This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 88.502.
“The poetry of painting has to do with feeling. It should be a kind of revelation, even a reverent experience. If you can tune into the frequency of what you are experiencing, you come away feeling very good, you feel sustained.” Robert Ryman
The visual experience that one obtains in contemplating a work such as Agency is one of luminosity and essence: luminosity in the sense that light dominates the visual field and essence in the sense that minimal material means are in evidence. Agency compels lingering vision in its nuanced brushwork that fades into asymmetrical edges, a subtle, ever-changing, yet quiet reveal of the canvas support peering from under the densely pigmented acrylic paint. The intense saturation of the allover white within the precise square planar surface is balanced and energized by the rawness as it seeps through at irregular moments. This irregularity of the framing edge disrupts the serene opaque surface calling the viewer forth from deep contemplation to join the artist in his deconstruction of materials. For Robert Ryman calls attention to technique, to paint application, to surface, edging, shape, and space in ways which bring to mind tenets of high modernism. For Agency, as its title declares, conveys the aesthetic strength of its material detail, where one is made aware of how light moves across the surface, how white changes in tonal character as it reaches the edges, how the a plane is framed, and how qualities of finish move from shiny to matte to smooth to roughened. Agency draws attention to physical matter. But even more, Agency points to the hand-wrought, the interventions of an artist-fabricator who creates here a work of astonishing beauty that is at once the summation of method and a territory of aesthetic experience to endlessly explore.
Even as Ryman’s oeuvre seems an economical if not reductive kind of painting–after all his works feature a single “color” (white) worked over a single flat plane (in a square format–each work, as art historian Robert Storr states “generates a complete, indeed protean world” (R. Storr, “Simple Gifts,” in Robert Ryman, New York, 1993, p. 10). So the question for Ryman has always been not so much one of variation, but of generation—what do these material means, white paint, planar surface, mounts be made to be looked at—bring about. His answer: limitless number of possibilities. The breathtaking expanse of his imaginative manipulations took root when in the early 1950s he moved to New York seeking work as a saxophonist and to study with a jazz pianist he had heard about. The museums of New York were his first exposure to painting, catalyzing a desire to try out the materials, to experiment. “I went and bought some oil paint and canvas board and some brushes—they didn’t have acrylic at that time—and some turpentine. I was just seeing how the paint work, and how the brushes worked. I was just using the paint, putting it on a canvas board, putting it on thickly with turpentine, and thicker to see what that was like, and trying to make something happen without any specific idea of what I was painting” While Ryman moved well beyond these early investigations, that experience fired his imagination and drive to continue. He also used his employment as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art from 1952 to 1960s to see how paintings by the great masters of art on view there “worked,” in particular paintings by Matisse, New York School painters Pollock, de Kooning, and Clyfford Still, along with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline. Ryman’s attraction to non-representational works, to works that were not illusionistic or referential set the course for his future production. “There was color, there was form, there was structure, the surface, the light—the nakedness of it, just there” (R. Ryman in Nancy Grimes, “White Magic,” ARTnews, Summer 1986, p. 89).
The notion of reduction is in a real sense not apt when thinking about Ryman’s work. His is more a statement about sufficiency, what is enough to create a work of art. By picking and choosing a white acrylic, a flat surface, an easel-shaped format, traditional and non-traditional tools of application, and often exposed mounts, Ryman is making a choice about how much to use. Materials, the act of painting and constructing within a limited parameter paradoxically opens the eye and tactile sensations to myriad possible interpretations. “Reversing this perspective, Ryman has identified the elements sufficient to the medium in order to the reveal the beauty of that sufficiency” (R. Storr, op. cit., p. 39). This is what Ryman has called “realism”—the concrete facts of his work that open onto aesthetic contemplation and the arousal of an emotional bond between the viewer and work of art, the source of which is deep feeling shared between the maker and beholder. Ryman is not in the camp of those who wish to deny the authorial hand, of one those who reject any trace of the artist’s intentionality. Agency embodies opposing values, ones shared with Rothko, as Ryman suggests: “Rothko’s work might have a similarity with nine in the sense they may both be kind of romantic… I mean in the sense that Rothko is not a mathematician, his work has very much to do with feeling” (R. Ryman, quoted in A.B. Oliva, “Robert Ryman Interviewed,” Domus 519, February 1973, p. 49).
Agency was created during a fertile period in the 1980s when Ryman’s interrogation of the limits of painting—what are the least number of elements, color applications, position, format, support, and directionality—were being investigated with unbounded rigor. This work presents implications of how we see and how we read painting. In the end, Agency is spectacularly pictorial, a picture that asks the viewer to examine the conditions under which a work can be read as a convention of art making, and is among Ryman’s most compelling works, an exemplar of what the artist means when he states, “The poetry of painting has to do with feeling. It should be a kind of revelation, even a reverent experience. If you can tune into the frequency of what you are experiencing, you come away feeling very good, you feel sustained” (R. Ryman, in M. Poitier and J. Necol, “The 60’s in Abstract: 13 Statements and an Essay,” Art in America, October 1983, p. 123).