Weekly Update – Ryman’s paint feast at PAFA

This week’s Weekly has my review of the Robert Ryman exhibit at PAFA’s Morris Gallery and of the artist’s permanent commission in PAFA’s Hamilton Building. Below is the copy and here’s the link to the art page.

The Agent Provocateur of Paint
Robert Ryman’s works show a master experimenting.

Robert Ryman—the New York artist known for large, blindingly white, highly textured abstract paintings that often feature his signature—came to Philadelphia last June to make a permanent mark on the city. And while Ryman’s piece Philadelphia Prototype, 2002 doesn’t feature the artist’s signature as a compositional element, the work is unmistakably a white-on-white Ryman. And it’s a great one.

Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype 2002 installed in the Hamilton Building. Libby and I met our students from Tyler Senior painting there to talk about the work. Here are several students looking at the work.

I’m not a fan of Ryman’s big works, austere “make a mark then respond to it” paintings that seem both cold and bombastic. But Prototype, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Hamilton Building, is a lyrical piece that delivers more than just paint strokes.

Robert Ryman
Detail of Philadelphia Prototype. Note the tape and the absence of tape. The pieces are glued to the wall with acrylic paint.

A ghostly and elegant installation of 10 painted vinyl sheets, Prototype is sited beautifully near a window that bathes it in natural light. The work echoes the space where it’s presented. And in its repetition and use of glue and tape, it reminds you experimentation—trial and error—is inherent in both art-making and the process of learning.

Ryman, 76, a self-taught artist and one-time security guard at the Museum of Modern Art, also has a show of small works at PAFA’s Morris Gallery. It’s a delightful show full of the artist’s early trysts with paint, paper, pencil, canvas and tape. As Ryman said in 1993 at the time of his big MoMA retrospective, what motivated his early explorations was to “see how the paint worked.” And the small works at PAFA’s Morris Gallery are full of that “what if?” spirit.

Robert Ryman
Untitled c. 1964. New masters vinyl polymer acrylic and ink on raw linen canvas. 8 x 8″

The early Rymans from the ’50s and ’60s demonstrate the fledgling artist boldly making small but determined marks. He’s already committed to white, but uses background colors from the canvas or linen or paper as foils for the pristine paint daubed on thick as cake icing.

To Gertrud Mellon, 1958, the first work the artist ever sold, has an almost childlike abandon with dry brush marks that are messy yet joyful. This work has Ryman’s signature in the lower left in stylized block letters followed by the date. It’s a proud bit of penmanship that’s as self-conscious as the rest of the piece and as perfect as a kindergartner’s signature on homework.

Robert Ryman
To Gertrud Mellon, 1958, casein, graphite, and colored pencil on paper. 11 3/4 x 12″

Ryman’s work can’t be characterized as lighthearted, but the artist’s fearless groping in the dark and eager mess-making (in abundant evidence here) is refreshing. My favorite moment is the 1961 untitled work in which dots run down the side of a particularly thick piece. The mysterious composition happened when the artist decided to squeeze small globs of paint onto the piece right from the paint tube. That idea resulted in these brilliant dots, marks only an unschooled artist would’ve made.

After 50 years of successful art-making, Robert Ryman is an art star. The gems on view at PAFA help you understand the artist’s importance as a fearless provocateur of paint.

Robert Ryman: “Small Works”
Through Jan. 28. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Morris Gallery, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600.

Philadelphia Prototype, 2002
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St.