Editors' pick

Robert Ryman: Variations & Improvisations

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Robert Ryman: Variations & Improvisations photo
Courtesy of Robert Ryman; The Phillips Collection

Editorial Review

Art review of 'Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings' and 'Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations' at the Phillips Collection

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, June 6, 2010

In February, the National Gallery unveiled a suite of black-on-black paintings by Mark Rothko. In May, it was the all-blue pictures of Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn. Now it's June, and we're being given a feast of white in two new shows at the Phillips Collection.

"Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings" looks at one 1950s moment in the career of a lesser-known abstract expressionist. "Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations" is, incredibly, this town's first look at an artist famous for ringing the changes on pallor.

We're clearly at a monochrome moment on Washington's museum scene. It looks as though a tendency in modern art that once seemed scary and obscure has entered the mainstream.

The pieces in these exhibitions reveal something else about the monochrome: The reason one-color pictures work is that they can be used to mean such different things.

Rothko's blacks are big and looming. They invite deep immersion and profound explanation.

Klein's pure blues seem to be about a single, astonishing gesture of reduction.

As for the two displays of whiteness, they use the same glare to achieve very different ends.

Robert Ryman

Ryman's story and shtick are simple. He was born in 1930 in Nashville, came to New York to study jazz, got a job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art and, from 1955 or so on, set himself up as the guy who painted white squares -- thousands by now, with more coming all the time from a master who turned 80 last Sunday.

That summary is more or less correct. It also gets you nowhere with his art. The thing about Ryman's "white squares" isn't how much alike they are; it's how unique he manages to make each one.

A recent picture confirms the classic Ryman cliche: It's a white-primed canvas, 14 inches by 14, with a glossy white square painted on top reaching almost to its edges. There's a surprising amount going on: Your initial impression of a perfectly uneventful white field gets undone when you notice how the high-gloss paint stands out against its matte ground. That almost-minimal work sets a baseline that other Rymans depart from.

One piece is a scruffy fragment of dark canvas, left unstretched and carrying a broken web of crisscrossing white brushstrokes. Another is the same dark canvas, this time stretched and covered with longer, parallel white strokes that cross from edge to edge. A third is a sequence of five squares of blackened metal, each with a smaller square of white enamel baked into its upper-right corner.

In 1964, Jasper Johns made a drawing that suggested art could consist of a series of actions: It carried the words "cut," "tear," "scrape" and "erase" written above an example of each act. Ryman's pictures look as though he took such an "activist" notion to heart, but across the most limited field of endeavor.

"What if I try this?" Ryman says, enlarging the few spidery strokes of his signature into almost illegible pencil lines that dance top to bottom across a square of anodized aluminum. "Or how about this," says Ryman, turning the metal brackets that hold a picture to the wall into an integral part of the work by using his trademark white paint to draw attention to them.

Despite this exhibition's title, these pictures don't read as stylistic variations on a single theme. You could almost imagine the 26 works having been done by 26 artists, sharing one little basketful of art supplies. Looking at how much Ryman achieved with such limited tools, you ask yourself "What will he do next?"

Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart was born into an artsy family in Saint Paul, Minn., in 1916, started showing in Manhattan in the 1930s, found success in the 1950s as a minor member of the so-called New York School (Pollock and de Kooning were its major lights), then kept faith with expressive abstraction until his death in 1992. (That year, the Phillips gave him a solo show; it now owns four of his works.)

Pousette-Dart was mostly known for paintings that tended toward bold colors and lashings of paint. His rare white-on-white moment is presented via 27 works mostly made between 1950 and 1954. White, in Pousette-Dart, becomes a kind of veil tried out briefly on top of clearer things.

Conservators working on "White Garden, Sky," a 1951 painting on loan from the National Gallery -- and possibly the best work in the show -- pointed out that its whites were laid down over a blue ground. In "White Flower," from the next year, blues and yellow peek out from under Pousette-Dart's snow. In almost all the pictures, white muffles what's beneath it.

Pousette-Dart's white paintings are not really monochromes. They have too much going on: layerings and tangles of beiges and grays, as well as skeins of pencil line. But if you keep looking, what emerges from beneath these paintings' hints and drifts is a fairly normal view of reality, and of painting.

We glimpse upright thrusts that could be people and level edges that might be fragments of horizon. There are remnants of right-angles that could be corners in buildings and a few quite recognizable bodies, as in a painting called "Quiet Lovers" that suggests a woman's breasts and a man's torso. And in almost all these pictures, the basic structure of Western picture making -- a "subject" in the center set onto a "field" that empties out as it moves toward the frame -- is never abandoned. It's only a bit of an exaggeration to say Pousette-Dart's paintings could be an academic painter's works, under an overlay of modern white. The elegiac, music-through-a-fog impression given by these works may be all about nostalgia for Old Master traditions, glimpsed here for the last time before they fade completely away.

Somehow, Pousette-Dart's art of the 1950s seems to look back to the 19th century. Ryman's looks forward to the 21st.