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Robert Ryman, Untitled c.1965. © 2010 Robert Ryman

Truth in Painting

Variations + Improvisations:

Robert Ryman at the Phillips Collection


by Deanna Sirlin

"Painting is about the visual; the meaning of painting is painting."

– Robert Ryman


Robert Ryman has been painting for 60 years. He knows what his work is about, and considers himself a realist when he puts down a mark, whether a line on steel or a stroke of white paint on linen. Painted form is the essential, the real, and not a representation of anything else. “The painting is the meaning” writes Vesela Sretenovic, curator of the Ryman exhibition at the Phillips. Ryman’s line, his paint, is an end in itself, and not an allusion to any other reality. It is what is.

At the Phillips, there are 26 small paintings and drawings, all of them square and most measuring less than a foot on a side. Most would be considered monochrome. Ryman’s Untitled from 1959 is a thick and rich painting, almost entirely white with a black splotch at the center of the top. Nine soft squares grid off the painting; each contains a tapestry of brushstrokes that relates to the next square. For Ryman, realism resides in the reality of the painting itself. He is not trying to copy or simulate anything. The meaning of the painting is in the materiality of paint on linen. To experience it, you have to really look at the paint, how it sits on the canvas; its substance, richness, and balance constitute its reality.

I have recently been reflecting on why representational content seems to take precedence over formal values like light, form, hue, and composition. Do not a painting’s formal qualities speak to what it is truly about? Why should we think of a painting’s meaning as lying in what it represents rather than in the reality of what is actually present? A line of paint, white and thick as it gracefully extends over a small block of square canvas, is something real. Is not the touch of the paint to the canvas in alla prima or direct painting more sublime than a picture of, well, just about anything? 

Susan Sontag took on this issue in her well-known 1966 essay “Against Interpretation.” She describes modern perception of art as “the odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form’ is separated off from something we have learned to call ‘content,’ and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory. . . . it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. . . . None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.” By reducing art to representation, we have lost sight of its true value.

Robert Ryman, Untitled c. 1964 © 2010 Robert Ryman

The time Ryman spent just looking at paintings during his stint as a museum guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him the tools to really see and understand paint and composition. He learned that the dialogue among the formal elements of a painting is the one that matters; pictures of stuff are only as good as the way they are painted. Ryman credits Matisse as an influence--not for his color sense, but for the way he applied paint. Ryman similarly describes the impact of Rothko on him by saying, “Rothko’s paintings were not pictures of things, or images of something, and that was the most interesting thing about them. I was not taken by the color so much, but by the way they worked on the wall and how they came out into the space; how they had presence, independently of what they represented.”


Ryman’s early life as a jazz musician gave him special training in the reality of abstraction. When a musician plays a note on an instrument, that note, its sound and length and tenor contain its meaning, especially when it is the player that chooses it. Is it not the same for some artists when they are making a painting? Each brushstroke or line, like each note, is a decision fraught with its own meaning. Ryman’s strength as an artist lies in his realization that the touch of his paint to the canvas is realer than any picture of reality, and that the stroke itself speaks uncannily. Each painting is a complete world that does not need to be named for an external referent, which is why Ryman’s paintings are generally untitled. One small canvas named after its purchaser, Gertrude Mellon, was only given that title decades after the work was made. In the video below, Ryman recounts a charming narrative about an artist and a collector that touches on the true value of things like paintings and titles of paintings.

EXTENDED VERSION! Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations, The Phillips Collection

Ryman’s works look extraordinary at the Phillips Collection because they were installed with the same attention to the wall, the edge, and the use of space that Ryman gave them when he painted them. Ryman’s love of materials and his use of them in each work is echoed in the way the museum has hung his paintings. Seeing them in summer, one feels their light and coolness. Seeing them at Pace in NYC some years ago on the coldest, snowiest day of February they exuded great warmth.

Robert Ryman, Untitled c. 1957, © 2010 Robert Ryman

The Exhibition Robert Ryman: Variations & Improvisations

is at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. from 5 June - 12 September, 2010.

Deanna Sirlin is an artist..jpg

Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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