“Sometimes what’s more important than what is there, is what’s not there.” – Fred Wilson
I had the exquisite fortune to see the Robert Ryman exhibit on a business trip to Dallas. What a bonus! I don’t think I was fully familiar with Ryman’s work until I saw the massive retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art. I had heard of him, and seen some slides and certainly a piece of work here and there, but in the world of art it’s so easy to forget white-on-white paintings unless you experience them. Slides simply don’t do them justice.
I walked through the museum’s back entrance that night, through the sculpture garden, not even knowing that this exhibit would be there. I caught a glimpse of one Ryman piece through the window while I was still in the sculpture garden. I got a little excited because I always enjoy “simple” or “quiet” work, even if I don’t always understand it.
There were a total of four galleries with Ryman’s work. I walked into the first gallery and saw a large white-on-white painting and didn’t think much of it. It was large. It was white. It was more white.
I moved around the room and began to court the work. Soon I began to notice the textures of different whites and their contrast to the sometimes-bare linen and canvas. Some held unbelievable “globs” of white paint holding the most delicate of pencil lines hostage in some sort of sado-masochistic tug-of-war. The pieces and I were talking. We had exchanged names and with the innocence of a newfound friendship, we carefully held hands and moved our way together into the next gallery.
By the second gallery the works and I started to become a little more comfortable with each other. Through the paintings I was able to see the construct of Ryman’s processes. He had taken this idea of white paint and bare canvas and employed it in as many situations as possible without tainting the purity of paint on a surface. When you look at a Ryman piece, you are given all the materials as they are. Nothing is hidden; there is no trickery: paint is paint, line is line, pencil is pencil. But the work didn’t talk ONLY of paint and materials on a surface. Increasingly as my relationship with the pieces began to blossom, they suggested that Ryman was interested in challenging borders, evicting edges, describing texture of artworks and even further the barriers we put upon ourselves as artists and as people.
One piece I remember very, very well was on paper or light cardboard. It had been mounted to the wall and then masked off a frame. There was white paint on the white walls of the gallery, giving the quartered paper a frame, which the paint spilled over. I was moved by the work because, for me, it talked about life and art not being separated.
It felt like one of those things where some people might make fun of it, but only because they didn’t take the time to really see it. I was profoundly moved by the collection as a whole, and when I visited the San Francisco MoMA in February, I noticed one of Ryman’s pieces I had ignored just weeks before.
The piece in San Francisco was just a simple, tiny canvas with white paint. All by itself on a medium sized wall, it was so easy to miss – And I think that’s the point. What I believe artists like Ryman do is make work that is so quiet, and so simple that we DO just pass by them. It causes the viewer to be the point of the work, and that’s incredibly powerful for the person that recognizes it.