Art that demands you do something 


People have little patience for art. Art has to appeal in the first three seconds or its over for many. When I hear the overused phrase “it didn’t do anything for me” in reference to a work of art, I truly wonder what exactly it is that people are  expecting art to “do” for them. Robert Ryman, known for all white paintings, would most likely be one of those artists that people don’t get anything from at first glance. They will see a white painting. Maybe even take enough time to notice that the paint has textures. But they will most likely move on. I really appreciated a recent article in the New York Times about Ryman’s work called: “When a White Square is More Than a White Square.”  This article is almost an exercise on looking and how to slow down. Roberta Smith also writes about the work in a review of the current exhibition at Dia: In Robert Ryman, One Color With the Power of Many. And just for fun, here is a review Smith wrote in 1993: Robert Ryman Derives Poetry from White on White.

Ryman feels that the real purpose of painting is to give pleasure; he discusses this in detail an Art 21 excerpt called: Paradox. In an Art 21 interview Ryman refers to the influence of light and music on his paintings: Robert Ryman: Light and Music. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl feels the work is too focussed on the philosophical stance of what a painting is: Shades of White. Dennis Kardon, in Art Criticaltakes issue with Schjeldahl’s perspective and refers to the metaphoric and narrative potential of the work. In the first book-length study of Ryman’s work, Suzanne Hudson traces the artist career to his early work in the 1960s to current work up until 2008: Robert Ryman: Used Paint. All these resources provide excellent insight into how to look at a Ryman monochrome, works that Ryman says are “not white paintings” but rather paintings that use white paint.

What I find interesting about Ryan’s work beyond its visceral appeal, is its investigation into the very essence of what it means to make a painting. So many people take up paints and brushes without thinking about the tumultuous journey the genre of painting itself has been through in the last 200 hundred years, including the multitude of forecasts throughout the 20th century proclaiming its imminent demise. Robert Storr addresses the issue of what it means to make paintings today in a lecture entitled Making it Visible: Ryman and Richter; here Storr contrasts and compares these two prominent painters. Storr, also a painter himself, has a wonderful ability to penetrate into the depths of what a painting can be. By comparing these two icons of 20th century painting, Storr makes you appreciate what a painting can do for you.

In order to get the pleasure that Ryman wants his paintings to evoke, it is necessary for the viewer to “do” something while looking at the work, even if that just means taking more than three seconds to look at it. The viewer needs to go up close and look at the brush marks on the surface. The viewer needs to look and the edges and the sides and how it is attached to the wall. These are all of the components that make a complete Ryman painting. And still then they need to spend a few more seconds to ask a few questions of the work. What is its purpose? Why did the artist make it? James Elkin shares some interesting thoughts about looking at paintings in a Huffington Post article: How Long Does it Take to Look at a Painting? Of course sometimes work does just lie flat and no matter what you give, it might not give back. But always be open to the fact that art, like people, gives more when you give a little a first.


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