Robert Ryman at Peter Blum

Robert Ryman, Wedding Picture August 19 (1961), oil paint on bristol board mounted on fiberglass panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy Peter Blum

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Robert Ryman has never been as approachable as he is in the exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, the first devoted to his works on paper. Mind you, I said “approachable” with a proviso: If you’re of the opinion that Mr. Ryman’s 40-odd-year investigation of the color white has been an exercise in futility, don’t expect to undergo a change of heart.

Blum’s exquisitely appointed show can’t conceal the fundamental skimpiness of the Ryman aesthetic. Stepping off from Philip Guston’s abstract impressionist phase, Mr. Ryman took its constituent parts–in particular, the fleshy slurs of oil paint–and distilled them until they became shells of their former selves. He operates under the assumption that style is a buffet from which you pick and (barely) choose. He mistakes puttering for painting, dabbling for the real thing.

The works on paper are more of the same. A bit of green here, a piece of masking tape there, a wallpaper sample, a scratchy grid and an abundance of white–these are artful maneuvers, clumsily stated yet unfailingly elegant. The pieces do benefit from a modesty of scale and demeanor. They date between 1957-1964, the years Mr. Ryman was settling into his signature style.

The inquisitive playfulness is welcome. You even forgive him the use of his signature, childlike and teetering to the right, as a pictorial element–it gives the eye something to hang on to. It doesn’t hang long, though. Why should it? Mr. Ryman intimates relationships but can’t bring them to fruition. The work is all beginnings, loose ends and no tension. The exhibition is recommended to people who profess a love for art but don’t much enjoy looking at it. The rest of us can attend to more important matters–doing the laundry, putting out the cat, that kind of thing.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 27, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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