Laudatio on the Occasion of the Ceremony to Mark the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize to Robert Ryman, 10 November 2005 at the Kunsthaus Zürich

by Dr. Matthias Frehner, Director of the Kunstmuseum Berne

Looking at the art of the last fifty years, I view the work of Robert Ryman as amongst the most challenging. None of the Greats has shown comparable restraint. Yet who is there that has made so many important new advances? Robert Ryman, now 75 years old, stands together with Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter as the third great luminary of painting since the 1960s. Warhol and Richter set the direction for the artistic treatment of visible reality, defining its social, political and historical references and giving it visual form by adding photography into the equation. Richter has also engaged intensively with the second great strand of modernism, that is to say, Abstraction. In his Abstract Paintings and Large Colour Charts he uses conceptual strategies to widen the horizons of a form of painting that is not fixated on external reality. Richter counters the gesture of Abstract Expressionism with completely neutral surfaces and vibrant textures that he does not draw from his subjective responses but, conceptually, from the fundamental possibilities of painterly forming. Warhol and Richter break, renew and extend the main strands of Realist and Abstract art in the 20th century.

Robert Ryman hasn’t changed any traditions; instead he went back to square one. Yet this is not to say that he has simply turned the wheel back and has annulled all that has been achieved so far. He did not take his direction from any theoretically postulated non-point, neither Zero nor Minimal Art set him on his way. He managed to do that hardest thing for any artist: not to eradicate any existing knowledge of art, but simply to sweep it aside, and – in full awareness of that Other – to set out unerringly on a completely new path of his own. His art is breath-taking for its lack of contrivance, its naturalness, its spontaneity. It is never doctrinaire, ostentatious or didactic. That Ryman, like Cézanne, has become a fixed star is very clear when one considers how many have turned their attention to the fundamental questions he first raised. Brice Marden, Helmuth Federle, and Bernard Frize are all leading figures who are not a little indebted to Ryman. In the development of ‘analytical painting’, Ryman set the standard for the hosts that were to follow.

It is wrong and simply inadmissible, looking at Ryman’s painting, to describe white as a ‘silent’ colour – because his art stands for nothing other than itself and is not open to symbolic interpretation. However, it would not be wrong to claim that Ryman himself is a silent revolutionary. We are faced with the paradox that this artist – whose work manifests such extreme restraint – has fundamentally expanded the remit of painting and has changed it like few others. I call him a silent revolutionary because his radically innovative attitude to painting was not preceded by any iconoclastic upheavals. He didn’t take up arms against the false, the outdated or the reactionary. He never persuaded anyone that his aims must be the right ones; he simply provided explanations when faced with the right questions. And, right from the moment he produced his very first painting, Ryman refused to go down what he saw as a cul-de-sac. There are no paintings that he has subsequently distanced himself from: no Rymans before Ryman. His first painting was to be the foundation stone of an œuvre that has proceeded with an absolute logic only matched, if at all, by that of Cézanne or Mondrian. Ryman has not produced a single contradictory piece; there are no superfluous extras in his œuvre. Of his completed works there is not one that could be described as second-rate or in any way inferior to the rest. What other artist could rival that? Not Picasso, probably only Cézanne and Mondrian who pursued their own paths with the same uncompromising determination.

Given such consistency, the question naturally arises as to whether Ryman is painting according to a specific programme, based on a clearly defined theory that maps out the course of what is to come, as in the case of On Kawara’s Date Paintings or Roman Opalka’s sequences of numbers. The answer is an emphatic No! For by his own assessment Ryman is an intuitive painter. Even his seemingly soberly analytical works have a strongly spontaneous streak, which precludes the possibility of proceeding according to a strict, theoretical plan: ‘I work really more according to emotion, I mean, I make things by following my intuition because I have the feeling that it’s right – more than that I try to justify it in advance. To express it more clearly: I want to say that it’s really necessary for me that what I make surprises me. When my work surprises me then I know that there is something good about it.’

For fifty years now Ryman has been painting white pictures, which have often been described as monochrome, although this is far too vague a description. Not only because the artist confronts us with ever-different white tones, but also because the material quality of the paint is constantly changing – now dynamically pastose, now neutrally planar or applied over a coloured ground which, depending on its nature, can make it appear ‘warm’ or ‘cold’. By avoiding the vertical or horizontal rectangle, which automatically suggests ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ or which encourages a particular reading and compositional dynamic, the artist focuses the recipient’s attention on the painting itself, on its material substance, which countermands an illusionistic reading. And we are repeatedly taken aback by the materiality of his paintings.

What we see is always the same: white paint, impasto or greatly thinned, applied to a particular picture support – raw canvas, a piece of paper, a wooden panel, fibre glass or stainless steel. There are no tipping points, when the painted surface appears to mutate into a section of landscape as in the work of the Chinese artist Qiu Sihua; nor do his paintings, like Rothko’s, symbolically transcend into a particular state of mind and spirit. Yet Ryman’s refusal to produce work that points to something else, can neither be compared with the Minimalists’ rejection of individual craft skills in the forming of art nor the Conceptualists’ strategic celebration of the material itself. Ryman’s work revealingly shows that the art which avoids associations of any kind can activate a much deeper level of new insights and understanding, of the order that Maurice Denis was referring to as far back as 1890 in his famous definition of ‘the painting’: ‘To recollect: a painting is – before it represents a battlefield, a naked woman or some anecdote – above everything else, a level surface covered in a particular order with colours.’ Denis postulates that it is not the painted object that is to be perceived but the peinture. Painting, as he defines it, is not be measured primarily against the artist’s ability to create the illusion of real or surreal reality, but against his capacity to create an autonomous pictorial reality. During the course of the Abstraction he had postulated, interest shifted from the reality of things seen, to the autonomy of the colours and the forms in the painting itself. Yet even Malevich’s White on White, as a ‘sign of the void’, is still de facto associative. On a phenomenological level, it is not far from here to Ryman’s White Square. But, as far as Ryman’s intentions are concerned, he is closer to Kandinsky who, in 1937, postulated a form of painting without subject matter. ‘The content of painting is painting. . . . I am gladly willing to acknowledge that for many artists the “object” is a necessity for expression whereby, however, the object remains an adjunct to painting. The deduction is therefore that one need not consider the object as something indispensable to painting. It can just as easily have a disturbing effect as is the case for me in my painting, for example.’

Kandinsky’s statement ‘the content of painting is painting’ is all but identical to Ryman’s own dictum: ‘There is never a question of what to paint but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image – the end product.’ Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, who relieved colour of any connection to form, and unlike the exponents of Post-Painterly Abstraction, who transformed the picture surface to a colour space, Ryman is no ideologue. As Naomi Spector wrote in 1977, ‘Ryman’s convictions have come from the experience of making paintings, and not vice-versa. He is not concerned with “shoulds”, with aimed-for results, with theories. For him the crux of art is in the making.’ Painting has never been so free and untrammelled, so playful and spontaneous as in its new interpretation by Ryman. And as the second important connoisseur of Ryman’s work, Christel Sauer, has said: ‘His paintings are – however banal it sounds – what they seem to be: paintings referring to nothing outside their own components. The latter are, however, of a surprising richness.’

Let us turn our attention now to this terra nova of art, although – in view of the subtlety of Ryman’s white paintings – this is not easy if one has to rely on reproductions. However, in Switzerland we are fortunate indeed that in the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen there is a permanent display of the work of Robert Ryman, devised with the involvement of the artist himself. This ensemble, on a par with his presence in the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, is one of the two most important group of his works on the international stage. Both exhibition spaces are in converted industrial premises whose sober concrete architecture provides the ideal ambience for his work. As it happens, Switzerland can claim to have recognised Ryman’s work early on. In 1969 Harald Szeemann included his work in his legendary Attitude exhibition in the Kunsthalle Bern; in 1975 Carlo Huber invited him to show his work at the Kunsthalle Basel, where he presented a magnificent installation of his paintings; and in 1980 the first comprehensive retrospective of his work took place at the InK – Halle für internationale neue Kunst – in Zurich, under the stewardship of Urs Raussmüller, a great friend of the artist and champion of his work. Unfortunately Ryman’s participation in major exhibitions is not matched here in Switzerland by a similar presence in public collections.

Ryman never trained as a painter; he is self-taught. He grew up in Tennessee and in 1952, having fulfilled his military service, took his saxophone and went as a 22-year old to New York to study music. Before his arrival in New York he had never seen any paintings, aside from paintings of flowers. As he himself has said, he never saw anything good when he was growing up. There just wasn’t anything; there was nothing to stimulate his imagination. In New York Ryman took whatever work he could get to make ends meet. On 30 June 1953 he started work, helping out during the holiday period, at the Museum of Modern Art. He spent seven years there as a member of the Museum’s security staff. A number of other artists, including Al Held, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt, who were to make a name for themselves in the years to come, were also on the payroll at MoMA. Perhaps inspired by his work at the Museum, Ryman started to paint. He remembers going into a small artists’ supplies shop in 1953, a year after he had arrived in New York. There he bought some tubes of paint, a canvas, brushes and turpentine. And then he started playing around with these things, just to see what it’s like when you draw a brush loaded with paint across a canvas.

In 1955 he painted a monochrome orange-coloured painting, which he views as his first professional painting – Untitled (Orange Painting). Looking back at that time he remembers getting to know some painters in MoMA, notably Bill Scharf, whom Ryman asked about stretching canvases. And although Bill Scharf did show him how to do it, Ryman remembers mostly working out what he needed to know himself. Now that he also knew more or less (in his terms) how to handle paint, he found himself having to confront what he saw as the ‘real problem’ – how to paint a picture without telling a story.
Untitled (Orange Painting) is the only one of his paintings where the colour white does not feature. Painted in a powerful, impasto orange that covers the edges as well, it has smaller pale and darker rectangles in the upper reaches. In a square format, with painted edges that in effect underline the objecthood of the picture, and with the autonomous colour on the picture surface, this painting was to set the course for Ryman’s future work. It was already clear at this stage that the artist is not interested in decorative allure: neither does he celebrate virtuosic brushwork like the Abstract Expressionists nor does he favour the calmly planar, coloured lucidity that in Rothko’s hands opens up depth and space. What one sees, is exactly as Denis said, a ‘surface covered with colour’, in a painting where the compositional order is reduced to an absolute minimum. What one senses, is an immensely individual, self-sufficient persona. Colour is no longer under duress. It is as though Ryman had invented the colour orange specifically for this painting – the distance between it and any other picture painted in orange is so great.

And the increasingly exclusive concentration on white, which he was already embarking on in his second painting, never existed in quite that form before Ryman. But the ‘only white’ of Ryman’s paintings is not the same as Piero Manzoni’s ‘no colour’. If that were the case then his white would be a statement as it was for Manzoni, who presented his Achromes as ‘planes of freedom’. For Manzoni, white meant colourlessness and absolute neutrality without any connection to any painterly phenomenon. Ryman, on the other hand, was establishing a new definition of painting. Determined to achieve the greatest clarity, he restricted himself to the most fundamental aspect of painting. His statements concern painting as a whole. If you can already say everything using just white, then you don’t need the other colours – to summarise his credo. But that is not to say that white is just a colour. ‘To Phyllis Tuchman’s question: “Do you make white paintings?” he answered with a decisive “no”. “The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere. I could use green, red, yellow, but why? It’s a challenge for me to use paint and make something happen with it, without having to be involved in reds, greens and everything which confuse things. But I work with colour all he time. I don’t think of myself as making white paintings, I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium.’ What we can extrapolate from this statement is that Ryman’s decision to use white is not a declaration of allegiance to all the cultural, socio-cultural and symbolic meanings that attach to this colour. After all, it would be just as absurd to reduce Rembrandt’s prints to the symbolism inherent in the colour black. The printer’s ink that was used to colour the plate is only the medium; it is not the message as well. In the work of both artists – despite their very different techniques and artistic intentions – the colour is differentiated by means of the intensity with which it is deployed.

The early gouache Untitled, of 1957, already contains almost the entire vocabulary that has since been fundamental to Ryman’s art: the ‘freehand’ square format, that is never slavishly measured and checked; the use of white, which will in future generally be applied in such a way that the marks and textures left by the brush are visible. And then there are the areas left unpainted which in effect incorporate the picture support into the work; the use of the artist’s signature as a pictorial element and, typical of the early works, the additional rectangles and squares in other colours. Everything we see on this small-format painting is ‘concrete’: the unpainted paper around the edges, black rectangles in a particular order, irregularly applied white paint that becomes matter in its own right. A hallmark of the brushstrokes are the fine ridges created by the pressure of the brush itself. Just as the foundations of a Roman villa may be visible from the air, here there are traces of the letters that make up the artist’s signature. An archaeologist draws conclusions from materials, layering, discolouration and distortions. And the materiality of Ryman’s paintings requires precisely this form of analysis.
Knowing what a picture is made of and how it is made is very different to responding to a painting as a catalyst that opens up hidden meaning. Ryman’s paintings are neither ‘windows’ nor ‘veils’ which one floats through into ethereal spaces. His paintings, even his later filigree works, never put one in mind of immateriality. Their materiality is a fact. Ryman doesn’t conceal, he reveals; his paintings are objects in their own right.

White paint, the artist’s signature, small colour fields – as formal elements – superimposed on and beneath the paint surface, and the incorporation of the raw picture support into the composition itself are the mainstays of Ryman’s work before 1960. The colour fields and artist’s signatures which take up the full width of the painting or which appear as a column, written one above the other, fill the same compositional function. From time to time the year-date is also used, and there was a stage when Ryman also used other colours: red, green, blue and yellow. He starts with these colours and applies them to the paper or canvas as dynamic lines before finally almost entirely obscuring them with white paint. The white hides the colours like a covering of snow. Yet the painting never has a soft blanket of white; it looks more like the swirling storm winds that lay bare the rocky edges.

The years from 1957 to 1962 were enormously fruitful in terms of Ryman’s development as a painter. He created a large number of works in a wide variety of white tones on a whole range of picture supports. The methods of application were equally varied. ‘The basic problem is what to do with paint. What is done with paint is the essence of all painting.’ The painting Untitled of 1958 is an example of the outcome of his painterly researches. The ridges that appear along the edges of the brushstrokes due to the pressure applied during the painting process take on a material form which further reinforces the relief-like aspect of the painting. The year-date ‘58’, which is added on a section of raw, unpainted canvas, similarly underpins the factual reality of the pictorial components. This painting is great art because it is innovative – no-one before Ryman had ever applied paint in this manner – and because it requires a new mode of perception. The painting itself is self-referential. The density of the paint layer determines the way that the light either reflects from the paint surface or is absorbed by it. Ryman’s paintings do not glow from within like those of Rothko. Light is not portrayed as such in Ryman’s paintings; instead it falls on the painting from an external source and is affected by the material texture of the painting. And viewers are affected in the same way; they, too, respond to the physical reality of the pictorial elements. Ryman himself thus talks of realism. ‘With realism there is no picture. The aesthetic is an outward aesthetic instead of an inward aesthetic, and since there is no picture, there is no story. And there is no myth. And, there is no illusion, above all. So lines are real, and the space is real, the surface is real and there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane, unlike with abstraction and representation.’ This unprejudiced, empirical seeing paves the way for new experiences. Ryman’s art obliges us to engage with it and it alone, uncompromisingly, to the exclusion of all else in a manner that we would normally reserve for music. The elemental nature of the work emerges as the viewer concentrates on it. And the viewer enters a unique world of uncommonly elemental intensity. The only artists I know of whose work has a comparable effect are Agnes Martin and Paul Cézanne (his late unfinished works) where the sparsely applied flecks of paint no longer connect to create an imaginary pictorial reality.

Ryman differentiates his art by means of the material itself and the manner of the paint’s application. This explains his passionate interest in new paints and materials that can be used as picture supports. No white paint that is new to the market, no binding medium, neither gloss nor enamel, no material – such as aluminium – that can be attached to the surface to form a picture plane, that he will not, in due course, use to develop a new mode of expression.

In 1965 a new chapter in his œuvre began. His works start to develop more systematically; one could even talk in terms of ‘thematic’ groups. And from now on he gives his paintings titles. However, the titles do not suggest any meaning as such and do not in any sense ease the viewer’s access to the painting. They merely serve to distinguish the paintings from each other, or to identify them, as Ryman has put it. He finds titles in the brand names of the materials, the brushes and paints he uses. He specifically tries to choose words that have no associations to speak of, which, as he says, is much simpler than numbering his paintings. The first picture series from 1965 is named after the paint manufacturer Windsor. All the Windsor paintings are made according to the same working method: a brush, dipped in white paint, is drawn evenly from left to right across the canvas, parallel to the upper edge, and dipped in the paint again when it has run dry. The irregular distances between the lines form a dynamically regular yet never dogmatically technical structure. Even although, in Ryman’s compositions, the picture ground is materially visible as an irregular line between the bands of paint, these works create an effect which is comparable to Agnes Martin’s meditative paintings. Equivalent to the horizontal lines on the canvas, in Martin’s work fine pencil lines articulate the colour planes. In both cases we are led not to contents and inner states of mind, but to a consideration of the light that falls on the painting. And in both cases, the effect of calm and concentrated emptiness created by the light prevents the viewer from slipping down into a weightless abyss.

The paintings in the Windsor series stand out from the wall as objects. At the same time, in other cases Ryman was also keen that the material of the painting should in a sense merge into the wall. Since 1967, standard-sized steel plates have functioned as picture supports, as we see in the Standard series. Elsewhere Ryman uses adhesive tape to fix unstretched canvases, card or paper directly to the wall. Ryman surrounded the first of these canvases, fixed to the wall like a second skin, with a wax-paper ‘frame’ – Adelphi. Despite this close union of picture and wall, the painting never becomes an ‘opening’ in the wall; its materiality is never swamped and lost as such, but holds its own as an autonomous surface on the wall, even in the most extreme examples, such as the Generals and the Surface Veils. The hallmark of the Surface Veils is the wealth of variations in the application of the paint: some are thickly painted, some positively transparent; brushstrokes change direction and unpainted areas allow the picture ground or seams in the canvas to show through. The Surface Veils are painted in acrylics on plastic or canvas. The paint comes into its own as a subjectively painterly element. The Generals, for their part, are painted in enamels directly onto the wall, where the neutral white sheen of the wall painting, like a smooth skin, stands out against the matt background.

However, it was never Ryman’s primary intention that the picture should be absorbed into the wall nor the surface into the space. After the extreme proximity of wall and painting in the Generals and the Surface Veils, the picture once again starts to regain its qualities as an object. The tension between the painting and the wall sparked off Ryman’s artistic interest in methods used to fix picture panels or fabric supports to a wall. To this end, in 1976 he developed special fasteners, which also function as visible, formal fixed points. As he himself has said, since that time he has used these fasteners in different ways. Sometimes the fastener attaches the painting to the wall directly through its paint surface. On another occasion the painting is held by its edges to the surface of the wall. And as he has also pointed out, paintings with a thicker paint layer look all the more firmly fixed to the wall the further away they are from it. Logically enough, thin materials have to be attached much closer to the wall.

The effect that Ryman’s paintings have on the viewer could never be explained systematically; it can only be described. As the artist has said, his paintings cannot be mediated; they have to be experienced. He has put this into words better than anyone else could: ‘I think that all painting is about enlightenment and delight and wonder. Wonder is something that has to do with experience and it has to do with painting. It is a special thing.’
The great thing about Ryman’s art is the enormous variety that he achieves from his extremely reduced visual language. Every painting affords the viewer a new experience of intensity and unique originality. And it is only when we contemplate his paintings in the flesh, with the light falling on them – exploring and thus completing them – that they fully develop their singular effect. Only in a particular ambience, when the light allows us to experience the colour as an energy in the endless spectrum of reflection and absorption, does his art fully come into its own. And as he has himself said, many of his paintings cannot be shown to the viewer in the customary manner, that is to say, the owner brings them out of a drawer or a store, with the words, ‘here’s a painting’. His paintings just don’t work like that. It is exactly the same as in the case of a Flavin, if you were to you take it out of a cupboard and say, ‘here’s a Flavin’. All the viewer would see would be a handful of tubes. Ryman’s paintings have to hang on a wall, in a particular situation. Only then is the painting finished.

The essence of Ryman’s paintings is most apparent in very particular light conditions, when the light fills the space evenly, when there are no spots. The circumstances of the Hallen für Neue Kunst create an ideal ambience for Ryman’s art. The light enters the space through the white-painted panes of the roof. The walls are painted in a broken white, which serves as a foil for the brighter white of the paintings, while the light in the space lends movement to the pictorial white by the way it reflects from the painterly texture of the surface. The viewer has an active part in all of this. For each painting, the optimum standpoint has to be identified, so that the viewer can fully perceive the quickening process, the interplay of colour, paint, ground and light. Really seeing Ryman’s paintings requires concentration, the same kind needed for observing wild animals or for listening to serious music. The artist’s aim is to present his paintings in such a way that the viewer can make sense of the art if he or she actively engages in the possibilities of perception. If the pictures are hanging in the wrong place their effect will be no different to Flavin’s tubes before they have been switched on. Whenever circumstances allow, Ryman installs his pictures himself. Often he will create special paintings for a particular space, as he did for the Kunsthalle Basel in 1975. In so doing, he uniquely manages to match the space and the painting. – The art and the space are no longer at odds with each other, but unite to form a single entity, a Gesamtkunstwerk. And as a Gesamtkunstwerk, this is the subtlest and quietest of its kind. There are no others that entirely manage to avoid pathos. Perhaps this is in part because Ryman has not become so noisily famous as other artists of his generation. His art is strictly non-spectacular. Because it demands the active participation of the viewer, because it does not lend itself to reproduction, its circle of admirers may seem relatively small. Robert Ryman is an artists’ artist; his work is for the connoisseur.

And today? My visit to Ryman’s studio was one of the most interesting and memorable meetings I have ever had with an artist. The studio where he works is a very high-ceilinged hall. No traces of Bohemianism. Sober concentration. On one hand, there was the cool-headed calm that this artist radiates. On the other, there were his new paintings which filled me with delight and wonder, regardless of how well I already know his work. Darkly primed picture supports bring out the materiality of the white and reinforce its immaterial gleam. With every work he creates this artist widens the horizons of his art – of art – yet further.

Translation: Fiona Elliott

The spoken word is definitive.
Reproduction, even of excerpts, only in consultation with the author.