Robert Ryman – White paint, not white paintings

Ryman - Surface Veil

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.”
–Robert Ryman

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.

Ryman - Painted Veil (detail)Robert Ryman, Surface Veil (detail)

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

Robert Ryman, TwinRobert Ryman, Twin (1965)
6′ 3 3/4″ x 6′ 3 7/8″ Oil on cotton. Collection New York MoMA.

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.

[My work is] involved with real visual aspects of what you really are looking at, whether it’s wood, or you see the paint, and the metal, and how it’s put together and how it works with the wall and how it works with the light.”

Robert Ryman - Untitled (1958)Robert Ryman, Untitled (1958)
10.125 inches square, enamel on linen. Collection SFMOMA.

He also resisted attempts to place him into a specific box or frame within the greater art world. “I’m not involved with any kind of art movement. I’m not a scholar, I’m not a historian. I just look at it as solving problems and working on the painting and the visual experience.”5 There is no attempt at illusion; the paintings are not “about” anything other than what’s right before your eyes. What you see is what you get – nothing more, nothing less.

I read parts of Used Paint a couple of years ago when I was doing research for a school project. It was a treat for me soon thereafter to be able to go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and see some of these paintings in person. They are just what you’d expect, but somehow in person they have a surprising presence. I’m drawn to Ryman’s work aesthetically, and I admire his ability to put forth these seemingly simple objects as paintings and get them hung in the most prestigious of museums. I have an impressive number of partially finished textile works lying around my own studio, suspended from completion because I love the raw edges and I don’t want to cut, bind, or hide them in some “professional” way. If I were Ryman, that would be the end of it – I’d just hand them over to the Guggenheim and up they’d go as is.

Robert Ryman, An all white painting measuring 9 1/2 ” x 10″ and signed twice on the left side in white umber
(See full view here)


I first became aware of Ryman’s work from the wonderful PBS art:21 series. In this video from Season 4 (2007), Ryman demonstrates how his paintings consist not only of the support and the paint, but also the edges, the fasteners, and the wall itself. He tapes panels to the walls with blue painter’s tape, and then paints right over the tape and onto the walls beneath the panels. Then the tape, which has functioned as a resist, is removed. The process is repeated multiple times. This creates a variance in the surface and edge surrounding each panel. The quality of the light in the room is extremely important to the aesthetic experience, including how it changes throughout the day. Speaking about his intention, Ryman says, “It should be a soft, quiet experience that’s nice to look at.”

“In painting, something has to look easy even though it might not be easy.”
“The painting should just be about what it’s about, and not other things.”
“In all of my paintings, I discover things; sometimes I’m surprised at the results6


1Suzanne P. Hudson, Used Paint (October Books, 2009) 7.
The title of the book comes from an anecdote Ryman tells. In 1968, he was to have an exhibition at the Konrad Fischer gallery in Dusseldorf. In order to minimize customs fees, Fischer listed the shipment as “paper” instead of “art.” The customs official said that the duty on handmade paper would be expensive, so Fischer told him it was used, and the paintings were shipped with the designation “Used Paper.” Ryman says, “Since that time I have wondered about the possibility of paintings being defined as ‘Used Paint.’ Then there could be ‘Used Bronze,’ ‘Used Canvas,’ ‘Used Steel,’ ‘Used Lead … ‘”

2Robert Ryman in “Paradox,” segment from PBS series art:21, Season 4.

3Ryman, cited in interviews with Catherine Kinley on April 11, 1992, and Lynn Zelevansky on July 1 and 7, 1992. See Catherine Kinley, Lynn Zelevansky and Robert Ryman, “Catalogue Notes,” in Robert Storr, Robert Ryman (ex. cat., Tate Gallery, London/MoMA, New York, 1993), p. 48, quoted in “The How and the What,” Suzanne Hudson, Flash Art n.263 November-December 09

4Ryman, “Paradox”



2017-10-15T16:15:38+00:00 January 19th, 2012|Art, Interesting Artists|4 Comments

Inspiration for white work

Deidre Adams - wall in Paris, FranceParis, France, ©2009 Deidre Adams

It’s snowing again today – yeehaw. We’ve had a lot of snow this winter – I mean, a lot. I’m not inclined to go to the trouble of looking it up, but I can say that my shoveling muscles have had way more use than in recent years past. I do love winter, especially since I’m no longer required to get up early and drive through it to go to a regular desk job every day, but really – enough is enough. However, if I must endure more white outside yet again, then it’s a good day to think about white work. Here are some inspiration photos to help set the mood.

2017-10-15T16:15:38+00:00 January 11th, 2012|Art, Inspiration|4 Comments

Happy 2012

Surface Tension by Deidre AdamsSurface Tension, 30 x 40 inches, acrylic on panel, ©2011 Deidre Adams


Surface Tension (detail), ©2011 Deidre Adams

New Year’s Day is my favorite day of the year. Starting with the prior November, the craziness of the holidays takes hold and makes me feel anxious, and I kind of just hold my breath until it’s all over. Normally, I don’t watch a lot of TV except for Stewart & Colbert on Hulu and movies on Netflix, but in the past couple of months, I saw a lot more than usual, and the holiday commercials were just surreal. Somehow, our priorities got very out of whack, and everything feels forced and fake. The bulk of what I saw seemed to be about enhancing one’s experience of having one’s eyes glued firmly to little screens at all times, enjoying who knows what inanity and making no attempt to connect with live humans in one’s vicinity. Or if not that, how to make your woman feel special, because hey, we all know that every kiss begins with Kay®. The defining moment of our sad slide came last night, when we briefly turned on network TV to find a countdown to midnight, and there was Toby Keith singing an ode to a Red Solo Cup, while mindless plastic-faced automatons in the audience waved their red cups in unison.

Now, finally, we have a new year and a chance to refresh, renew, or just plain restart.

I’m really glad 2011 is over. It was a good year for me personally, but for my country, it was unbelievably terrible. I hope that in 2012 we can find a way to come together and start caring about one another and about our planet before it’s too late. I don’t really know where I’m going with this train of thought, but I’ve been feeling guilty lately about enjoying making my art in my own happy little world while so much is going so wrong. Making art can be a very selfish endeavor, as I do it for myself alone, and I don’t attempt to use it for any greater good. I want to change that in 2012, but I don’t know how. Any ideas?

We all have different definitions of success and happiness, but whatever yours may be, may you experience them in the coming year.

2017-10-15T16:15:40+00:00 January 1st, 2012|Art, Painting|3 Comments