Whiting On the Wall

Robert Ryman: Used Paint (October Books) BY Suzanne P. Hudson. The MIT Press. Hardcover, 328 pages. $39.

The cover of Robert Ryman: Used Paint (October Books)

It is part of Robert Ryman’s legend that he is a self-taught artist. He moved to New York in 1952, at age twenty-two, to pursue a career in jazz. A year later, he took a job at the Museum of Modern Art as a security guard. Paintings had begun to interest him “not so much because of what was painted but how they were done. I thought maybe it would be an interesting thing for me to look into—how the paint worked and what I could do with it.” So he bought some art supplies and began to experiment. At no point, then or later, did he try to depict anything—a face, a figure, a natural object like a tree or a flower, an artifact like a bottle or a guitar: “I thought I would try and see what would happen. I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. . . . I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces.” He evidently found the activity sufficiently absorbing that he put music aside. By the end of the ’50s, Ryman was using white paint almost exclusively, as if color interested him far less than certain physical properties of paint. He had developed a signature style.

Suzanne P. Hudson’s Robert Ryman: Used Paint is the first book-length study of the artist’s achievement, and it comes with an interesting thesis, namely that his paintings exemplify what the author calls “embodied thinking,” which I interpret to mean that his paintings are not the product of thought, but thought itself. Seeing how the paint works is only part of the process: “For Ryman, the painted sign, the support on which it is put down, the edge that rims it and connects it to the wall, and the wall that finally completes the circuit” must all be taken into account when describing what one of his paintings is. Hudson has, accordingly, divided her study into five chapters: “Primer,” “Paint,” Support,” “Edge,” and “Wall.” Beyond that, she undertakes to explain Ryman’s practice from the perspective of pragmatism, and especially John Dewey’s version of it, which “markedly influenced moma’s early ‘laboratory’ years”:

At the most basic level, my positioning of Ryman as a pragmatist means that Ryman’s painting remains for him a perpetual experiment and that each painting is the upshot of his trials. What a painting is is commensurate with what a painting does so that ideas are hypotheses to be tested and revised against the consequences, in painting, that they have produced.

In her first chapter, “Primer,” Hudson describes moma’s educational philosophy in the years Ryman worked there, with reference to the theories of Victor D’Amico, the museum’s director of education. It is striking to learn that in 1953, Ryman enrolled in an adult-education course, at moma’s People’s Art Center, on experimental painting. (One cannot but think of John Cage’s famous course at the New School in “Experimental Composition.”) Ryman claims to have no detailed recollection of what went on in this program, but the point remains that he spent seven years off and on in an atmosphere in which Dewey’s ideas were central to the discourse. One can hardly imagine a more vivid example of “learning by doing” than purchasing art supplies and sitting down to experiment with them. One of the school’s manuals says, “Don’t copy anyone . . . anything. . . . Don’t even copy nature.”

In support of Hudson’s thesis, it is worth noting that Deweyan language comes pretty naturally to Ryman. In a 2007 interview for PBS’s Art:21, when asked how he approaches making a painting, he replies, “My approach tends to be from experiments. . . . I tend to work from within a structure and see what other possibilities there can be. . . . I’m involved with painting, but I just look at it as solving problems and working on the visual experience.” He denies that his work is in any way abstract; rather, his painting is “involved with real visual aspects of what you are looking at—whether wood, paint, or metal—how it’s put together, how it looks on the wall and works with the light. The wall is involved with the painting.”

I think that Hudson has to be credited with an art-historical discovery. Her argument is that while most of Ryman’s peers took sides with either Harold Rosenberg’s view of the artist as existential hero or Clement Greenberg’s Kantian perspective in which the artist reduces his or her medium to its essence, Ryman internalized the curriculum of the People’s Art Center, in which creativity was a form of problem solving. That makes it difficult to fit Ryman into any of the movements of his time, even Minimalism, where his work looked as if it must have belonged but didn’t.

Later in her book, Hudson tries to set up a parallel between Ryman and William James, who really does not belong in this story. What recommends the parallel to her is James’s 1897 lecture “The Will to Believe”—in which he argues that on issues so momentous as the existence of God, we have a right to believe them true even if we cannot prove it—and Ryman’s faith that painting will never come to an end. She quotes from an interview conducted by David Carrier, in which Ryman declares his views: “Painting will go on. Painting is by far not finished, it will never be finished, because it’s too rich. The medium is so challenging. What could be more challenging than to have endless possibilities.”

In the Art:21 interview, Ryman says flatly that the real purpose of painting is to give pleasure. That’s not something one hears much these days, but it explains a good deal about why we look at his work. Hudson comes down heavily on Ryman’s admission of doubts about his practice, but it is hardly religious doubt. Some of it may just be whether it will give pleasure to anyone.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University.