January 17, 2016

Winter White / Robert Ryman at the Dia:Chelsea

New Yorkers who are hoping for some "white stuff" this winter season may have to start thinking outside the box.  One option that is not temperature dependent would be a visit to the Dia Foundation's Chelsea location where an exhibition of the ultimate "white" artist is now underway.

"Counsel", 1982

I'm speaking of Robert Ryman, whose white on white paintings caused a sensation in the Abstract Expressionist heyday of the 1950s and, happily, continue to amaze today.  For the first time since his Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1993, Mr. Ryman's classic paintings are once again on view in a small but spectacular exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea.

The beauty of this show is in its presentation.  Twenty two carefully selected examples of Mr. Ryman's paintings created between 1958 - 2002 represent the range of his work without being overwhelming.  From the early oils on canvas to later enamels on copper, all explore the artist's fascination with white, and more importantly in this exhibition, his obsession with light.  The Dia's curator, Courtnay J. Martin, has installed the works in the foundation's cavernous galleries on West 22nd Street using only the skylights for illumination.  This natural light, light that changes with the weather and time of day, is exactly how Mr. Ryman intended for his work to be experienced - to allow the paintings to "take on a different life" with each variation.

Robert Ryman was born in Nashville in 1930 and moved to New York at the age of 22 to pursue a career as a jazz musician.  A day job as a security guard in the Museum of Modern Art exposed him to the paintings of colorists like Cézanne, Matisse and Rothko, and the rest is history.  Ryman gave up on the saxophone, went to an art supply store and started painting.  His entry into the 1958 MoMA staff exhibition was purchased by a member of the museum's painting and sculpture committee, Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon, and his career took off.

"To Gertrud Mellon", 1958

To categorize Robert Ryman's paintings as "white squares" is not doing the artist justice.  To be sure, white is his predominant color and one could say he has a passion for white.  But a close look clearly reveals that white is only one of many colors represented and it is this manipulation of white that makes the works so powerful.

"Untitled", 1960

Ryman did not limit himself to painting on canvas, stretched or un-stretched, but furthered his study of white and of light by experimenting with supports ranging from aluminum to plexiglass.  By the 1970s, Ryman had expanded his research to include the hanging devices that attached the works to the wall.  These structural elements added a new dimension to the works making them almost interactive with the wall and surrounding space.

"Arrow", 1976
I had never really given Robert Ryman's work much thought beyond him being the artist who inspired the hugely successful play "Art".  In my defense, his paintings are not often included in exhibitions or seen at art fairs, but they truly deserve more.  Having a chance to see a few really fine works in a customized setting was an opportunity to really try to understand what white and light are all about and that things are seldom what they seem on the surface.

P.S.  No sooner had I posted this blog then the first snow flakes of the season began to fall!  Winter might turn white after all!

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