Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970-1971
22 x 29 inches, oil on fiberglass with waxed paper frame and masking tape. Collection SFMOMA.
“The real purpose of painting is to give pleasure.”
When one’s thoughts turn to the topic of white paintings, artist Robert Ryman comes easily to mind. Ryman, born in 1930 in Nashville, was first a jazz musician until he moved to New York in 1952 and subsequently took a job as a vacation relief guard at the Museum of Modern Art. His exposure to the artwork there, including contemporary Americans Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, was instrumental in his decision give up music and turn to painting. He never had any traditional art training, although, as Suzanne P. Hudson recounts in Used Paint1, he was directly influenced by MoMA’s “widespread institutional ethos of experiential learning whereby museum educators … promoted values of thinking and making ‘outside the lines.'” He took one adult course at MoMA in experimental painting, although he would later say he didn’t remember much of it. Other than some life drawing done in the class, he never went through the traditional stages of learning to paint or draw representationally. Instead, he was interested in discovering what could be done with different kinds of paints, substrates, and other materials.
Although beginning in the mid-1950s he spent many years exclusively making paintings with every type of white paint, using a seemingly limitless variety of techniques on every possible surface, and he is known for work most commonly described reductively as “white squares,” he would say that he was not making white paintings. “I never thought of white as being a color. White could do things that other colors could not do. White has a tendency to make things visible. You can see more of the nuance.”2
Speaking of one of his earliest works, Untitled (Orange Painting), he said in 1992, “I’ve always thought that if I ever wanted to paint a white painting it would be in the order of the way this painting was done, because this is definitely an orange painting but there are many nuances and many oranges (and black and green). And if I were doing a white painting I would approach it the same way, and there would be whites and warm-whites and cold areas and then you would have a white painting. As it is, the way I use white it’s more as a neutral paint, in order to make other things in the painting visible, color for instance.”3
The interesting thing about Ryman is how he became so well known in spite of (or because of?) his unapologetically unconventional approach to painting. He confounded the critics, who tried variously to categorize his work as minimalist, or anti-form, or process, or conceptualist, while admitting that none of these could be perfectly applied. He resists the idea that his work is abstract, saying “I don’t abstract from anything.