Robert Ryman’s Joyful Last Paintings

In 2010 and 2011, Robert Ryman (1930–2019) made a group of eight paintings measuring between 18 by 18 and 24 by 24 inches. All of them were done on mottled grounds in which the weave of the canvas was visible. The grounds were mossy green, dark brown, or earth red — colors we are apt to associate with nature. It is an association that Ryman would most likely have accepted, even as he would also have emphasized, in that soft-spoken demeanor he had, that nature was never a subject he pursued. These modestly scaled paintings — his last body of work before his death in 2019 — constitute the exhibition Robert Ryman: The Last Paintings at David Zwirner (February 10–March 26, 2022), his first with the gallery, which now represents his estate. 

It is both unfortunate and understandable that Ryman became known during his lifetime as an abstract artist who used only white paint, because “white” is a generalizing term that suppresses all the nuances that one encounters in his work. In each of the exhibition’s eight paintings, the ground is never uniformly one color, as the density of the tone changes. The tonal change becomes evident when the viewer stands close to the painting, which is something that Ryman must have wanted, because, with at least one work, one side is a darker hue than the painting’s surface, suggesting that he added another brushstroke of thin color. These differences and shifts in the ground are picked up in the topography of brushstrokes he built up on the modulated surface, always leaving the painting’s four edges visible. 

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While the visceral shape always fits within the support’s surface, its placement and relationship to the painting’s physical edges vary, as do the brushstrokes. In “Untitled” (2010, 18 by 18 inches, oil on stretched cotton canvas), which was done on an earth-red ground — a color that also calls up Greek red-figure pottery — the shape comes right up to the edge on the painting’s ride side, while Ryman left more space between the paint and the edge of the canvas on the left and along the top and bottom. 

Installation view of Robert Ryman: The Last Paintings at David Zwirner, New York (courtesy David Zwirner)

In this painting, Ryman began with short gray-green brushstrokes, some of which he covered over as he added more paint. After this first layer, he added celadon strokes. By the time he added the thicker white brushstrokes (tinged with ochre yellow), he had already laid down two layers of paint. The white paint sits within the shape made by the first two layers, but Ryman did not try to cover all evidence of what preceded this final layer. The paint’s thickness results in a rough, uneven surface in which the celadon strokes peek through, as do the gray-green strokes that extend beyond the white along the top left and side edges. 

While these turned out to be Ryman’s last paintings, they do not feel that way — he did not know that he would have an accident and be unable to paint again. There is a joy to these paintings, as well as a playfulness, all arising from the artist’s sensitivity to tone, contrast, placement, and natural light, which is how he would have wanted them to be seen. I remember Ryman suggesting that I go to one of his shows in the late afternoon, when the paintings would be illuminated by the darkening sky filtering in through the skylight. He wanted his work to be seen without being enhanced by artificial light. 

Ryman’s preoccupation with the relationship between the painting and natural light brings me back to my initial suggestion that nature was key to his work. His belief in paintings as flat, square objects placed against the wall and seen in natural light, as things in the world, is the foundation upon which he developed his practice. That understanding of painting became the circumference within which he worked and where he found immense freedom and joy. 

Robert Ryman, “Untitled” (2010) (© 2022 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio)

While art historians and critics have predominantly focused on what Ryman absorbed from Mark Rothko — a consciousness of the painting’s physical edge and the placement of the shape within — and from the cluster of creamy vertical and horizontal strokes in Philip Guston’s paintings from the early 1950s, it seems to me that he also drew on other inspirations that might be considered unfashionable, which is why they are seldom if ever mentioned. 

Two of the artists that I am thinking about are Edwin Dickinson and Bradley Walker Tomlin, whose works were in the house Ryman and his wife, the artist Merrill Wagner, lived in for many years. Doesn’t the green that Tomlin used in “Number 9: In Praise of Gertrude Stein” (1950) remind you of some of the greens one finds in Ryman’s paintings? (Isn’t it worth remembering that Guston dedicated a painting to Tomlin and readily admitted that he was an inspiration?) 

Ryman, who worked as a guard in the Museum of Modern Art for seven years, was an autodidact. He educated himself in the museum and never lost his initial curiosity about paint, materials, and the hardware that went into a painting. For him it was all a joy, inflected with a sense of humor. Nothing about painting was mundane. He knew everything he used had its own identity and he was respectful of that, down to the color of a nail and the shape of its head. The pleasure he took in seeing and sensing the world of things so closely is what viewers who are open to his work will take away. 

Installation view of Robert Ryman: The Last Paintings at David Zwirner, New York (courtesy David Zwirner)

Just as Ryman considered the density and viscosity of paint, whether it was lead or titanium white (and how much red, blue, or yellow ochre it contained), different surfaces (aluminum, Tyvek, canvas, and linen), where to start and stop, and how to affix it to the wall, and was always conscious of every choice he made, always responsible for it, he invites viewers to do the same. We do not just look at a Ryman painting; we see ourselves looking at it, walking around it, scrutinizing the relationship of the painting’s sides to the surface. He was not interested in having a painting reveal itself all at once, and in that regard he stood apart from many of his contemporaries 

In her groundbreaking book, Robert Ryman: Used Paint (2009) Suzanne P. Hudson cites the artist’s statement about his beginnings: 

I thought I would see what would happen. I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. This was the first step. I just played around. I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, the surfaces. 

While Hudson focuses primarily on what Ryman learned by working in the Museum of Modern Art, where he took an art-education class on experimental painting in 1953 (although he claimed to have no detailed memories of what he learned in it), it should also be stressed that his approach to painting was influenced by his desire to be jazz saxophonist and his study with the pianist Lennie Tristano. When he abandoned that dream and focused on painting he remained true to something bebop musicians embraced: an openness to experiment and to discovering how the instrument worked. His approach to painting reminds me of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s experiments with all different kinds of saxophones (he was known to wear three around his neck when he played a concert). Disinterested in the idea of the masterpiece, Ryman defined a very different trajectory than that of his peers.  

Robert Ryman: The Last Paintings continues at David Zwirner (34 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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