This work will be listed as catalogue number 80.409 in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being organized by David Gray.
Softly ravishing, the white painterly strokes gently catch the light, creating a planar luminescence that ravishes the eye. A burst of color around the edging – a “border” as such – emerges from a background support, its rich coloration creating a warm optical contrast, while the revealed hinges on which the painting is mounted announce its presence as both object and meditation on process. Robert Ryman is ostensibly interested in the material effect of the act of painting, yet his masterly treatment transports the viewer into an internal world of meditative calm even as the specific vehicles of that meditation are literally paint, support material, hinges, and wall. This extraordinary example of Ryman’s artistic process and creation, Bridge is a consummate expression of Ryman’s mastery of materials while at the same time an invitation to explore the optical and tactile charge that inheres in this work. Cleaving to a seemingly limited repertory of variables, Ryman nonetheless creates within a fixed set of options an ever-expanding oeuvre, among which Bridge stands as an exceptional example.
An autodidact, Ryman began experimenting with various materials at a local art supply store after he moved to New York in 1952. As a guard at the Museum of Modern art, Ryman used the collection as a tutorial for his artistic explorations. The intense focus on materials led the artist to create a practice that mimics in some sense Paul Cézanne’s serial production of his view of majestic Monte Sainte-Victoire in Provence. Like Cézanne, Ryman’s process consists in mutating a limited set of variables. The tonal range of white –yellows into grays or the most shimmering bright white as here in Bridge, is delivered either as oil paint, enamel, gouache, or casein, among the many mediums within which white might operate, yet in his hands becomes a neutral agent of painterly expression. The support material, ranging from corrugated cardboard to aluminum, linen, and paper, interacts with these mediums in ways always new and fresh. Further, Ryman has always considered the wall itself—the means by which the painting becomes available to the viewer—an essential element of the painting, where, “the wall is visually pulled into the paintings…. the work has to do primarily with visual response” (R. Ryman, quoted by S. T. Goodman, Using Walls (Indoors), New York, 1970, n. p.). As such, Ryman has devised a cache of devices by which to mount his work that engage the beholder in a full interrogation of the meaning of painting—its elements, its characteristics, its effects. In the case of Bridge, its fasteners extend beyond the border so that the means by which Ryman fixes the work to the wall are in full view. “It was important that [the painting] had an immediate relationship with the wall plane, because this was not a picture of anything. So I wanted it to really look like [the painting] and the wall were together. They had to be together for it to be complete (S. Hudson, “Wall,” in Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Cambridge and London, 2009, p. 245). This completeness, the fusion of paint, support, wall, and fastener resists interpretation as anything but themselves, comprising an object that must be considered “realist,” one that is viewed from every angle and through each element of which it is a part (ibid. p. 231). But its primary material remains paint; for Ryman is first, and foremost a painter, a contemporary of the generation of Post Painterly Abstract Painter (Color Field) as well as of minimalists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Ryman’s painterly values, however, hold him apart from these rubrics and link him emphatically to an earlier generation of abstract painters, such as Barnett Newman, who used reduced means—color across vast expanses—for his vehicles of expression. In contrast to Newman’s metaphysical “sublime,” however, Ryman remains firmly grounded in the materials of this world. “They are as real as the walls on which they are hung” (ibid., p. 235). So that in Bridge, the crisscrossing divisions of strokes, their overlapping, their butting up to one another, and the layering into thick impasto, conveys the enactment of the stroke and nothing else—no psychic undercurrent, no painterly bravura per se. Ryman’s interest extends only to the brushwork itself: there is no need to search elsewhere for meaning, nor analyze the work through a process of decoding.
Yet, how might one account for the sheer sensual beauty of a painting such as Bridge? The artist Brice Marden considers Ryman the greatest living artist, and there can be no doubt that it is from Ryman that Marden takes inspiration. When comparing the repertory of works by each, affinities exist, yet it is also apparent that the two artists engage their mediums toward different ends. Marden is concerned with realizing and expressing the surface to its fullest extent; Ryman, on the other hand, is investigating the artwork as an expression of its elements, exploring the way the material performs by means of its various applications. In the end, Ryman is engaged in the painterly process for its own sake, and his behest to the viewer that “[they] just look” is nowhere more apt than in the present work. For here the surface is all: it roils and bubbles, catching and throwing light in various directions, while the edging suggests the limits of this activity. Yet, the overall calm of this canvas—its poetic center—is undeniable. It is also an extraordinary example of paintings’ possibility, the further extension of painting rather than its denial or end. For Ryman’s entire project is about drawing out from a fixed and limited set of possibilities an endless and fascinating reimagining of what it can mean to paint in this time, what is content, how the conventions of painting are forever adaptable, how they mutate and grow.
As a title, Bridge, can also be interpreted in many ways, as “a structure carrying a road or path; as an act intended to reconcile; as a partial denture, or a structure that supports a billiard cue” (Oxford Dictionaries, online). At bottom, however, each title for Ryman holds some form of ambiguity or irony, another means to destabilize fixed meaning. “[Ryman’s titles] are almost all one-word titles, spare, dry, and condensed. For him the most important consideration is that the title should have nothing whatever to do with the painting itself…. it is purely his way of identifying painting from all the others” (N. Spector, “‘Ryman’ Brand Paintings,” in Bilder. Objekte. Filme. Konzepte, Munich, 1973, p. 156). Hewing close to the work itself, Bridge stands on its own merits as a fully realized work in and of itself. It is an expression of Ryman’s deep commitment to ensuring that the act of creating art is drawn solely from the materials of its making.