Magazine article Artforum International

Radiant Dispersion: Robert Ryman's Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Magazine article Artforum International

Radiant Dispersion: Robert Ryman's Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Article excerpt

Last spring at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Robert Ryman realized the third incarnation of his Prototype paintings, multipanel works that the artist executes in situ on the gallery walls. Jeffrey Weiss, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, examines this latest permutation in Ryman's ongoing exploration of his medium.

Paul Valery was introduced to Stephane Mallarme's "Un Coup de des" by Mallarme himself in 1897, shortly after the poem had been completed. In his memoir of this first encounter with what he perceived to be a stupefying masterpiece, Valery described Mallarme's manner of reading "in a low even voice, without the least 'effect' and almost to himself," representing a complete "absence of artifice." This struck him. "The human voice seems to me so lovely in itself taken as nearly as possible to its source," Valery wrote, "that professional speakers who claim to improve and interpret, when they only overload and corrupt the meaning and change the harmony of the text, are almost unbearable to me--particularly when they substitute their own lyricism for the real rhythm of the combined words." Meaning dwells deeply within the work's form, and conventions of declamation obstruct the apprehension of form in its pure state. Mallarme had made this clear by enunciating in a voice that was as close as possible to being noni nterpretive, even (by conceit) nonperformative. In the context of "Un Coup de des," such a voice was also near to silence, which the poet had described as the ground of his great poem.

Valery's Mallarme renders our Robert Ryman. Over the course of four decades, Ryman has brought painting as close as possible to its source. He does so by engaging it as a demystified procedure of fundamental steps. These include not only the very application of pigment, which is managed with a take-nothing-for-granted literalness that can make other kinds of painting seem presumptuous or mannered, but also the choosing and constructing or handling of various supports (single or multiple panels of stretched and unstretched canvas, paper, cardboard, steel, aluminum, vinyl, and fiberglass, among many others) and the technical means of fastening or fixing them to the wall. As a result, appearing as they do in an utterly exposed state, the elements of painting are allowed to find something like their real rhythm. Above all, since he asks painting to express only itself, first and last, Ryman's mode of address is free of declamation: not interpretive but revelatory. For us, one result--to further draw on Valery's v ision of the state of language after Mallarme--is the stunning apprehension of a medium that has become almost unfamiliar, "a new kind of matter, scattered in heaps, in tracks, in systems."

With what language do we describe a new work by Robert Ryman, in an age when the advanced practice of painting is said to dwell in the realm of the endgame? A century ago, modernism's new articulation of means signaled the critique of certain conventional forms and genres, while in our own time the critique itself is said to have run its course. The advent of the monochrome expresses this condition, but it is not a condition that Ryman's work--which is often wrongly ascribed to monochrome painting as a genre--shares. Far from acknowledging a state of exhaustion, Ryman has posited that a thickening of means alone, through which the elements of painting develop an individual and collective presence wholly independent of image or effect, could distinguish painting from picturemaking--even abstraction. Ultimately, in making the medium of paint look like a new kind of matter (an act of defamiliarization that ultimately serves to refamiliarize), the art has turned out to be generous and restorative, and prodigiousl y complex. It also constitutes a form of liberation: Our experience of Ryman's work has been one of painting in a state of grace. …

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