After his last show, No Title Required, at Pace Gallery uptown, painter Robert Ryman welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to his West Village studio to talk about his recent paintings and other related work.
Phong Bui (Rail): When I walk into the larger room of the gallery, there are ten panels, eight on one wall and two on the next, adjacent to the corner. What interests me apart from their framing devices, which are made out of maple, cherry, and oak, is that their rotation appears quite uneven, their proportions are not identical. Perhaps the sixth and the seventh panel are the same?
Robert Ryman: None are the same. I composed the paintings mostly by the color, but also by the size of the panels. There are no identical panels, each panel is one half inch different from the next. I forget now what the smallest is. I think the largest is 55 inches and the smallest is however many half-inches below that. One possibility, of course, was to put them from the smallest to the largest, but I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to make visual movement. So I would put a large light color panel next to another light-colored one that’s a little smaller, but not the smallest necessarily. And then a medium color, like an oak, next to that, so it was a visual composition. That was the first time I could actually see the painting, which is why there couldn’t be a catalog; because it could not be photographed until I actually installed all the panels.
Rail: It was a site-specific improvisation. I felt there was also optical ambience to it.
Ryman: The panels at both ends were the light colors. I didn’t want one of the dark ones on the ends because then that would close in visually. So the lighter colors move outward,...also, I had the spaces in between each panel to work with, and then the height, as well.
Rail: And the intervals between both panels are identical?
Ryman: Yes. Except for the corner, that was different—because it had to look like it was the same visually.
Rail: I also noticed that the frames are flush with the picture surface, and the fact that you allowed the paint to overlap the inner edges of the frame. Would it be fair to assume that the frame functions as part of the painted field?
Ryman: The painted field ended because of the line. Actually there are three lines. There’s a line made by the outer wood joining the center panel. And that’s a hard straight line. I wanted to soften the line, so I went over it with the paint. And that gave a soft, curved line next to the hard line. And the third hard line is the edge of the panel itself. So I wanted to soften the hard line. It seems like the panels have frames—they act that way in a sense. But the painting is actually the whole ten panels together.
Rail: Were they painted with oil enamel in different layers with the brush?
Ryman: Yes, several layers, three layers with high-gloss enamel.
Rail: Is that the reason why you couldn’t have direct light on them?
Ryman: I wanted to show them, if possible, in the reflected light. Because that’s where the painting can be activated, in reflected light, particularly with high-gloss enamel. You have the surface that will bounce off the light. Some people might say it is ambient light, but that’s different in my thinking. If you have a soft light that’s thrown up to the ceiling, that would be ambient light. But that doesn’t work the same, strangely enough. If the light is shone on to the floor and it bounces up, it doesn’t work the same either. The light has to come opposite the painting. The source is reflected off of something into the space and onto what it is you want to present. There’s a museum in Switzerland in the town of Schaffhausen that has a number of my paintings, and there’s a wall 150 feet long, with a passageway in front, and opposite that are three rooms with skylights. Now the 150 foot wall doesn’t have any direct light on it. The light comes from the reflections of the three rooms opposite this wall. And the light is ideal. It is a matter of seeing more clearly. So I tried to equal that experience.
Rail: How about in the smaller room, with the three big paintings, painted on linen stapled to the frame. Were they mounted on the frame before or after they were painted?
Ryman: The canvas was stapled onto the wooden panels. Those were the first ones I did before I did the painting in the big room. And that is a different process. The canvases themselves were begun in Pennsylvania in 1999. And at that time I lost contact with them, I didn’t like what was happening with them, so I just rolled them up and put them away. And then I brought them to New York in 2005, and I thought I would look at them to see if there was anything there at all. So, I tacked them onto the wall to see them and I thought, “What am I going to do with these?” Is there anything to do with these? And I thought, well maybe I could put them on a panel. My first thought was to staple them at the top to the wooden panel and have them drape, like paper, down over the panel so that you could see the wood support underneath, and you could see their own movement. I had the panels made larger than the canvas, so the wood would be visible. Anyway, that didn’t work at all, that was a disaster. I couldn’t control the drape. The canvases had been sized, and it just wasn’t working. So the only other thing to do was to tack them flat and do away with looking at the wood behind. And then when I saw the wood edge I thought I could paint directly on other panels. So I then had the other panels made.
Rail: So the smaller panels came after the big ones?
Rail: And the formats of the three largest paintings aren’t identical either?
Ryman: That’s right. They are very similar in size, but they differ by an inch, or an inch and a half. And they’re not exactly square either. The way they were originally made was they were stretched and then cut off of a strainer. So they were just sheets of canvas.
Rail: The frame piece is square, but the canvas is not.
Ryman: Well, the panel itself was made for the size of the canvas. It’s close to being square, maybe off a half inch.
Rail: The last time we spoke, you said that you spent a great deal of your time buying different materials, brushes of various sizes, all the available brands of paint, canvas, linen, panel and so on, treated it almost like a scientific experiment?
Ryman: I guess you can say that painting is a kind of experiment. That’s what I do, that’s my approach to painting, to figure out how it works, the different possibilities that can happen with painting. It’s just my sensibility. I like to know how it works and I like to know how things go together. It’s a visual experience, and with my paintings I don’t really plan them, it has to come about visually. I have to see how it’s developing, what can come from it, and then I make the decision whether I like it or not.
Rail: As Yve Alain-Bois put it, quite eloquently, ‘Ask Robert Ryman why and he will always tell you how.’ [laughs]
Rail: Did the experience of working as a guard at the MoMA, which you did for seven years from 1953 to 1960 (like Brice Marden, Mel Bochner, Dan Flavin, etc.) inform your study of painting? I’ve been told that during your tenure there, you deliberately and carefully scheduled your shift to look at different paintings in your rotation. Could you talk about that?
Ryman: At that time, it was a perfect job, because, well, I had no money, and I had to live by my wits, kind of. And so that was a job where I could be close to painting, close to art, every day. I could see the workings of the museum. It was very valuable, in that sense, and of course the hours were good too. The museum, at that time, was open from eleven until six at night, so I had the mornings. And it paid enough just to pay the rent, and buy new materials. And it wasn’t a demanding job, where you were expected to grow with the business; it wasn’t that kind of a thing. It was just a simple job. And I learned so much from that. One day I just left, and I had no other job, but I thought, ‘well, I’ve been here long enough and I don’t need to be here anymore.’ [laughs]
Rail: What happened after that?
Ryman: I just quit one day and had no place to go. I was sitting in Bryant Park and wondering what I was going to do next. My money had run out, and I looked up and saw the public library, and so I thought, ‘Maybe they have something.’ [laughs] So I went in and I got a job in the art division of the public library, where I was for a year. And I got to look at all the books.
Rail: You once said, ‘I decided to actually paint white rather than use it as a neutral paint,’ which is to say that you paint white as a subject matter, like the way other people paint figure, landscape, still life or portraiture?
Ryman: I started out like everybody starts out: I had to learn about color, I had to learn about different paints, and I learned about composition, and how things worked. So I worked with color… it wasn’t a matter of just painting white. Yes, those aluminum paintings, which were done in ’64, of which I did four—actually, I did five, one is in Europe at the moment— it’s difficult to talk about those because no one has seen them, no one knows what I’m talking about… [laughs] But they were working with the light, and the way the light would work with the metal, and also the composition of color, and the soft edges and the harder edges working together. And after I did those, I thought I didn’t want to go in that direction because it was too complicated working with metal in that way. And so I wrapped them up and put them away and never saw them, totally forgot about them, until a few years ago, when they were shown in Dallas, at the Dallas Art Museum, for the first time.
Rail: They seem to be the most complicated of your work.
Ryman: Well, I was going to say, from the catalog, you couldn’t really tell what these are. When you actually see the paintings, it’s quite astonishing because, as you walk around them, they change with the light.
Rail: Because of their aluminum surfaces?
Ryman: It’s because of the way the light acts with the surface of the painting, because some of these have altered surfaces. I mean, I was actually working with the surface of the metal as well as with the paint. That’s why I decided not to do it anymore, because I was getting into a different process.
Rail: When and how did you know that, besides the commitment to the color white, the square was to become and continues to be, your self-imposed format?
Ryman: Well, I don’t know exactly. I’ve always been comfortable with that because it’s an equal-sided space.. It could be large, it could be small. It just has a good feeling. I had done some things that were rectangular earlier. I haven’t done anything with that recently, maybe I will. It’s something I just do automatically. I don’t think about it.
Rail: In other words, there’s no thinking in reference to Malevich, Mondrian or Albers?
Ryman: No. It’s just that it’s a comfortable, equal-sided space.
Rail: Some critics of your work insist on the anti-biographical or anti-metaphysical aspects, which have so often been associated with your work. Others think of you as a puritan painter, or a pragmatic painter who thinks concretely through his materials. Is that a fair observation?
Ryman: Well, of course. There’s no symbolism. There’s no narrative in this painting. They’re not pictures of things that we know, so that may be difficult for some people…. You never know what a person is seeing when they look at a painting. It’s not a matter of seeing something in it… even something about it…it’s a matter of having an experience, a visual experience that is pleasing. Actually, you’re seeing something that you’ve never seen before. If someone looks at a picture of something that you know, of a landscape, things with symbolic references, that have a lot of narrative, someone can relate to those. But that’s not really what painting is about, in my thinking. The what of the painting is incidental to the how. What you experience in painting is how it’s put together. How it’s done. It has nothing to do with purity or anything like that; it’s a basic approach to painting.
Rail: When did the addition of fastenings and framing devices come about?
Ryman: In 1975, I think it was, the first ones had the visual fastening. With my approach to painting (not representing a picture of a narrative situation or symbolism) I thought I could use visible fastening. My painting didn’t have to be invisibly fastened to the wall, since it wasn’t like a picture. My painting was different than that. It didn’t have to hang invisibly. It could be visibly attached to the wall, and therefore work with the space itself. And then the fasteners could be part of the composition.
Rail: Right. So it enhances the object-ness of the painting?
Ryman: You would see the composition and you could actually see the painting attached to the wall, which makes it literally part of the wall itself. Sometimes I still use visible fastenings. It depends on the nature of the work, the nature of a certain problem.
Rail: How do you mediate your painting gesture? Do you begin from the top and work to the bottom, left to right, or from the middle? I’m curious because, despite your obtaining all-over rhythm with repetitive strokes, there are irregularities that occur sometimes in the middle, around the edges, or maybe a single corner.
Ryman: Again, it all depends on the type of paint that I’m using and the surface I’m working with and the general approach that it involves. But it’s not a crazy thing. I have a certain control from the beginning because the painting really begins with the surface itself, and what kind of paint I’m going to use, and what kind of brush I’m going to use, and whether I’m going to have a lot of actual movement in the paint, whether the paint’s going to be thick or thin, how that’s going to work. And whether it’s going to be absorbing the light or reflecting it. I think about those things beforehand, so that has to be how I might begin.
Rail: Do you often make tests or studies for your paintings?
Ryman: Well, sometimes I’ll test paint to see how the paint is going to act. Sometimes I’ll test surfaces if I’m working on metal or any kind of different surface. I have to see how the paint is going to work on that. I’ll do tests in that sense, but I don’t do any studies. I don’t know myself what it’s going to look like until it gets to the point where I can see what’s happening. [laughs]
Rail: How did the fiberglass pieces with wax paper, which are either taped or nailed to the wall, begin, and what was the impulse behind them?
Ryman: Those paintings I did in, I think it’s 1969, 1968 maybe. The approach I was taking there. (I’d forgotten about that). It was a group of six paintings, mostly about 6 ½ feet, 7 feet at the largest, and they were stapled to the wall. And I used the wall, and since the wall itself was the support, I could continue on the wall itself around the edge of the canvas, and on one I used wax paper. The painting itself absorbed the light, and the wax paper had this soft reflection that sort of moved the light around the painting and I liked the composition, the reflection and the absorption. And just the staples on the wall, and the wax paper was so simple; it had a different feeling to it than plastic. Plastic would not be the same, even glacine paper was different. Wax paper had this softness to it that I liked very much…The wax paper was taped to the wall and I used the tape as part of the composition. So I had these yellow dots of tape that moved around the edge of the painting on the wall.
Rail: How about the group of paintings on steel?
Ryman: Those were all relatively small. Those were steel panels made in Switzerland, and I had the fasteners attached to the steel itself. It was just something that had an interesting feeling to it. This particular one you’re looking at, with a red surface, rust red…I don’t know what I have to say about it.
Rail: I’m interested in the way that the deep rusted color of the steel surface makes you aware of the painted surface and all the edges.
Ryman: Of course compositionally the panel was very hard, the edges were very hard, and then the paint was very soft, and it made this soft edge there. I do that kind of thing many times in painting. Working with hard and soft.
Rail: When and how did you begin to incorporate the signature as part of the painting?
Ryman: That was earlier, 1957 or 1958. It was just an element of painting where I didn’t use line so much in my painting, and I felt that my signature could be a line. I generally would turn my signature on its side. If it’s on the side—one side of the signature is soft and round, and the other is hard, because the lines go out. So I could use that in various ways as a compositional element, and I thought it was acceptable because painters usually sign their paintings, so I could sign the painting and use it as a compositional part at the same time. I also used the year sometimes as a compositional element. In fact I did that fairly recently, can’t remember whether it was 1990, or I don’t remember, but I had the year—oh no it was in the ‘80s, 1984.
Rail: How do you see the relationship between drawing and painting in your work?
Ryman: One is drawing and one is painting. I think of drawing as having to do with line and so if I’m drawing, that’s what I’ll use. I’ll use different things to make the line, and different surfaces to put the line on, but its about line, and how that works with the space.
Rail: So you keep the two activities separate?
Ryman: Yes. Mostly I don’t use line in my painting. I don’t use it as a line—if there’s a line in a painting, it’s two areas of paint that have come together to form a line. But I’m not consciously drawing a line.
Rail: I’d like to shift to a different subject: two remarks that you made in the past. One was at the time of your retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1972, to Paul Cummings, when he asked, “How do you feel seeing all the works together in a big space?” Your response was, “I only went to the show once while it was up, because it’s done and finished and there’s no need to see it again.” And later you commented about your show in Dia in 1989: “I don’t do things that I know I can do.” I feel there is a strong pragmatic sense in that you finish a certain thing and move on.
Ryman: Actually, I haven’t seen the Pace show again either. I mean, I saw it very well when I put it up, so I don’t have to go back to see it.
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Ryman: I don’t know. I have seen it. I don’t know what to say about it. I saw all those things. I don’t need to see them again necessarily. I don’t know. The paintings I have in this museum in Schaffausen, Switzerland I hadn’t seen in 12 years and I just went to see them again a couple of years ago, and I was surprised actually when I saw it. It had been so long I had forgotten some of the paintings that were there, and after 12 years, I thought, let’s make a different installation, because the paintings are a little too crowded. I don’t know when, but we will do a new installation there. I like to see my paintings again.
Rail: Is there work by other artists that you would like to see your paintings hanging next to?
Ryman: No. My painting is not the kind of painting that would hang next to someone else’s work necessarily. Because it doesn’t work that way. My painting needs space and a certain situation, it needs light.
Rail: Brice Marden told Jeffery Weiss and I that he considers you our Vermeer, the American Vermeer. And Kurt Varnedoe, at his fifth Mellon Lecture, described you as a Matisse-loving urbanite. I suppose that both comments suggest the tranquility, the poetic light, as well as a joyous quality that your painting emanates. Is that a fair observation?
Ryman: Matisse was always an influence on me because of the way he put things together, and again, how he did it. It was so direct, it seemed as if he knew exactly what to do. I’m sure he didn’t exactly. But it had that feeling, which was what I liked.
Rail: Is there a certain phase of his work that you respond to more than others?
Ryman: No, not necessarily. But I guess some of his smaller paintings of interiors, with the figure, were put together in such an unbelievable way; those were some of my favorites.
Rail: De Kooning said that the reason why he likes Matisse’s work is because he doesn’t make isms, he just makes the painting. So among the Abstract Expressionists, is there a particular one whose work you prefer over others?
Ryman: All of them. Franz Kline was a wonderful painter, and De Kooning, Rothko. All of them, just really wonderful painters. And Guston, as well.
Rail: Especially those from the early to mid 1950s.
Ryman: Those were wonderful. That reminds me of a show Guston had at the Met three years ago, a very interesting show, except it was terribly put together. The galleries were cramped and the paintings were too close. It was too bad, but the paintings were wonderful.
Rail: Is there a transcendental aspect in your work?
Ryman: I don’t even know what that means.
Rail: How about the notion of the sublime?
Ryman: Oh, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m not involved in that at all.
Rail: Were you brought up with a hint of spiritual leaning?
Ryman: Oh, no. I quickly got away from that.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Ryman: Well, I was thinking about working with some epoxy paint, on a smaller scale. But I probably won’t do much of that. I don’t like to work with epoxy because it’s so dangerous. But as soon as the weather gets warmer and I can open the windows in Pennsylvania, maybe I can do a little. You get such an incredible surface with that paint. Maybe I’ll do that and maybe not. Maybe it will develop into something else that I’m not aware of.
Rail: Why, all of these years, have you never thought of having a studio assistant?
Ryman: Well, [laughs], sometimes I could use an assistant, just to organize things, but not to help me with the paintings. But they wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t want to spend time to tell them. I do everything I can myself. I used to stretch my own canvas, go through boiling the glue and sizing, all of that. I made my own stretchers. But of course I don’t do that now, because I don’t have the strength. But I like to do as much as I can myself, because the painting really begins with the surface, and how it’s going to work. So someone else wouldn’t know what to do. It would be nice to have someone at times, for organization. I spend a lot of time with paperwork, letters are not answered, not because I don’t want to answer them, but I just don’t have the time, I can’t deal with them. But otherwise, no.
Rail: In conclusion, you would agree with what Matisse said, “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue.”
Ryman: [laughter] That sounds right.