When you think of Robert Ryman's work, you think white. Ryman has made square paintings in various alabaster hues--waxen, pearly, gray--for the last 50 years. They are carefully wrought surfaces without the avant-garde hullabaloo. His work brings to mind the Soviet painter Kasimir Malevich's vaporous "White on White" (1918), a picture of a white cube painted on a white plane, though shorn of the revolutionary idealism that usually accompanies such painting. In fact, Ryman's paintings are much ado about nothing--a nothingness that is challenging, many-headed and full of possibility. His economy of means results in an array of ideas, painting as flat architectural surface here, painting as mounted furniture there. In this instance, sound is an especially appropriate metaphor for understanding the act of seeing. This is not so much because Ryman preceded his skyrocketing career as a painter with a brief stint as jazz musician or the fact that he hails from the capital of country music, Nashville, where his family's name is bestowed on the temple of twang, the Ryman Auditorium, aka the original Grand Ole Opry. Rather, it is because the quiet hum and bristle of visual white noise in his paintings belies a complexity of artistic choice.
What makes the paintings now showing in Robert Ryman at the Dallas Museum of Art so striking is the artist's game of decision. Paint is his medium and choice his tool. One imagines Ryman deciding when to emphasize the painting's construction behind rather than the skin on top or both at once; him choosing just the right type of mount on the wall, whether it will be the gooey viscosity of paint on the edges that adheres a surface directly onto the wall or an Ikea-inspired wooden apparatus that literally raises the surface structure several inches off of the wall.
In short, Ryman is a master at deploying opposing forces. At the core of his work is the play of structure and surface. In the "Classico" series, Ryman makes flat surfaces in the form of grids that hover just along the wall. The sliver of space between each row of sheets creates a series of open vertical and horizontal seams that delineate a blanched matrix. In "Classico IV" (1968), Ryman has arranged in three rows 12 individual pieces of handmade Classico paper on a thin layer of foamcore. Atop this grid, Ryman painted a slightly drippy white square not quite at the center. "Classico 6" (1968), six sheets of watermarked cotton paper also mounted on foamcore, is a white surface that similarly floats just out from the wall. "Regis" (1977) and "Channel" (1982) sit even closer to the wall of the gallery. Ryman mounted the otherwise sheer white square of "Regis" with four tiny black oxide steel fasteners. And "Channel" is a thin sheet of Enamelac, a waxy opalescent layer of paint, on linen and aluminum that similarly lies almost flush with the wall. With "Philadelphia Prototype" (2002), Ryman uses paint as the sticky substance to literally glue flat squares to the wall. Paint operates as both surface sheath and functional adhesive: It is simultaneously façade and façade-maker. A row of white vinyl sheets adheres to the wall by way of strokes of white acrylic paint that Ryman applied along the edges of each square. Ryman has coupled deft craftsmanship with the irony of conceptualism as these carefully stuck surfaces will likely be destroyed when unstuck. And nothing will remain.
Then there is the dialectic of white pigment. The whiteness of his ghostlike surfaces connotes nothing and everything at once. Ryman's penchant for white earmarks a quest for maximum neutrality, erasure, emptiness or, as the art critic Yve-Alain Bois has it, the entombment of modernist painting. Undoubtedly white is what gives body to the profound dispensation of barrenness in Ryman's paintings. At the same time, and scientifically speaking, white is the combination of all colors, since it reflects all wavelengths of visible light. While the whiteness of "Van" (1993) is glistening and silvery, that of "Series #9 (White)" (2004) leans more toward icy blue. Both paintings are exercises in steely cold formalism. By contrast, "Back Talk" (1964) seems to move according to the warm rhythmic variation of painted globs. It is a series of five small linen canvases wherein squiggles of thick white give way to a few curving chunks of blue and orange paint.
Far from nothing, the color white becomes everything in Ryman's paintings--impastoed splotches à la Van Gogh as an homage to the life of the hallowed medium itself and the logo-like "98" (referring to the year he painted it) on a linen sidebar as a wink to painting's cyclical demise. Ryman walks a fine line between avant-garde and kitsch. His work is ambiguous: It is sometimes fine art and sometimes willfully low. With searing attention to flatness and the application of paint, certain paintings materialize the now-classical principles of Greenbergian high-art modernism. In "Document" (2002), for example, Ryman has applied oil to canvas in small craggy gestures as if to tell us of his heroic presence. He left the edges of the canvas wheat-colored and barren reminding us of painting's essential properties: liquid color and a flat surface. At the same time, though, certain paintings smack of Warholian Pop. His name painted at the bottom center of an untitled canvas from 1962 seems more a sarcastic act of Coca-Cola commodification than a mark of authenticity.
At the center of the show are four lackluster acrylic-on-aluminum paintings, all of which are untitled and were made between 1963 and 1964. The DMA has made a big hoopla over these pieces because it is the first time they have been shown together. They nevertheless suffer from a kind of humdrumness that is inherent to the work and born of our local artists' predilection for aluminum. The patchwork of color and finish reads like run-of-the-mill craft that verges on the sloppy. Its minimal power of persuasion is thwarted by the love of aluminum among painters in Dallas. Though dazzling in a way because they are different from his other work, they come across as ornamental and old-hat.
The best works in the exhibition are neither paintings nor white. Titled "Ryman Monoprints" (2005), they are square, mostly monochrome prints in dark gray, light violet and off-white located in the first room of the contemporary gallery down the hall from the exultant barrel vault. These pieces are an exercise in the wonders of simple mounting. Ryman has taken two old industrial nails to some, asymmetrically and symmetrically nailing the prints directly on the wall. Others are stuck to the wall without nails. Among these, some are more loosely mounted than others, with edges subtly flaring up and out. Keep in mind that the prints will be damaged, some irreparably, upon demounting of the exhibition.
This is the perfect show for traditionalists and radsters alike. Dallasites who love painting because it is easy to collect and fits so well above the couch will enjoy the soothing and familiar experience of Ryman's paintings on the wall. Rad Dallasites will love the idea that some of the pieces, such as "Philadelphia Prototype" and "Ryman Monoprints," will self-destruct when the show is over. It is this work--the flat surfaces that will ultimately be tattered and destroyed--that reveals the virtuoso of this one-trick pony.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.