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.

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