This work will be listed as catalogue number 02.026 in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being organized by David Gray.
Across the opulent and luscious surface of Robert Ryman’s Venue, the artist displays paint, light, tactility, shape, and form—all arrayed in exquisite balance. A radiant canvas with rich, roughened impasto constructed from white, luxuriant, muscular strokes, Ryman’s pigment folds, bends, and cuts against an edge that is more reveal than frame. Thus, ravishing in its light-infused, thickened surface, Venue is literally a venue, an arena in which “primer, paint, support, edge, and wall… act on their own behalf” (S. Hudson, in Robert Ryman, Cambridge, MA and London, 2009, and A. Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality, London, 2001). Elements are fully expressive of their own material nature and Ryman generously activates each to achieve its full potential, claiming “What the painting is, is exactly what [you] see: the paint on the [surface] and the color of the [surface] and the way it’s done and the way it feels. That’s what’s there” (R. Ryman quoted in Y. Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, MA, 1993, p. 215). Venue comes with the distinguished provenance of having been in the personal collection of the legendary French film director and producer Claude Berri and his son—also an Oscar winning film producer—Thomas Langmann. The close friendship between Berri and Ryman resulted in the Frenchman acquiring one of the most extraordinary collections of the artist’s work. Speaking in 2009 Berri declared his admiration for the artist, declaring him to be one of the greatest artists of his generation, “Ryman is other worldly. Some only see white, but it is light. For me, he is the greatest. He joins painters of darkness, like Rothko. You must see the room dedicated to Rothko at the Tate Modern, his greys and his blacks evoke death. Ryman, is the light of life” (C. Berri, “Je crois à ce que je vois,” Beaux-Arts, no. 284, February 2008, p. 75).
Known as the ‘Godfather of French Cinema,’ Berri is considered one of the most important figures in the industry. During his career he was awarded an Oscar, two BAFTAs, and one César as well as being appointed Chairman of Cinémathèque Française. In addition to his love of film, Berri also developed a passion for art. Thanks to his friendships with artists and dealers, including the legendary Leo Castelli, beginning in the 1970s Berri was able to establish one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in France. Two decades later he opened Renn Espace d’art contemporain, an exhibition space in Paris where he held museum quality exhibitions of works by artists such as Yves Klein, Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, Simon Hantaï and Robert Ryman. Ryman’s work became a centrepiece of Berri’s collection and in his book Autoportrait, he describes why he had such an affinity with his work. “For me, Robert Ryman is the greatest painter alive…,” Berri enthused, “Ryman makes me see and reflect. I am not an exegete, it’s the emotion I feel when I look at a work that makes me love it. What I love about abstract painting is that I never see the same thing, and, as opposed to figurative painting, I can memorise it… Ryman’s painting comes alive the most with light. In the evening, I leave only the indirect lights on. To the visitors that ask me to turn the ceiling lights on, I answer ‘They are sleeping, come back tomorrow when it is daytime’” (C. Berri, Autoportrait, Paris, 2008).
Ryman’s famous statement that a “painter is only limited by his degree of perception” is particularly relevant in the context of this work (R. Storr, Robert Ryman, London, 1993, p. 39). Ryman looks hard. He looks deeply and long. Venue is a canvas not only of elements disposed, but acts of vision realized. In the sense that feeling is tied deeply to Ryman’s practice and aesthetic intuition, Venue is a startlingly lush statement, filled with a romantic sensibility, as Ryman describes it. “The word romantic,” he says “can be taken several ways, I guess. I mean in the good sense, in opposition to the mathematician, you know the theorist, the person who has everything work out beforehand” (R. Ryman, “Interview, New York 1972,” in A. B. Oliva, Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations, 1968-2008, Milan, 2010, pp. 110-112, and in R. Storr, p. 39, n78). In this way, Venue is an arena for action, where what we see is nothing more than the indexical trace of the materials that Ryman used, and how he chose to use them.
Each brushstroke and each slice of the palette knife catalyzes the surface activity, explores linear deviations, effects movement through the deflections of light and plot points in a visual narrative. Ryman’s pictures are assertively frontal and avowedly material. “I approach a painting beginning with the material… I say the surface that I’m using, whether it’s canvas or whatever it is, isn’t empty; it’s something in itself. It’s up to the paint to clarify it, in a sense… to make the surface or the structure something to see” (C. Kinley, L. Zelevansky, and R. Ryman, “Catalogue Notes,” in R. Storr, Robert Ryman (London and New York, 1993, p. 164). How Ryman goes about this in Venue is nothing short of masterly. Format is as much in play as paint. For Ryman, the square format defers to the edge, allowing a subtle interplay between the internal painterly melee and the symmetrical, elemental geometry of edge of the canvas. Ryman’s series Bent Line Drawings (1970s) prefigures Venue’s stunningly expressive interplay between external and internal, between what seems figure and ground—not in an illusionistic sense, but in a literal sense of an image that pictures nothing but the means of its making. Ryman’s oft-quoted statement is relevant in this context: “There is never a question of what to paint but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image—the end product” (R. Ryman, quoted in R. Storr, “Robert Ryman,” On the Edge: Contemporary Art from the Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Collection, New York, 1998, p. 114). Even as no one element supersedes another in terms of the almost ethereal nature of his canvases, there is a sense in which no element is neutral either. They are equally present and equally voiced. In executing his paintings, Ryman does not anticipate or decide a priori how the internal pictorialization of the brush stroke will materialize. What we see in Venue are solely “the physical consequences of material decisions.” They are, as scholar Suzanne Hudson explains, “creative experimentations, the result of which cannot be predicted (S. Hudson, op. cit., p. 188). And what makes such a work so extraordinarily visceral is the excitement that comes with each viewing, as different light conditions at different times of day rewards each viewing differently. As the artist himself has contended, “You can only understand painting by experience” (R. Ryman, quoted in A. B. Sandback, “Art on Location,” Artforum 24, no. 3, November 1985, p. 4).
Venue’s impasto is thick and roiling. It is also white but in this case white is not so much a color as a material. Ryman has said about white that “[It] has a tendency to make things visible…. White could do things that other colors could not do…. [It] reacts with the wood, the color, the light, and with the wall itself. [It] become something other than just the color white. That’s the way I think of it. It allows things to be done that ordinarily you couldn’t see” (R. Ryman, “Color, Surface, and Seeing,” Art21, n.p., online). White also activates light. Just as the Impressionists used the whiteness of their ground to interpenetrate discrete and overlapping color strokes, in Ryman’s work much the same impulse was at work. Thus, in Venue, its white impastoed surface causes an intrinsic light to skid over and ricochet off its incisions, its crevices, its disruptions. One can see and feel each brushstroke, a lateral extension here, a bend of the wrist there, bold dashes and arcs crisscrossing in directional contrasts. From a repertoire of elements, Ryman explores myriad options for realization; the choices expand and mutate in a stream of unending permutations: “there are a lot of nuances… always the surface is used… the linen comes through: all of those things are considered. It’s really not monochrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere. … I don’t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings; I’m a painter” (R. Ryman, in Phyllis Tuchman, “A Interview with Robert Ryman, “ Artforum 9, no. 9, May 1971, p. 46).