White Light: Robert Ryman at Pace Gallery

Navigating a Robert Ryman exhibition is a dynamic pursuit. Activities include: looking at the sides of a painting as keenly as its front; walking past it multiple times to observe how the light hits the surface (is it absorbed? Does it reflect?); determining how it is mounted, and sometimes catching oneself at staring a bit too keenly at the wall around it. Ryman's six-decades-plus investigation into the infinite variations and complexities of that most neutral color — white — demands and inspires this, forever exploring paint's relationship to its support, to the room where it inhabits, and to the light that illuminates it. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor

Installation view. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

My earliest days gallery-hopping in New York City were punctuated by a Ryman show, way back in chilly December 2004, when Pace Gallery was PaceWildenstein. I'd seen Ryman's work in museums long before that, usually singular works in the “Minimalist” room, but witnessing a grouping of his paintings and their interplay with the chambers housing them (from wall paint to artificial/natural lighting) was particularly moving — the curated Ryman experience. And while his 2010 gallery exhibition Large-small, thick-thin, light reflecting, light absorbing acted as a wonderful primer for Ryman neophites, featured a visual tasting menu of the artist's process, I appreciate the focus of his latest exhibition, Recent Paintings. In his eleventh solo turn at Pace, Ryman streamlines his vocabulary to six square stretched cotton canvases and the third iteration of his swaggeringly named No Title Required. It is in this straightforwardness, devoid of complicated brackets or unusual surfaces, that Ryman's inspired dialogue between media and mounting becomes that much more pronounced.

Installation view. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Thus, No Title Required 3. Its first iteration (shown at Pace's midtown space in 2007) wasn't Ryman's first go at multipanel compositions (like the seminal Vector, begun in 1975 for Kunsthalle Basel and, after a reunion and revisions in the late '90s, now hangs in his wonderful installation at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York), but it was my first opportunity to see such a commanding suite in a not-gigantic gallery setting. In his latest venture, Ryman restrains the panel types to two: birch plywood for eight of the ten, and board panel for the fifth and tenth. Each panel is a slightly different scale (though at first glance, they can be considered “large” and “medium”), and each is covered almost uniformly with high-gloss enamel. Ryman maintained a deep midnight blue edge on most of the panels, except for the furthest edge of #1 and its mirrored opposites on #9 and #10. Internally, the composition vibrates with a cool glow, as subtle blue reflections bounce off the white walls and the shiny surfaces, yet by retaining that all-white on the furthest edges, No Title Required 3 asserts itself, delineating sharply from the two walls that hold it.

Installation view. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Installation view. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Illumination is as deliberate in Ryman's practice as his brushstrokes, and lights emphasize the humanistic, active experience of observing a Ryman painting unattainable by still photography. No Title Required 3 utilizes both a double-row of angled spotlights and a translucent skylight alcove above the action, while some of the six untitled smaller canvases in the front galleries are lit only by sunlight. This evokes a certain richness in the compositions beyond anything photographable, and — like my experiences at visiting Dia:Beacon during different seasons or on cloudier days — observed effects will differ depending on the natural brightness beaming in. Despite the commanding presence of No Title Required 3 in the main room, these six up front roil with their own respective energies, like the jazzy cream and white daubs across one, the methodical “cake-batter” coverage of another.

Robert Ryman | Untitled, 2010, oil on stretched cotton canvas, 22 x 22 x 2 1/2 inches. Photo by: Bill Jacobson / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ryman has a wonderful message in his interview for Art21: Art in the Twenty-first Century: “I don't think of my painting as abstract because I don't abstract from anything. It's involved with real visual aspects of what you are looking at — whether wood, paint, or metal — how it's put together, how it looks on the wall and works with the light. I use real light, so there's not an illusion of light. It's a real experience. The lines are real. You see real shadow. The wall is involved with the painting.” Unless you're an installation fanatic like yours truly or have some experience in installing art, you might ignore the gallery lights for the main event: the art. My advice? In a Ryman show, always look at the lights.

Installation view. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery. © 2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Robert Ryman (b. 1930; Nashville, TN) lives and works in New York City. Since his first solo exhibition in 1967, Ryman's work has been the subject of more than 100 solo exhibitions in 12 countries. Major retrospectives of Ryman’s work have been organized by the Tate Gallery, London, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1993-94) which traveled to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and by Haus der Kunst, Munich, which traveled to the Kunstmuseum Bonn (2000-01), The Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art (2004), and the Dallas Museum of Art (2005-06). Ryman was also the subject of recent significant exhibitions at Dia:Beacon in New York (2010), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (2007), and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (2010). Ryman is a four-time exhibitor at the Venice Biennale: 1976, 1978, 1980, and more recently, the 2007 exhibition Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense. His work has also been included in Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1972, 1977, 1982), the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, New York (1977, 1987, 1995) and Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1988). Recent Paintings, Ryman's eleventh solo exhibition at Pace Gallery, continues through October 26.

Brian Fee is an art punk based currently in Austin, TX, but he can usually be found in New York, Tokyo, or Berlin, depending on the art season.

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