reverent atmosphere to be complete. It has to be in a situation so it can reveal itself – since it is what it is, on its own…The paintings do not signify anything other than how they work in the environment.” (Ibid.) Deeply rooted in the most intimate and profound understanding of his own art, this statement could just as easily apply to the work of Ryman’s illustrious forebear Mark Rothko. Ryman recalls, “When I first saw Rothko, I’d never seen a painting that way before. And I didn’t know what he was doing. I’d been looking at pictures all the time, and here was something that had a totally different feeling to it.” (Ibid.) Rothko’s canvases, his portals to the sublime, are renowned for their seeming power to transport us beyond our mundane existence into an ethereal realm of pure sensation. In the distinguished masterworks of Ryman’s corpus, Brief amongst them, the experience of viewing is not dissimilar: liberated from any figurative, narrative, or symbolic concerns we are left to commune one-on-one with this work’s pure and immediate aesthetic power.
In an interview with Paul Cummings conducted in 1972 for the Archives of American Art, Ryman described the process of creating his singular compositions: “I’m very aware of what the paint is going to do. I know how the paint is going to react on the surface because I know it; I’ve tried it; I’ve done it. It’s more the feeling that’s the chance of it. That’s difficult to explain. It has to be a very direct feeling and a very sure approach… It’s actually very much like playing Jazz now that I think about it. It’s that kind of thing. It’s when you’re playing an instrument and you’re composing as you play, there isn’t any second chance. Once you play, that’s it for that time.” (the artist in conversation with Paul Cummings, Oral History Interview, October 13 - November 7 1972, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) This delicate balance between practice and performance, between precision and the chance occurrence of a moment in time – an impulse that has followed him from his days as a Jazz musician as if inherent to his very nature – describes the absolute essence of Robert Ryman’s peerless abstraction. Never a question of what to paint, but rather how to paint, Ryman used his square as a starting point to create compositions that reflect the properties of light, serve to redefine the role of the edge, and explore new frontiers of space. Brief, archetypal of the artist’s awe-inspiring technique, provides a level of unparalleled engagement for its viewer who, in the course of becoming absorbed within its physical presence, is decisively confronted with an ultimate artistic object.
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