In honor of a survey of his paintings at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, below is a 1971 essay about Robert Ryman’s white-on-white paintings. Written by Carter Ratcliff, the essay questions how Ryman’s work can be categorized. Are they Conceptualist for their reliance on ideas? Are they Minimalist because of their monochrome appearance? Or are they something else altogether because they don’t fit the bill for either of these? Ratcliff’s essay follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Robert Ryman’s Double Positive”
By Carter Ratcliff
Painting on linen, fiberglass or on the wall itself, Ryman intends high quality in his work, and succeeds in both in the work and in the ambiguous structure of urban light
There are 15 paintings in Robert Ryman’s new General series (recently seen at the Fischbach Gallery). They are blank, but they are not empty; they are all white, but they are not without images.
Each painting is square, from 48 by 48 inches to 55 by 55 inches. The stretchers are wide and very thin; these paintings hug the wall. The portion of the cotton surface inside the inner edge of the stretcher is covered with five or six coats of white enamel, each coat finely sanded. This inner surface is bordered by a wide “frame,” a band left rough under one coat of enamel and coinciding, but not perfectly, with the shape of the stretcher underneath. This rough “frame” shows a stage along the way to the inner smoothness, which is thus enclosed by an aspect of its origins. The final surface is rich and lustrous but responds to the band enclosing it, matching the roughness there with its own faint, luscious specificities. These paintings are not perfect, nor are they concerned with an illusion of perfection. Such an illusion bears an object away from its origins. These works tend in no direction nor toward any ideal state; they tend only to clarify themselves as they are looked at—in the present, as one joins them there.
The self-sufficiency of each painting this series is enhanced by the presence of so many near-duplicates. One sees in each a different image of the light, revealed in a wide and ambiguous variety of patterns, spatial illusions and tintings. These ambiguities are what clarified, rather, fully presented, as they “illuminate” the gallery illumination.
Neutral painting … thanks to its neutrality or absence of style … is extremely rich in information about itself and especially information about other work.
Daniel Buren, “Beware.” Studio International, March 1970.
In his recent show at the Dwan Gallery, Ryman exhibited three related paintings, Unfinished Painting I, Unfinished Painting II and Finished Painting III, oil on linen. Ryman intended in each case to cover the surface with white. He uses horizontal brushstrokes in the first painting; in the second, horizontal strokes, then vertical; in the third, horizontal, vertical, horizontal. One looks closely to see that the “unfinished” paintings have less “weight,” more translucency, than the last. According to one’s further looking, the first layer of paint on the third painting is not fully “existent” because, though it affects the final texture, it isn’t reached by the light it isn’t to be seen and so doesn’t add any “weight.” In spite of the roundabout way these considerations enter discussion, they enter experience very gracefully, sustaining one’s discovery of the meaning Ryman gives to the notions “finished” and “unfinished”; very little “weight” can be ample; it need only be clear about itself. The meaning is complete in all three paintings and this leaves them all completely finished. Ryman presents meaning, not information. Information is an abstraction which requires an abstracted neutrality in both sender and receiver; it evaporates in experience full enough to provide meaning. Meaning engages one; information does not—it is not lived, it has no setting. It has no style and yet it is capable of parody; it clings, in ironic imitation, to the history of the machine; it wants to subject the flow of inner experience to the Utopian order which produced the external forms of the machine age.
The beautiful is that which pleases apart from concept.
Kant, Critique of Judgement, 1790.
This Utopianism is essential to Buren, Robert Morris, the conceptualists, and to reductive modernism in general. It can be traced back to Kant’s use of the (then) revolutionary notion of esthetic disinterestedness. Before objects are beautiful, for Kant, they make their contribution to the general, transcendental purposiveness which characterizes nature as a whole. When the purposiveness of an object takes a form particularly suited to one’s powers of perception, he can leave off, considering its transcendental use to perceive in it a “purposiveness without purpose.” This is the delight in beauty; it is pure feeling outside any utilitarian consideration, no matter how elevated, and doesn’t concern itself, at its purest, with the continued existence of the object. This feeling is outside time and has no concern for the future. It intends nothing. The disinterest and isolation which makes the delight in beauty possible is the esthetic condition. To enter it, the individual must evade concept, for concept can be transmitted; it is instrumental and interests one in the world of ordinary purposiveness.
This separation of feeling and concept has an abstractness to it which can only be maintained in theory. Moreover, within Kant’s theory itself—within its teleological drift toward perfection—there are several very elevated considerations of interest which ultimately subvert esthetic disinterestedness. Modernist esthetic idealisms have completely lost the distinction between individual feeling and communicable concept. Feeling is given over to concept by modernism, or, in up-to-the-minute idealisms, feeling is reduced to information, which is concept designed to be easily transmitted by the media. Kant’s esthetic is debased and all that’s left of the teleology of which it forms a part is the frantic modernist Utopianism.
Under Suprematism I understand the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. Kasimir Malevich, Suprematism, 1913
This conceptualizing can be seen in Malevich’s decision, when publishing his book, The Non-Objective World, to substitute for photographic reproductions of his Suprematist compositions line reproductions of their patterns. He was able to circumscribe drastically the present available to individual work, even in facsimile, by reducing it to a diagram of itself, an instance in a rush toward perfect communicability. The separate occasions from which concepts must be generalized are suppressed in favor of a more and more purified future. Malevich fully anticipates all subsequent conceptualism, except the most extreme—say, Joseph Kosuth’s—and Kosuth, by rejecting the image, goes just one (mechanical) step beyond him.
I single out Malevich from the idealizing modernists of his time—Ozenfant, van Doesburg and all the rest—because his early white on white painting has its superficial resemblance to Ryman’s recent work. Furthermore, Malevich initiated a series in which the blank painting is “discovered” over and over again, by Rollin Crampton, by Rauschenberg, by Reinhardt, Klein, Buren … That the concept of the blank painting could feel new so many times is astounding. Ryman’s paintings are not blank, perfected or absolute. He is not Utopian; he doesn’t intend his art merely to be new and it is not submerged in a history of “discovery.”
Malevich said, in 1913: “The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feelings, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space.” The mechanistic notion that feelings can be materialized in architecture can be better understood as modernism’s desire to abstract forms from its own history which, like “information,” give the illusion that one can clarify feelings into absolute communicability, that is, devise their future by abandoning them. This Utopianism is disguised by the low key anti-rhetoric of post-war modernism in America.
As soon as you use any sort of relational replacement for symmetry, you get into a terrible kind of fussiness which is the one thing that most of the painters now want to avoid. When you’re always making these delicate balances, it seems to present too many problems.
Frank Stella, “Questions to Stella and Judd” by Bruce Glaser (Art News, Sept., 1966)
Stella’s (and Judd’s) notion of fussiness turns it into an easily discarded aspect of individuality. They do all their fussing in sketches and models before work on the finished version begins. Their suppression of individual difficulty repeats on a small scale modernism’s general suppression of the present, its retreat to a priori concepts and designs—a perfected past—for a leap toward an ideally clarified future. Ryman’s understanding of fussiness and his way of avoiding it expose him and many of the problems Stella (and Judd and others) want to avoid. He simply begins to paint with the intention of not fussing.
By fussing, Ryman means faltering in execution or delaying it with advance speculation. To fuss is to be distracted, to turn away, to negate. Painting must be direct, but not absolutely so: it must be reflexive enough to allow one to see that what was done was done intentionally. Absolute directness would have to follow a previous plan. Intention in that case would be to follow the plan and the intention to paint would be negated. But it’s not enough to say that Ryman intends only to cover the surface with white paint. He intends his paintings in an ambiguous manner which leaves them enriched, not confused. He undercuts the painter’s theoretically absolute freedom with a freely undertaken responsibility to the materials he chooses on each occasion.
Ryman chooses materials, not an attitude toward them, modernist or otherwise. His intention must “inhabit” those materials; their qualities lead him to considerations of scale int the brushstroke, texture, translucency, pattern, etc. The final surface of a painting consists of its qualities as a room consists of its own—inherently and without any dependence on the history of the pictorial design. This allows his paintings to inhabit a room fully because they neither abstract themselves from it to become a part of modernist history, nor do they materialize that history to become a feature of the room, of the architecture, as reductionist sculpture does. Ryman is not absolutely clear about his intention when he begins and he does not affect the ignorance of giving intention over to random process; rather,he is not unknowing about his intention. This double negative produces a positive—a particular, particularly “inhabited” object. But this double is so intense, so finely balanced between complete control and complete randomness, that the work is seen to be particularly itself only when it inhabits a setting—and this makes a double positive.
In his recent exhibit at Dwan Gallery, there were several paintings in oil on a thin, rough fiberglass which absorbs the paint rather than letting it rest on the surface. Within a brushstroke, most of the texture is provided by the support, not by the brush. The fiberglass is held to the mounting by the paint itself. Ryman paints on the fiberglass and likewise paints it onto its mounting. In the same show at Dwan and last year in Cincinnati, he painted on five vinyl panels and at the same time painted them onto the wall, for they were held in place by paint overlapping the panels. At the Ace Gallery, Los Angeles (1969) and at the Jewish Museum (1970), Ryman taped rectangles on the wall and then painted the enclosed area, allowing the paint to overlap onto the tape. He thus painted on the wall and painted a painting onto it. The architecture turned reflexive for it was, in part, made into a two-dimensional painting, and, in the same part, it was painted in its three-dimensionality.
Ryman’s early works are small drawings and paintings with flat, very late Cubist design. They are extremely delicate with edges and inventive in their internal shapes. Ryman never shared the Minimalist fear of losing oneself in monumental de Kooning-style fussing. He was enough at ease with his part in these works to use his signature as a compositional element. He wanted, first of all, to be there in the work, not to crystallize a perfect expression or a perfectly beautiful composition. There are two paintings from 1961 in which roughly ten horizontal elements are placed in a central column reaching from the upper to the lower edge. In the first of these he uses his signature as the repeated element; in the second he uses a white brushstroke. Soon after, he began to cover the entire surface with these brushstrokes. All references to language were permitted to depart. Language, which is conceptual, is likely to be fussy. Ryman can occupy his paintings more directly with an act prior to language, verbal or pictorial.
Ryman intends, fully, to paint. This intention—as it is realized—can be described as either a concept or an act sustained by feeling. However, it is so primary, so embedded in particular situations, that—such is Ryman’s intensity—the Kantian distinction between feeling and concept doesn’t appear. That distinction requires one to be isolated in the disinterestedness of the esthetic condition. But Ryman paints in a “space” prior to the languages which can enunciate disinterest. One is fully interested here; the perceptions have a special interest because these works return them to themselves illuminated. By avoiding the Kantian divisiveness, Ryman avoids the modernist abuse of Kantian esthetics, the subjugation of feeling to concept.
Ryman is not a modernist. He is, though, a modern. The fullness and ease of his intention, which shows in the openness and elegance of his work, is drawn from his modernity, his intense inhabitation of the modern “architecture.” He continues to paint because his format, the fundamentally Cubist surface, keeps him in the urban space and light. There are current modes which would take him away from painting to reductionist sculpture, to Process and Information Art, and to conceptualism. But to embark in those directions, all of them leading at different speeds out of the present, would introduce divisiveness and, ultimately, fussiness; he continues to paint in order to stay in urban light of the present, and not to dissolve himself in its idealized future. His art is in the fullness and separateness of each of his acts. Fullness shows itself as specificity and includes a setting. Ryman’s settings are the same rooms, in essence, which gave him an intention prior, even, to his intention to paint, and that is his intention to inhabit without faltering.
Ryman intends high quality in his work, the unquantifiably positive version of his double negative “no fuss.” His work succeeds in itself and in its setting, the ambiguous structure of the urban light. It illuminates itself in that light, the light in those forms, and so adds to them, reflexively, showing themselves and so much of our present to us.