NARRATOR: Painter Robert Ryman once remarked: "There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint.” As you look at this untitled work from 1962, art historian Suzanne Hudson explains:
SUZANNEHUDSON: What’s challenging about Ryman’s art is that when we stand before paintings, modernist or otherwise, we usually are looking for something. There’s usually some story, some narrative, some symbolism, and here we don’t have that.
We tend to think of Ryman now as the painter of white, monochrome paintings, but he actually, up until pretty close to this date, was working with much brighter, almost gem-like colors. You can see some remnants of this still in the under-painting of this particular canvas, particularly close to the bottom-most edge where you see quite a bit of green emerging out beneath. It’s very much about the material of the paint, of the stroke, of the process of its application. You can see the different layers, you can see the particular strokes. It’s very earnest, it’s very pragmatic, it’s not hiding anything. You see exactly what’s there. We want to rush in and kind of fill it with words, and I think that part of what his work is about is disenfranchising that effort. It’s teaching us to see the basics in a very different way.
Increasingly, I think he wanted to test the range of possibilities that would still exist within a radically reduced set of givens or material options. So while he continued and continues still to this day to experiment on a very wide-ranging body of support structures ranging from steel to canvas to paper, he has reduced the palette dramatically, partly because white is a very kind of neutral color. And in this way, it becomes, very self-consciously, not illusionistic.
When Ryman moved to New York in 1952, he had the sole ambition of becoming a jazz musician. He was actually a saxophonist at that time. But he took a job as a vacation relief guard at the Museum of Modern Art. He actually used the time in the galleries to sketch. He wouldn’t exactly reproduce the works that he was looking at, but he would use them as springboards for his own very abstract compositions and it was because of this that he actually decided to go to an art supply store, purchase canvas boards and paints, and actually start painting for himself.