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Review: Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations at the Phillips Collection
Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1957. Casein and graphite on primed and sized unstretched cotton canvas on board on manila paper folder on glass on plywood, Irregular 9 5/8 x 8 3/8 in. RR 57.0883. ©2010 Robert Ryman.

By: Michael Damiano

WASHINGTON, DC.- Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations, the artist’s first solo show in DC, presents twenty-five paintings that demonstrate the diversity of Ryman’s pictorial experimentation. The small works (almost all are between seven- and ten-inch squares) span the last fifty-three years of the eighty-year-old painter’s career.

The paintings represent a striking variety of surfaces and materials including oil on canvas, pastel graphite and charcoal on paper, vinyl polymer paint on aluminum, double-baked porcelain enamel on oxidized copper panels, and ink on glassine, to name some.

The represented techniques vary as much as the materials. Ryman has caked some works in paint and left others with barely a mark. In Spectrum VIII (1984) he penciled his signature and the date across a square of aluminum. On another, Untitled (c. 1961), he superimposed a patch of white conté, some curved dashes in conté and graphite, and a group of messy charcoal lines over a grid drawn faintly on a ten-inch, paper square. The work almost looks like a scratchpad, but somehow holds together.

Ryman’s personal favorite (Untitled (1959) which he calls “one of my best” in a video on looped playback in one corner of the gallery) is a “rich” painting with a “complicated composition,” in the artist’s words. Ryman thickly applied oil to a primed, stretched canvas creating the composition primarily from the varying texture of the paint and anchoring it with an accent of black along the top and an obscured orange rectangle on the right edge. It’s certainly not the first work of the exhibition that would catch your eye. But upon closer inspection the complexity of the surface and subtlety of the composition are engaging. They present a surprising amount of visual information to digest in just one hundred predominantly white square inches.

Devoid of the subtlest figuration or narrative, these are paintings about painting. Ryman has emphasized time and again that his works are non-referential or, perhaps, self-referential. This is why, on the occasions that he titles his work, he chooses generic names—like brands of paint or pencils—that provide no inroad to meaning. Without reference to anything outside the work, or any help from the title, the viewer is left to contemplate only the unique physical characteristics of the paintings.

Curator Vesela Sretenović—with Ryman’s close collaboration—has created an exhibition that mimics this kind of visual experience. Sparse, inconspicuous wall text and a clean installation eliminate distractions from engaging the works. There is no attempt at thematic or chronological organization. (Works from the 1970s stand next to works from two decades earlier; casein and graphite on paper flanks enamel on copper.) Sretenović has only tried to give the exhibition a certain “rhythm and variation.”

The result is an experience of immersion in Ryman’s painting. The small size of the works draws the viewer towards them, excluding everything else but the white wall from the field of vision. Then, one is left with only Ryman’s brushstrokes, which are both the means and the message.

Until September 12th. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Admission: $12. Phone: (202) 387-2151.

View more photos and video here.

Washington | Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations | Vesela Sretenovi |




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