This beautifully installed exhibition, taking full advantage of the natural light in Dia:Chelsea, surveys six decades of Robert Ryman’s career and offers a rebuke to the notion that appreciating his monochromatic paintings has to be an exercise in scholasticism. It’s been more than 20 years since New York had a proper Ryman retrospective, and, for many of us, isolated encounters with his works have been filtered through the writings of critics who insisted that his commitment to white paint, sustained over hundreds of pieces, represents a ritualistic mourning over the death of the medium, a demonstration of its arbitrariness and an eradication of the artist’s expressive hand. The full expanse of Ryman’s practice, represented in this careful selection, suggests a more nuanced view. The supposed death throes of modernist painting appear seductive, highly varied and, above all, alive. Ryman’s narrow palette—which isn’t even so narrow considering that he frequently “subtracted” lush polychrome underpainting with white—counterbalances an expansive view of what constitutes the medium. The range of techniques (dry brushwork, dense curlicues, thick encrustations) is matched by a diverse set of surfaces (canvas, steel, Plexiglas), each assuming a distinctive relationship to the wall (hung, bolted, draped). Neither a single-minded machine, nor a humanistic idealist, Ryman, now 85, appears to be resisting a fixed identity as an artist. And his version of painting isn’t some snarled philosophical mystery or an art-historical game, but something elegantly plainspoken—less the realm of personal triumph than of common sense and constant practice. —William S. Smith
Pictured: View of Robert Ryman. Courtesy the Greenwich Collection, Ltd. and Dia Art Foundation, New York. Photo Bill Jacobson.