Ryman's works are part of a new direction in the history of painting. Traditionally, artists have worked in one of two modes: representation or abstraction. But Ryman's works are neither representational nor abstract, at least not as the term has normally been understood. Ryman's canvases are not pictures, they do not represent anything at all, not even an abstraction. They are not signs, or expressions; they are experiences. "I wanted to paint the paint, you might say," he once told Robert Storr (quoted in R. Storr, Robert Ryman, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery and New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1993-1994, p. 18).
Ryman calls this mode of painting "realism." He has explained what he means by the term: "I call it realism because the aesthetic is real. Realism has a different approach than representation and abstraction. With realism, there is no picture. The aesthetic is an outward aesthetic instead of an inward asethetic, and since there is no picture, there is no story. And there is no myth. And, there is no illusion, above all. So lines are real, and the space is real, the surface is real and there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane, unlike with abstraction and representation . . . I think it is more of a pure experience" (R. Ryman, "On Painting," in C. Sauer and U. Raussmller, Robert Ryman, exh. cat., Paris, Espace d'Art Contemporain, 1991, pp. 59-65).
Ryman has said, "Painters paint in all kinds of ways, but I think that all painting is about enlightenment and delight and wonder. Wonder is something to do with experience and it has to do with painting. It is a special thing" (ibid., p. 67). Manual exemplifies the kind of delight and wonder Ryman can achieve even when working with the barest minimum of materials.